I've been a fan of Bob Newhart for as long as I can remember, first exposed to his television shows (The Bob Newhart Show in syndication and Newhart in the 1980s) and then to his stand-up comedy routines, immortalized in albums such as The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart. A couple of years ago, Bob (I feel like I can call him “Bob”) decided to write his memoirs. Titled I Shouldn't Even Be Doing This!, they are a look inside the mind and the history of one of the best comics to ever hit the stage.
These aren't just your typical memoirs. As Bob states in his introduction, memoirs are supposed to be cathartic for the author. They offer up juicy stories that the public doesn't know about celebrities. They are kiss-and-tell tomes that produce a lot of juicy gossip. Nothing so ordinary for the immortal (or seemingly so, anyway) Bob Newhart. Instead, we get a straight retelling of his childhood, how he had to work numerous part-time jobs while trying to make it in comedy, and then the road to the top when he finally did hit the big time. Along the way, the reader gets wry asides, funny stories, a history told with Bob's characteristic wit, and even some of his most famous routines, word for word (such as the classic "The Driving Instructor"). The most dirt he delivers is that Don Rickles never really learned how to use a video camera.
The book is obviously written plainly, but the tone of "voice" that Newhart uses makes it seem like he's just chatting away with the reader. I can almost hear his trademark stammer as he's telling you his story. I don't know whether that's intentional or not, but it adds to the book’s informal nature and readability (I finished it in one Sunday-morning reading session).
Newhart grew up on the West Side of Chicago in a relatively poor family with three sisters. He briefly went to law school before being drafted into the army (managing to stay Stateside, as well as managing to pull a few over on his superiors). He developed a talent for comedy at an early age and decided that's what he wanted to do with himself. He worked nothing but part-time jobs while he attempted to establish himself. He tells some very funny stories from both his childhood and his young adult days. Basically, he has a background that simply demanded that he go into comedy. Thankfully, he's quite good at it.
Throughout the book, you get the feel for a completely different age, one that I only experienced the cusp of, being born in 1970. Newhart was part of a new wave of comedians; more than just joke-tellers, they told stories or made commentary on the way things were going in society. From the very beginning, he decided that he would be a clean comic, and I can't even remember him ever telling a dark joke or saying more than a bad word here or there. He admits to having a dark sense of humor at times, though he generally keeps it to family and friends (except when he relates one rather twisted joke he played on his daughter once, regarding veal).
I Shouldn't Even Be Doing This! doesn't really have any faults, except for the fact that a few of the things I was looking forward to are given short shrift. Newhart goes into great detail about his second television show (I didn't even know he had done a show for a year in the early '60s), the smash hit The Bob Newhart Show. However, while he does mention it a few times, including the wonderful series finale moment, he doesn't really talk about Newhart that much. I loved that show, and would have loved to hear some behind-the-scenes stuff about that. He does talk about why he ended it after eight years, with CBS moving it all over the schedule and treating it rather shoddily. He briefly mentions his subsequent television series, but the less said about them, the better. He uses them only as a jumping-off point to why it might be time to leave television for good.
The book also won't really mean much to those who aren't familiar with Newhart to begin with, which sadly is probably most of the younger generation. Once somebody has been introduced to Newhart through his comedy routines and maybe going through a DVD set of one of his television shows, hitting them with the book would just add to their enjoyment. I doubt many will make that step, though, through no fault of Bob's.
I enjoyed the book very much, though. I couldn't stop laughing through most of the beginning; reading some of his classic routines left me rolling in my chair. Even when he's telling some of his history straight, he always leaves you with a chuckle or two while you're reading it. I loved his observations on his good friend, Don Rickles, another comedian I've long enjoyed. His insights into the comic mind are even better. His obvious love for his wife, Ginnie, and his children, shines through whenever he talks about them as well.
I Shouldn't Even Be Doing This! is basically a must-read for any Newhart fan, and should be read by fans of old-time comedy.