Musings of a Self-Effacing Everyman and Star Comic

Article excerpt

Byline: John Greenya, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Before he finally settled on "I Shouldn't Even Be Doing This!" Bob Newhart considered and disregarded five other titles. His first choice was "A Slimmer You in Five Weeks," which "the publisher's weak-kneed lawyers refused to approve because there were no diet tips in my book."

So he tried "Finding Mr. Right," which the lawyers also nixed, this time on the grounds that the book didn't contain any dating tips either. Next was "The Fat Lady in the Red Dress Wants a White Wine," a line one of his sons had shouted when the Newhart kids were helping serve the grownups at a family party, but that bit the dust because "as a title it sounded too much like a book by a bartender."

Undaunted, he toyed with and then rejected "You Didn't Let Me Finish," a classic gag line he deemed "too Hollywood," and the same fate befell "Which One Would You Like to Hear Again?" a question he asked the encore hungry audience after his first stand-up performance because he only had three routines.

Finally, having come close with one punch line, he chose another. It comes ". . . 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!'"

Once given that explanation, the reader also has the tone, the tempo and a good idea of the content. The title also suggests Newhart's signature pose, a tentative stance from which he delivers his lines while nervously looking over his shoulder as if he expects someone in authority to come on stage, pull him off and ask him why he isn't upstairs in Accounting.

That look, as much a trademark as his hero Jack Benny's sideways glance, suggests Bob Newhart still can't understand how a lifetime of performing routines and telling jokes brought him, among many other honors, the Mark Twain Prize for America Humor.

This slim book is ideal for reading at your leisure on a late winter afternoon, and in addition to the many laughs it is also rich in personal information. Readers unfamiliar with Mr. Newhart's early days will have great fun learning about his employment history before and after he decided to make a serious effort to get into show business. Two of my favorites are his job as an accountant at a company in downtown Chicago and his stint at the Illinois State Compensation Board.

In the first position, Mr. Newhart had to reconcile the cash drawer with the receipts at the end of each day. "It was always close, but it never balanced. At five o'clock sharp, everybody in the accounting department would leave the office. I would be the only one left, tearing my hair out over why petty cash was short by $1.48 cents. Usually around eight o'clock, I'd find the discrepancy."

After two weeks of this frustration, Bob solved the problem by personally making up the difference or pocketing the small overage. Discovering this activity, the boss told Mr. Newhart he was not following "sound accounting principles."

In reply, he told the boss he was not cut out for accounting because the Newhart method made "absolutely perfect sense . . . Why would you pay me six dollars an hour to spend three or four hours finding a dollar-forty? It's much easier if I just make up the difference out of my own pocket because I'll get it back next week."

Mr. Newhart took the job at the Compensation Board because it was only for six weeks if a show business opportunity opened up he could leave with minimum inconvenience to his employer. …