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Bob Newhart brings 'button down' comedy to Jackpot Junction Friday

With his trademark soft-spoken stammer, Bob Newhart sounds the same in a

telephone interview as he does on TV.

It's kind of like talking to a favorite uncle who ponders his words

carefully before slowly revealing

the point of a story. It feels

comfortable and familiar -- and funny.

Bob Newhart will be bringing that same well-worn, award-winning humor to Morton, where he'll perform Friday at Jackpot Junction.

"Why not come to Morton?" Newhart responded, when asked why he was doing a show here. "It's the Midwest, which I like," said the Chicago native, who started out as an accountant before writing and performing comedy on radio.

With his roots in the heartland, Newhart said he's well aware he "can't put on airs" when he performs in Minnesota before a crowd he refers to as "just genuine people." His "everyman" persona and wry comedy routines that come from everyday happenings have endeared him to his fans. Newhart has been in the entertainment business since 1962. With successful television shows, comedy albums, movies, a new book about his life and career coming out and a seventh grandchild about to be born, Newhart certainly doesn't need to work.

Like a farmer who could easily retire in Arizona but is looking for more land to plant into corn at the first blush of spring, Newhart said he can't imagine a time when he wouldn't want to make people laugh anymore.

"It gets in your blood," he said. "I can't imagine not doing it."

He has "cut back" this year and is doing about 30 one-night performances around the country. Being on a plane and traveling from one town to another isn't always enjoyable, but performing is, he said. "You're alive," he said. "You're alive and you're vital."

Walking away from performing is "something I can't do." When he walks on the stage on Friday, Newhart will be performing some of his popular comedy sketches from years ago as well as new material. Performed with a dead-pan delivery and well-timed stuttering, Newhart's stand-up comedy acts are based on his observations about "this strange planet that we all inhabit."

Wherever he goes, even when he's on vacation, Newhart said he's always observing and taking notes for future comedy acts. "I can't turn off the searchlight," he said.

Since he's been in the business of making people laugh, Newhart said he's seen comedy change -- neither for the better or the worse. "Comedy is always evolving," he said. "It's the nature of comedy."

The biggest change is the disappearance of "sacred cows" in entertainment, especially foul language that comedians would never have used in the past but is common now. Newhart is one of the exceptions to that.

In order to survive, Newhart said his comedy has also changed, but he's maintained his own standards. Offensive language is not part of his show.

"I would feel uncomfortable doing that. It's like a sweater that doesn't fit," said Newhart. "I've never quite felt right going outside my perimeter."

"I'm known as a clean comedian," much like Jerry Seinfeld is, he said. "We just like to do a show and have it go well and not resort to shock or language."

Newhart said he doesn't use politics as the source of his jokes either. "You lose half of your audience doing that," he said. He also doesn't use his time on stage to "lecture" people about political or social issues. "I never thought it was my job to educate," said Newhart. "It's my job to entertain."

Even though he doesn't use bad language in his act, Newhart said his favorite comedian of all time was the late Richard Pryor. The comedy legend was quite liberal with his use of colorful language. Newhart said Pryor's "sheer brilliance" made his comedy "inherently funny."

As for any new rising comedic talents, Newhart confesses he doesn't watch much television anymore. "It's because of the laugh track," he said. "I can't stand that."

His television shows, including the "The Bob Newhart Show" where he played a big city psychologist, and "Newhart," which was set in a New England inn, were all filmed before a live audience.

That's how he likes performing.

His career has taken a new turn with the fall release of a memoir he wrote with a collaborator.

The book is full of anecdotes about a man who has spent most of his life making people laugh. One of those stories, he said, is about a movie called "Hell is for Heroes" that he made with Steve McQueen. As he tells it, the movie exceeded its $900,000 budget and Paramount called the director and said they weren't going to send any more film to northern California where the movie was being shot. And they didn't.

The movie ended when they used up the film they had, said Newhart, resulting in a movie that didn't really have an ending. "Something blows up and the movie ends," said Newhart.

That quirk made the film a "cult classic," he said, with viewers writing their own ending for the movie.

The book "took a lifetime to write," said Newhart, who wanted to make sure his "voice" was heard as people read it and that "it sounds like me."

The next step to make certain that happens could very well be an audio version of the book read by Newhart in his unmistakable style in front of a live audience. There will be no mechanical laugh track.

There will be no need for one.

For ticket availability, contact the casino box office or Ticketmaster.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for 35 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

(320) 894-9750