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Bob Newhart reflects on his comedy and career

In his first book, “I Shouldn’t Even Be Doing This!,” the comedian, known for his role as a Chicago psychiatrist, turns his dry wit on everyday events.
/ Source: TODAY

Your kids would probably best recognize Bob Newhart as the guy who played Will Ferrell’s dad in the Christmas movie, “Elf.” But for us baby boomers, Bob Newhart will always be Dr. Bob Hartley, Chicago’s most famous psychologist. And while his resume is endless, the actor can now add author to his credits with his very first book, “I Shouldn’t Even Be Doing This!” Newhart was invited on “Today” to discuss his book. Read an excerpt:
Don’t judge my book by its title
I realize that most people skip the introduction and the acknowledgments. If you are one of these people, then you’re not even reading this. But if you are, I want to share with you the alternative titles I had for this book.I was told by my editor that titles sell books, so the first title I proposed was A Slimmer You in Three Weeks. That would’ve been an instant best seller because diet books sell like crazy. But my publisher’s weak-kneed lawyers refused to approve the title because there were no diet tips in my book.My next title was Finding Mr. Right, because dating books are also very popular. Again, the attorneys nixed this idea, this time on the grounds that the book contained no dating tips. The attorneys suggested that I find something related to comedy in some way since I am a comedian.I came up with The Fat Lady in the Pink Dress Wants a White Wine. This comes from the parties we’ve had at our house when my kids helped serve the grown-ups. I’d ask my son to go and see what Mrs. Petersen would like to drink. He’d come back and say, “The fat lady in the pink dress wants a white wine.”Besides being a catchy phrase, I thought this would make a nice title for a book written by a comedian. When you mature, you realize you can’t say something like that in polite company. But comedians don’t mature. For some reason, comedians are still children. The social skills somehow never reach us, so we say exactly what we think without weighing the results. But as a title, it sounded too much like a book written by a bartender.You Didn’t Let Me Finish was a candidate because it neatly sums up Hollywood. I first heard the phrase in a story about Harry Crane, a comedy writer who worked for Dean Martin. Harry was sent by Greg Garrison, who produced The Dean Martin Show, to check out a lounge singer that they were thinking of booking on the show. The singer, it turned out, was Mama Cass, back when she was known as Cass Elliot.Harry completed the trip and reported back to Garrison: “This immense woman walks out on the stage in a muumuu and it’s stained,” he said. “It’s not even clean. She had perspiration dripping down both armpits, and she cannot sing. She can’t carry a note.”Garrison interrupted, “Dean loves her.” To which Crane said, “You didn’t let me finish.”Deciding that was too Hollywood, I toyed with Which One Would You Like to Hear Again? This phrase was my sole line of defense as a naïve and neophyte stand-up.It was my very first stand-up gig, and I was the opening act at the Tidelands Motor Inn in Houston. I performed the only three routines I had, “Abe Lincoln vs. Madison Avenue,” “The Driving Instructor,” and “The Cruise of the U.S.S. Codfish.” The audience was particularly responsive one night, and they gave me a lengthy applause. As I left the stage, I walked by the maître d’.“Go back out there. They want to hear more,” he said.“That’s all I have,” I explained.I reluctantly walked back onstage. The applause died down, and I asked them, “Which one would you like to hear again?”In considering phrases that have stuck with me over the years, I recalled a story that Art Linkletter used to tell in his routine on how kids say the darnedest things. In one bit, there was a boy who was off by himself brooding in a corner while all the other kids were laughing and enjoying themselves. Art went over to the boy and attempted to comfort him.“Is something wrong?” Art asked.“Yeah, my dog died this week,” the boy said.“Well,” Art said, “your dog went to heaven and when you go to heaven you will see your dog again so don’t be too unhappy.”The boy looked at Art quizzically. “What does God want with a dead dog?” Another example of the logic of children.And then there’s the title I settled on: I Shouldn’t Even Be Doing This!

That’s from a gag about a guy who is having an affair with his boss’s wife. They are making mad, passionate love, and she says, “Kiss me! Kiss me!”He looks at her very seriously and replies, “I shouldn’t even be doing this!”

That disproportionate side of life ties nicely to my career. I became a comedian by way of accounting. I recorded several comedy albums, three with The Button-Down Mind in the title. I starred in several television series, all of which have my name in the title: The Bob Newhart Show, The Bob Newhart Show (again), Newhart, Bob, and George and Leo (a bit of a stretch but it uses my given name, George Robert Newhart). I acted in several movies that didn’t have my name in the title, including Hell Is for Heroes, Catch-22, and Elf, and I guest starred on ER and Desperate Housewives. All the while, I’ve been married to the same woman for forty-three years, had four children, played countless rounds of golf, and met some very interesting people.However, it didn’t take me long to realize that I couldn’t write a traditional memoir. A memoir is a weighty tome. Former presidents and the Marquis de Sade write memoirs; Bob Newhart doesn’t write a memoir. So I proposed that we call it a roman à clef and leave it at that. Again, my weak-kneed lawyers objected.But the biggest problem of all came when I was halfway finished with the book. I began to get nervous because deep in the process of writing a book about myself, I didn’t have one of the primary ingredients. I wasn’t feeling cathartic. I’ve read enough of these kinds of books and seen enough authors promote them on talk shows to know that they are always cathartic. So I sent the book to a specialist in recognizing catharsis and asked him if what he read could be considered cathartic.“No, it’s self-pity,” he said. “But I like the title.”

Excerpted from “I Shouldn’t Even Be Doing This!” by Bob Newhart. Copyright 2006 by Bob Newhart. All rights reserved. Published by No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from the publisher.