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e-Briefing | Celebrity Setup

It's Not Just an Act

February 01, 2001

The cell phones Bob Newhart uses on stage may be mere props, but technology plays a real role in his off-stage life.

Celebrity Setup

Bob Newhart is such a beloved comedian that his career has been going strong in clubs, on television and in film for more than four decades. In the late 1950s he was an accountant who began writing and performing satirical sketches on radio, many of which involved imaginary telephone conversations with historical figures. That led to the recording of an album that was such a hit, it was one of only 15 in 1960 to sell more than a million copies.

He has had two hit TV sitcoms: "The Bob Newhart Show" (1972-1978) and "Newhart" (1982-1990), both of which continue to have a life on cable. His best-known movie roles are Major Major in "Catch-22" and the bumbling high school principal in "In and Out."

Newhart, 71, continues to do club dates and most recently got raves from critics for his role in a Showtime movie, "Sports Pages."

DESKTOP: I have a Sony Vaio tower now. I bought my first computer 23 years ago, around the time my daughter was born. I remember leafing through a copy of Popular Science magazine and seeing an ad for a Commodore computer that had 8 or 16 K (8,000 or 16,000 bytes) of memory. It had an awful-looking screen and it was $795. I thought I'd better get one because I had sons who were going to be in high school and might want to know about computers.

Later I moved up to the 64 K model and thought that was silly because it was more memory than I would ever possibly need [today's computers commonly have a minimum of 64 million bytes of memory]. I also had an Atari and Kaypros.

Q. You were really into computers.

I got them for the kids and then found I was fascinated by them. The first ones had tape drives. You would get a program like a word processor, put the tape in and then walk away for about a half an hour while the computer loaded it. But the first time I used a spell checker and it corrected a word, I thought, "We are getting close to God, here." It was almost scary.

Q. Did you use them to write your routines?

No, I never have. I still use a lined legal pad. Once I have it on paper I could have it transferred, but I have to write it out first. I know it's easier to write on a computer, but somehow it comes out more stilted. I don't know why.

The smallest thing can make all the difference in comedy. Sometimes you are on stage and have the germ of an idea and you go with it, and it works great. The next night you do it again and it doesn't work, all because you changed one word. It's that specific.

So when I have a routine that works, it's very important to get it down on paper--down to the exact word--as soon as possible.

Q. But you could get those exact words down on a computer.

I guess it comes down to the fact that I'm afraid to fool around with something that works. Comedians are very superstitious people, always afraid it will all end tomorrow and that I will walk out on stage and people will not laugh anymore. So, you don't want to toy with the gods.

That uncertainty is part of what makes it work.

LAPTOP: A Toshiba Portege 3010. When I'm on the road I hook into AOL to read my e-mail and I use Netscape on the Web.

HAND-HELD: A Palm 3x. I use it mostly to remind me of upcoming appearances, even into 2002. I also have an organizer, a Sharp Wizard, for my addresses.

BOOKMARKED SITES: I don't surf the Net very much. I look at weather sites to check on cities I am traveling to, things like that.

The other day I got a fan letter from someone in high school who had an assignment to write to someone and ask about a favorite poem. I went on the Internet, found a Robert Frost site, and there were all his poems.

Q. Which one did you choose?

"The Road Not Taken." There's a certain sadness to it, never knowing how things would have turned out if one had taken a more traveled path.

I never look at jokes on the Net. From the time I started out, I was always afraid I would steal someone's material without even realizing it. Sometimes when I write something and it comes easy to me I begin to worry, "Maybe I heard this somewhere."

Also, there is a pride of authorship. That's where a lot of the satisfaction comes from.

CELL PHONE: I use one on stage now when I do my telephone routines, talking to Abe Lincoln or Sir Walter Raleigh. It's kind of surreal.

Q. Is it a real cell phone?

No, it's just a shell. I would be afraid that a real one would somehow go off in the middle of a routine.

Q. Do you use a real cell phone off stage?

I do, but not a lot. It was kind of weird when people would see me because of the association of my telephone routines. Actually, I'm not a person who likes to talk on the phone very much. I kind of hope the problem will go away if I don't return the phone call.

--As told to DAVID COLKER

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