Friday, September 15, 2006

Happy Birthday Bob Newhart

This weekend's Comedist meditation focuses on Bob Newhart, whose birthday just past. Newhart has had a couple of very successful tv series and before that was a wonderful stand-up. Through it all, he was able to do something quite remarkable; he is world's funniest straightman. He has the magical ability to be very funny without actually saying things that are funny. He comes across as the world's last sane man and we laugh not at him, but at the absurdity of the universe we inhabit with him when he shows it to us through his eyes.

In both of his programs and his stand-up, Newhart was funniest when he said nothing. His foil would make some bizarre statement that begged for a clever retort and, instead, he would just let it hang there. With his furrowed brow, the pregnant pause was funnier than any snappy comeback ever could be. The humor was not in the actual response, but in the open potentiality for what it could be. His most classic stand-up bits were phone conversations where we would only hear his side of the discussion. The funnyman -- Newhart's Gracie Allen or Lou Costello --didn't even exist, yet he could absolutely kill. The joke was in the absence of the joke.

The 14th century German theologian, Meister Eckhart, is associated with has come to be called "negative theology." Eckhart argued that God was too big to fit into human language and that the real God exists not in what is said, but what is unsaid. With our language, we cannot say what God is, only what God is not. We learn the inexpressible affirmative through negating the expressible negative. Newhart is to Comedist theology what Eckhart is to Christian theology. Bob Newhart is the great negative comedian. He has been able to create magnificent humor with nothing but straight lines. From the denial of comedy, comes comedy. Only a true genius could operate in this fashion.

Thank you, Bob Newhart, and a heartfelt button-down birthday to one of the greats.

Irreverend Steve