- At Roy Thomson Hall
- In Toronto on Friday
What's that operator? You say Bob Newhart's on the line, and he wants to make a person-to-person call? By all means, put him on.
An audience came to laugh, a comedian did too, a connection was made - at Roy Thomson Hall, Bob Newhart told jokes well.
The 80-year-old funny-business legend walked onto his brightly lit stage as the bold swing of Home to Emily, the theme to the 1970s sitcom The Bob Newhart Show, introduced him. Notice the 10-piece band playing that memorable tune: Yes, ladies and gentlemen, a live orchestra - sixties-era swish, just for you.
A standing ovation came immediately - this was warmhearted Toronto's "Hi Bob" welcome. "Does this mean you won't do it at the end?" Newhart asked, referring to the applause that usually salutes him at the conclusion of his routines. His fans laughed; so did he. This was going to be easy.
Newhart said his grandmother was from St. Catharines, Ont. If you think he brought up that bit of genealogy for cheap applause only, "You would be right," said the star candidly.
Here's something funny: Newhart, his once-sharp voice now softer and craggier, asked a riddle, wondering how you can tell if it was a Vietnamese gang that had broken into your house. "The dog is gone," he answered, "and your kid's math homework is done." Zinger! And then, when the groans came, the from-a-different-era comic shrugged off political correctness, expressing the frustration that even cracks about albino Filipino cross-dressers were probably off limits today.
Later, he told a pretty good Newfie joke and a gag about surprised Mexicana Airlines stewardesses who swung sticks at deployed oxygen masks as if they were pinatas.
"To survive today," Newhart explained, "You have to laugh." What he meant was that life, in many ways, was just plain absurd, and to be uptight about things served no purpose. That we're all in this together, so let's have some fun - that kind of thinking. "True story," he said again and again about his jokes, though I'm not sure they always were.
What I noticed most about this icon was the twinkle in his eyes, and the way he would say, excitedly under his breath, "Oh, I wanna do this one for you." There was a boy inside the old man - a funny boy who had 60 minutes to entertain and wanted to squeeze in everything he could. He hustled over to a chair to pick up a cellphone for his classic Sir Walter Raleigh introducing-tobacco-to-civilization routine.
Any Chuckle Hut hack can do the "What's the deal with..." gags, but Newhart lampooned something that most people would see as perfectly unexceptional, even if that unremarkable thing involved sticking burning carcinogenic leaves into one's mouth and breathing it in for pleasure. That he pointed out the absurdity in such an inventive way - the one-sided phone conversation - put him over the top, funny-wise.
At the end, the enjoyable comic narrated a short career-covering film that ended with the famous finale of his long-running eighties television show Newhart. The series was supposedly a "situational comedy," but really, as the dream-sequence conclusion made clear, the premise of the show - involving an heiress as a maid, and three inbred woodsmen - was fairly ridiculous.
Newhart gets the jokes of life, and then he passes them on to us in ways that are sometimes clever, sometimes chummy. Please Bob, call on us any time.