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.”
Q: Do you think the fact that you grew up in the Chicago area made you more appealing to fellow Midwesterners?
A: Back then, I never thought of my humor as regional, but I did discover that, unlike the rest of the country, Midwesterners didn’t put on airs. I’ve got a passive-aggressive side, but I don’t know if that’s because I’m a Midwesterner or if it’s just me.
Q: How much of your act today revisits those old routines from the 1960s?
A: There’s usually one segment devoted to something from those albums. That’s one of the reasons people show up. I don’t decide ahead of time which one I’m going to do. The audience tells you to a certain degree which one they want to hear. There are just clues you pick up over the years that can tell you if they want something broader or more subtle.
Q: What’s a routine you’ll only do if you think you have a smart audience?
A: Probably the phone call with Walter Raleigh. One of the lines goes, “We’ve been a little worried about you, ever since you put your cape down over all that mud.” That’s a reference that almost never gets a reaction anymore.
Q: You wrote a beautiful tribute to Tim Conway after he passed away. What can you tell us about those private times with him?
A: He was part of these great dinners we’d have every Tuesday night. It was Tim, Dick Martin, Mike Connors [star of the TV detective series “Mannix”], myself and all of our wives. Don Rickles and Steve Lawrence would eventually be part of the group. At one point, someone approached us to do it for television, but we all thought it wouldn’t work. No one was counting who got the most laughs.
Come to think of it, I first met Dick when I was performing at Freddie’s. I can’t remember what hotel he was staying at, but he called me out of the blue and asked if I wanted to come out to Interlachen and play golf with him and Dan Rowan [Martin’s comedy partner]. He didn’t know me from Adam, but that’s how it was in those days with fellow nightclubbers.
Q: Despite all your TV success, you didn’t win an Emmy until 2013 for a guest appearance on “Big Bang Theory.” What did that honor mean to you?
A: It took me 40 years. Early on, I thought I was doing pretty good, but after I hadn’t won for five or six years, I quit putting my name up for nomination. There wasn’t an anger there. I understood the process. I was up against some pretty tough people: Carroll O’Connor, Alan Alda. There’s a tendency not to nominate people from the stand-up world. They think, “Oh, that’s just Bob doing Bob. That’s just Jerry Seinfeld being Jerry. That’s not acting.” But it is.
Q: You also were referenced in the first season of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” with one of the characters ripping off your act when he got up to perform in Greenwich Village. Have you watched it?
A: I saw it. The way he was doing it was like listening to nails against the blackboard. Stop it. That show really brought me back to the era when I burst onto the scene. The references, the dresses.
Q: It’s interesting, because during that time, you were considered cutting-edge.
A: It was a sea change in comedy. Mike Nichols and Elaine May. Shelley Berman. Johnny Winters. Lenny Bruce. It was no longer “Take my wife, please.” Like I said before, there was a certain education component to the material. To get the routine about a phone call to Abe Lincoln, you had to be fairly familiar with Gettysburg.
Q: Who are the comedians you like today?
A: I like Jim Gaffigan. I get great satisfaction watching Norm Macdonald. He’s not copying anybody else. He’s doing himself. But my all-time favorite — and I can say this now that Don Rickles can no longer find out about it — was Richard Pryor. If Mark Twain presented America’s frontier in his day, then Pryor was telling about what life was like in the inner city in his day.
Oh, I just remembered what hotel Dick was staying in. It was the Radisson.
Q: You have quite a memory.
A: Yes, but I can’t remember what I had for breakfast.