People & Profiles

An unexpected calling

Bob Newhart's improbable journey from Loyola business student to American comedy icon.

By Adam Doster

Bob Newhart on the phone.

When Bob Newhart (BS ’52) attended Loyola University Chicago in the late 1940s and early 1950s, he was friendly with a classmate named Jimmy Sheeran. Sheeran was a member of Loyola’s boxing club. Newhart was no brawler himself, but he was a fan of the fights and a devotee of the Pabst Blue Ribbon Bouts on CBS. And so he asked Sheeran to teach him how to spar.

The pair would meet at a gym near Lake Shore Campus after Newhart’s downtown accounting classes. They wore gloves but not mouth guards or headgear. Every so often, they’d take legitimate swings. Newhart, the novice, would routinely get pounded. One errant left hook deviated his septum. But as he writes in his lively memoir, I Shouldn’t Even Be Doing This, moonlighting as a Loyola student-athlete led to an important insight: “When I perform standup and the audience either doesn’t laugh or heckles me, I think to myself, ‘I can get through this because at least nobody is hitting me in the face.’”

It’s been nearly 70 years since Newhart, a kid from Chicago’s West Side who wasn’t sure what life had in store for him, graduated from Loyola. Changing the face of American comedy was not in his immediate plans. But change it he would, first by birthing the modern standup special and later by revolutionizing the television sitcom. His material—sophisticated, satirical, surreal—has aged gracefully. So has the man himself. If he’s not the University’s most famous alum, he’s certainly the wittiest. A theater in Mundelein Center bears his surname.

I just fell in love with the sound of laughter. I thought, "Wow, what a great sound that is!" I want to keep repeating that as much as I can.

— Bob Newhart (BS ’52) , Actor and Comedian

Comedy Reimagined

Eisenhower’s America did supply ample ammunition for an aspiring comic with a certain sensibility. Modern life was growing more complicated. Bureaucracies were ballooning. New social movements were forming. “There was a whole sea change in comedy that was taking place, that I, without realizing, was a part of,” Newhart says now. “Mike Nichols and Elaine May, Shelley Berman, Jonathan Winters, Lenny Bruce—we were doing a more intellectual type of comedy about things that were bothering us, you know? A lot was really happening [in the 1950s], especially if you were young or just out of college.”

That demographic was attracted to performers with a specific point of view, people who brought logic to an increasingly illogical world. The college dorm, outfitted with a record player, formed its own kind of performance venue. On his calls with Gallagher, Newhart started honing his own voice, which was cutting yet wholesome, largely clean and slightly off-kilter.

He caught his first break in 1958—a mutual friend heard about the phone calls with Gallagher and offered to pay for recording time in exchange for a share of any future profits. They sent acetates of 10 routines to dozens of radio stations across the country and landed recurring gigs with three—Northampton, Massachusetts; Idaho Falls, Idaho; and Jacksonville, Florida. Each paid a pittance but afforded Newhart the chance to develop comedy routines for an actual audience, five minutes a day, five times per week. The production schedule instilled discipline and provided a necessary shot of confidence.

In 1959, Gallagher took a new position and moved with his young family to New York. Newhart struck out on his own. Warner Brothers, the famed film studio, was coincidentally branching into the music business; a friendly radio DJ in Chicago introduced Newhart to a few Warner executives. They hit it off and offered Newhart a record deal, hoping to capture his act in a nightclub. Newhart had no act and had never played a nightclub. And nightclub owners weren’t keen on booking untested headliners. It took Warner nearly 12 months to find one adventurous or desperate enough. Its name was the Tidelands Motor Inn, in Houston. And it’s where Newhart’s life changed permanently.

You have to sum up all of the bravado you have in the world and then go out there and act like you know what you’re doing when in fact you really don’t know what you’re doing.

— Bob Newhart (BS ’52) , Actor and Comedian

The Button-Down Mind Of Bob Newhart—a 32-minute EP taped in February 1960 and released three months later—is a remarkable album for a host of reasons. Though he’s sarcastically introduced as “the most celebrated new comedian since Atilla,” Newhart is green as can be; an early version was tossed out because Newhart sounded seriously anxious on stage. (Another was canned because of one woman’s loud, drunk interruptions.) Asked to summarize his mental state at the time, Newhart only chuckles: “It would be abject terror! But one of the first things you learn in standup is that you have to create the impression that you’re in charge, that you control the stage. You have to sum up all of the bravado you have in the world and then go out there and act like you know what you’re doing when in fact you really don’t know what you’re doing.”

The album’s style is startlingly original. There are six vignettes, all of them one-sided phone calls or conversations. Newhart, counterintuitively, sets himself up as the straight man in the conversation. He’s a modern-day political consultant advising Abe Lincoln. He’s a submarine captain addressing his crew as the ship surfaces. The audience hears only his side. And they watch as Newhart, a savant of timing and pacing, offers deadpan responses to whatever ridiculousness is happening on the other end. Nobody had thought to play straight to silence before. The insanity is implied, not displayed.

Six decades old, nothing on the record is stuck in time. It’s gentle and also biting, quietly releasing steam into an increasingly conformist culture. And it’s outrageously funny. Newhart thought he might sell 25,000 copies and 50 people might come see a subsequent tour. The Button-Down Mind sold 1.5 million copies and won a Grammy for Album of the Year, edging out Frank Sinatra, Harry Belafonte, and Nat King Cole. Suddenly, Newhart needed his own accountant.

The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart was released in 1960 and spent 14 weeks in the top spot on the Billboard 100. (Photo: Lukas Keapproth)
The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart was released in 1960 and spent 14 weeks in the top spot on the Billboard 100. (Photo: Lukas Keapproth)

Overnight Stardom

With little preparation, Newhart was thrust into intense limelight. He never lacked for ideas; five more albums poured out of him over the next five years. “You just tend to pick up on anomalies that surround you,” he says, “things that other people are also seeing but they miss the comedy.” Newhart remembers driving down Sixth Avenue in New York City and pulling his car in front of a psychic’s storefront office. A sign hung in the window: “Lost our Lease, Going out of Business.” Hordes of pedestrians passed without giving it any thought. Newhart couldn’t stop laughing. (“I guess he’s not a very good psychic!”) He’d jot down notes and observations to himself, saving nuggets for later.

Sharpening his standup presentation was a more complicated proposition. Put simply, he needed reps in front of audiences. He hadn’t worked his way up from the bottom of the bill. He hadn’t toured. He’d never even bombed. This was all brand-new.

For the next 12 years, he worked his tail off trying to prove he wasn’t a one-hit wonder. He would play medium-sized rooms in Vegas and clubs in any time zone. He booked television spots, including a handful of Ed Sullivan appearances, the show he’d watched for early inspiration. (He’d eventually guest host The Tonight Show 87 times.) He’d try out ideas, pushing them a little father each night if he sensed they were connecting. All of it was exhilarating and all of it exhausting.

Finding some semblance of work-life balance is what pushed Newhart into the second major phase of his comedy career. Arthur Price managed Newhart as well as Mary Tyler Moore. In 1971, the producer approached Newhart about a possible sitcom built around his standup persona. If they could find a smart concept, Newhart loved the notion—television offered steady work, and he wanted more face time with his wife Ginny and their kids. As he puts it, “get off the road, have a life.”

Price and a small writing staff were drawn to Newhart’s unusual ability to listen funny. And so they pitched him as a psychologist, one job in which listening is the primary objective. They hoped to portray a character trying (and sometimes failing) to lead a stable, fulfilling modern life. They gave him a rotating crew of clients and friends, each with peculiar quirks—a goofball neighbor, an orthodontist who works down the hall, a patient frightened of everything. They gave him a wife, Emily, a self-assured third grade teacher, and a condo in Chicago sans children. (The exterior of the building was the Thorndale Beach North Condominium, five blocks due south of Lake Shore Campus.) The Bob Newhart Show was born.

It ran on Saturday nights from 1972 to 1978, plugged in among the boldly political primetime programming on CBS. It was mature, absurdist, and subtly subversive. And it may be among the driest sitcoms ever to attract huge network audiences. Newhart’s performance is unbelievably measured; just like in his act, he was never afraid of silence. (In his memoir, he describes his character Bob Hartley as “85 percent me, 15 percent TV character.”) The Bob Newhart Show, now streaming on Hulu, influenced decades of television comedy that followed, in both format and tone. It ran for six seasons and garnered 15 Emmy nominations.

Bob Newhart receiving the Sword of Loyola in 1975, pictured with former Loyola President James Maguire, S.J.
Bob Newhart receiving the Sword of Loyola in 1975, pictured with former Loyola President James Maguire, S.J. (Photo: Loyola University Chicago Digital Special Collection)

Newhart was a latecomer to show business, but he made up for lost time. From The Bob Newhart Show flowed several more decades of achievement—another sitcom, Newhart, which ran from 1982 to 1990 on CBS; a voice part in Disney’s The Rescuers; roles in the holiday classic Elf and on The Big Bang Theory; standup specials as clever as his early records. In 1975, Loyola bestowed upon Newhart the Sword of Loyola, which symbolizes spiritual qualities associated with St. Ignatius of Loyola—courage, dedication, and service. (He wore a wide-lapeled tuxedo to the ceremony.)

Thirty-seven years later, the University opened The Newhart Family Theatre as the Department of Fine and Performing Arts’ main performance stage. “When I graduated from Loyola University Chicago in 1952, it would never have occurred to me that one day there would be a Newhart Family Theatre on Loyola’s campus,” Newhart said at the time. “It is a great source of pride and honor for all our families.”

Bob Newhart speaks at Loyola at the Newhart Family Theater dedication on Saturday, October 13, 2012.
Bob Newhart speaks at Loyola at the Newhart Family Theater dedication on Saturday, October 13, 2012.

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, with an unusual amount of time on his hands, Newhart backed up his old home movies, a collection that stretches all the way to 1963, the first year of his marriage to Ginny. The tapes contained cherished and vivid memories, along with clips of vacations long since forgotten. At least to the man inside of it, Newhart’s sensational life has passed by shockingly fast. “The weird thing now?” he says. “I’ll catch a rerun of Newhart and I’ll have no idea how it ends! And I’ll just sit there watching it.”

That said, Newhart is not one to dwell in the past. He relishes catching a fresh comic he’s never seen before pushing the envelope on a late night chat show. So long as it’s safe and his health allows it, he’s eager to get back in front of an audience himself, to square with that proverbial boxer for another few rounds. In his memoir, he argues that laughter allows a person to step back from an event over which they have no control, process it, and then move on. Jokes help distinguish us from animals. And a comedy brain of Newhart’s size never entirely shuts off.

“If I think of a really great routine,” he asks, “am I going to do it for the dog?”