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November 30, 1961, Vol. VII, No. 6
Sick Comic for the Middlebrows
By Martin William
I wish everybody would come off it about Bob Newhart. He is a pleasant comedian. But surely the fact that his fairly affable jibes at business and politics have been called “penetrating” and “outspoken” is a symptom of something more than the usual carelessness with which the word “satire” is slung around. I wonder whom he is supposed to offend — this rather nice young man whose show features such unspeakably square guests as Roger Williams, who does some of the cheese commercials himself, and who all but falls on his face on occasion thanking his audience for being “just wonderful.”
There was one brief sketch in which he fell into a hotel fountain trying to avoid tipping a bellhop; George Gobel or Jack Benny could have done it without a second thought. Another lampoon, supposedly on African nationalism, turned out to be an interview with Tarzan employing some lightly amusing material on such controversial subjects as tree houses and monkeys. Some happenings in a greeting-card shop might have been made up of lines Jonathan Winters had left over. And, “if the buildiers of the pyramids had had to finance the enterprise like modern construction men” had a couple of good comments, but almost immediately fell into silly and facile anachronisms of modern jive in Ancient Egypt. Steve Allen, Gary Moore, and Art Carney do the same sort of thing almost every time they are on the air, and I’m afraid they do it better. There are sketches on the Perry Como show which cut a lot deeper with a lot less pretentiousness — a recent lampoon of “Peter Pan” and a burlesque involving Como’s evening at a night club said some rairly perceived things about the American dream. And simply by being, Groucho Marx can make as penetrating a comment on American mores as popular art is ever likely to offer.
It is no pleasure to report that the Newhart show seems to get less and less funny each week. He was at his early best having private enterprise run a fire department, but a recent sketch about how a supermarket manager hypes his customers was not only not funny, it was rather grim. It is no pleasure to report it, because, as I say, Newhart is a talented and likable comedian. If he does not live up to his notices as a satirist, it is not really his fault because he is not a satirist. What is regrettable is that he is not living up to his own genuine potential to be funny.
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 13, 2009