The Everett Collection

Bob Newhart used humor to help cope with life's hardest moments

Bob Newhart was one of television's most sophisticated comedians during the 1980s and one of the country's toughest times. Newhart said we all needed one thing: to laugh at ourselves more.

He said this during a time of high tension across the country. The year was 1982, and unemployment and inflation had become unmanageable for many. So, Newhart did something about it. 

He took matters into his own hands to give America the laugh it needed. Newhart believed that his series Newhart (1982) provided something more than just laughter; it provided intelligent humor, a necessary catharsis for people facing day-to-day living in a difficult society.

Newhart's CBS show was simply called Newhart, and it was nearly the only hit series among shows slated on prime time in 1982.

"I wouldn't know how to do a pie-in-the-face kind of a show," Newhart said in a 1982 interview with The Spokesman Review. "I've always found that the funniest things are the true things — all our humor comes out of a character rather than gags."

In Newhart, Bob played the role of writer-turned-Vermont-innkeeper Dick Loudon. During the series' eight seasons on air Newhart attracted so many types of fans that they later became known as the "Newhart Audience."

The "Newhart Audience" meant intelligence. The switch from shows such as The Incredible Hulk (1972) to more "intelligent" comedy came when the TV landscape started changing rapidly in the '70s and '80s.

"When I left my old show, I sensed the opposite," Newhart said. "It was the time of The Incredible Hulk and Wonder Woman and shows like that. I thought I'd better not try a seventh year with the old show in that climate. I was tired of watching all the networks all try to copy ABC's hit shows."

When Newhart was off-air, he would have many people come up to him in the streets to ask for autographs, pictures and just to say hi. What did Newhart hear the most? "Please, come back: Give us something to watch."

"In the old show and in this new one, we simply give the audience credit for having some intelligence," Newhart said. "We don't hit them over the head with gags."

Not too long before Newhart premiered, you could watch All in the Family, M*A*S*H, The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Carol Burnett Show. According to the interview, these shows led the way for the "Newhart Audience" to thrive. 

He considered it to be the Golden Age of television when people were doing wonderfully smart humor. When it came to his character, Newhart said he put a lot of himself into Dick Loudon. 

"He's 85 percent me," Newhart said. "I always hold about 15 percent back because I don't want to confuse myself with the character I play. You have to hold back for your own protection as a human being."

So, what was Newhart's favorite part about being one of America's top humorists?

"Look — when people stop you on the street and thank you for all the good years of laughs, there's nothing nicer," Newhart said.

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