Bob Newhart lives

In olden days we used to gather together in crowds to experience the sheer pleasure of laughter. I had forgotten about venturing out to see Bob Newhart at the Orpheum Theater in Minneapolis this past June 28 until the Wall Street Journal posted the old video of Newhart that accompanied Kim Strassel’s weekly Potomac Watch column on Friday. This is what I wrote after seeing Newhart live last year, including another video from the same performance the Journal drew on:

Bob Newhart makes infrequent live appearances at age 89, but he was featured last night at the Orpheum Theater in downtown Minneapolis as part of the first-ever Minneapolis Comedy Festival. He must have three generations of fans in Minneapolis. The line to get into the theater wound around the block.

I think it’s fair to say that Newhart is beloved. What a thrill to see him perform a stand-up routine at this late date. I can’t find a review of last night’s show online. This may be a Power Line exclusive.

Although Newhart’s comedy style is a throwback to the ’50s and ’60s, not a single one of his jokes misfired. The laughs were hearty. The man is funny. It is a gift subject only to the pleasure principle.

Newhart kicked off his routine last night with an abbreviated account of the source of his affection for Minneapolis. Reading Neal Justin’s slightly more detailed account in the Star Tribune made me laugh out loud. It has a good punch line:

Bob Newhart is most associated with Chicago and Vermont, the settings of his two memorable sitcoms. But the 89-year-old comic has a soft spot for the Twin Cities, so much so that he recorded much of his second album, 1960’s “The Button-Down Mind Strikes Back!” at Freddie’s Cafe, once the hippest joint in Minneapolis.

It was while appearing at that club that he forged a friendship with “Laugh-In” co-host Dick Martin, who wound up directing the last episode of “Newhart” in 1990, still considered one of the most clever finales in TV history.

Before his appearance Friday at the Minneapolis Comedy Festival, Newhart spoke by phone about why he owes part of his success to Minnesota and how he’s still relevant 60 years into his career.

Q: How did Minneapolis help put you on the map?

A: I’ll tell you what’s interesting. I recorded an album for Warner Brothers in January of 1960 and never heard back from them. A few months later, I called them up and said, “I don’t know if you remember me, but I made a comedy record for you and I haven’t heard anything.” They said, “It’s going crazy in Minneapolis.”

Every pressing was being sent to Minneapolis. Howard Viken at WCCO Radio was putting me on the air. They were even publishing in the paper what times certain bits would be airing, like: “Abe Lincoln at 5:30 p.m.”

Newhart’s routine was funny from beginning to end. The audience laughed loud and long — even in Row W, where the sound was incredibly muddy. It was hard to pick up Bob’s somewhat infirm voice. When he played a video with an old television sketch (below), I had no idea Bob was talking about a toupee. Newhart explained that Dean Martin didn’t like to rehearse.

Newhart’s routine included some dated material about televangelists. It was funny too, but I wish he would have updated it with something on the current crop.

Alluding to his age, Bob claimed to blank out on his routine twice last night. I bought it the first time. He made that funny too.

As I say, Newhart’s show was funny from beginning to end. It also transported the audience to a time long ago and a galaxy far, far away. The strongest vulgarity he used was “hell.” The only (slightly) risqué story he told drew on his Catholic upbringing. Need I say it was funny too?

At the conclusion of his 60-minute set Bob returned for an encore. For his encore Newhart performed his bus driver’s school routine (below) from The Button-Down Mind Strikes Back!. The routine is 60 years old. It is, shall we say, still funny. “That’s called your perfect pullout.”

Not having heard the routine before, I laughed until I cried. I haven’t laughed that hard since the first time I saw Richard Pryor teach Gene Wilder how to disguise himself as a black man in Silver Streak.

With the length of the line outside the theater, we were admitted a few minutes after the scheduled 7:00 p.m. start time. The opening act was in progress — a performer singing Great American Songbook songs backed by a terrific band. The singer looked like Lyle Lovett Large Band star Francine Reed and sounded like a cross between Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. She closed her set with Ella’s “Air Mail Special,” a song I have never heard anyone else attempt to cover.

Who was she? I asked an usher. “They only told us it’s a ten-piece band,” she said.

The band vamped an intro for Newhart as he walked onto the stage and the curtain fell behind him. It was a perfect night.

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