Age cannot wither Newhart's routines

April 11, 1992|By Steve McKerrow | Steve McKerrow,Staff Writer

Toward the middle of his cable special premiering this weekend, comic Bob Newhart pauses in the middle of a bit about an incompetent nuclear submarine captain.

"I know some of you know these routines by heart, but it throws me off to see your lips moving," he tells the audience in the Raymond Theater in Pasadena, Calif.

But that is precisely the charm of "Bob Newhart: Off the Record" (at 9 p.m. tomorrow on the premium Showtime network). The funny, funny bits are the same ones that made Mr. Newhart a success 30 years ago with his comedy album "The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart."

We hear the bus driver school routine, the driving instructor routine and the Abe Lincoln political adviser routine.

Then there are the home office supervisor of Sir Walter Raleigh trying to grasp the import of the New World discovery of tobacco, the police desk sergeant advising a beat officer on defusing a live shell at the beach, and the police lineup for flasher suspects.

Mr. Newhart has been performing the routines in concert appearances around the country. And true to his trademark, he does each bit as just one side of a conversation, sometimes on the phone, sometimes sitting in a chair, sometimes just speaking into the microphone.

The only note of modernity comes with the driving-instructor bit, when an audience rustle occurs as Newhart says his student is "a woman driver."

"Is that a sexist routine?" he asks. "Thirty-one years ago, it wasn't."

His response is pretty funny and should not be revealed here.

"Most good comedy comes out of your own personal experiences," says the comedian early on in the show, which (unlike too many cable comedy specials) wisely eschews any fancy taped production stuff in favor of letting Mr. Newhart stand there and make us laugh.

"We didn't call them stand-ups in those days, because sometimes we'd sit down," Mr. Newhart says.

He uses his own life in the years before show business as a loose theme for his comedy, saying he worked a succession of odd jobs, including as an accountant.

"I really was an accountant. Why would you make that up?" he asks.

He must have been one funny number-cruncher, for in the late 1950s, he was one of a group of "new wave" young comedians making the rounds of TV's variety shows -- remember those? -- such as "The Ed Sullivan Show."

Mr. Newhart, of course, moved on from his early stage work to become one of the most durable stars of series TV -- first as psychologist Bob Hartley in the 1972-'78 "Bob Newhart Show" and then as innkeeper Dick Louden in just plain "Newhart" from 1982 to '90.

Mr. Newhart also reportedly has a commitment to make a new comedy series for CBS.


LIVE, FROM NEW YORK . . . -- It's hot meets hot. At least that's the planning for tonight's lineup on "Saturday Night Live" (at 11:30 p.m., WMAR-TV, Channel 2), with guest host Sharon Stone and the heavy metal band Pearl Jam.

Ms. Stone is the murderous seductress of the Michael Douglas film "Basic Instinct," and Pearl Jam is a Seattle-based band said to be among the hottest in America in recent months.

Did you ever wonder how guest hosts and bands are booked on "SNL"?

It's the reach for what seems most current, says talent selector Jim Pitt, who has been on the show for six years.

"It's great if we can help break a band. . . . The appearance obviously helps them sell records," he says.

As an example, after the group En Vogue appeared on "SNL" last month, its new album hit No. 8 on the Billboard charts immediately upon release. In January, Nirvana appeared on "SNL" the same week its album hit No. 1 on the charts.

Often the goal is a pairing of performers with similar audience appeal, such as recently when Jason Priestley was guest host and the musical act was Teenage Fan Club -- "a young hot actor with a young hot band," says Mr. Pitt.

And sometimes the guest hosts request a particular act, such as when Roseanne and Tom Arnold let it be known their favorite act was the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

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