"Hi, Bob." With glee and a few giggles, I greet Bob Newhart over the phone, thrilled to be talking to the veteran comic, known not only for his great TV sitcoms, but also for comedy routines in which he’s talking on the phone.
"I’m used to nobody being on the other end," he laughs, ready to talk about his career and his upcoming gigs in Northern California, including a date Saturday night at the Marin Center in San Rafael.
In a career that spans more than four decades, he’s never stopped doing standup. Even while he starred in "The Bob Newhart Show" (with Suzanne Pleshette) and "Newhart" (with Mary Frann), he continued to work in front of live audiences on an occasional basis, particularly in Las Vegas.
Among his first successes was a recording of his live act called "The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart," which won a Grammy Award and broke Billboard records for longevity on the charts in the early 1960s.
While he’s noticed that audiences’ attention spans seem to have shortened through the years, the tone of his mild-mannered act hasn’t changed much.
"There was a temptation to go shock, but I never felt comfortable with it," Newhart says. "I always work clean. I always felt better that way."
At the same time, he calls Richard Pryor, with his "brilliant concept," the most influential comedian since Mark Twain, even comparing the two. Twain’s frontier was life on the Mississippi; Pryor’s the underbelly of life in the city.
So where does Newhart see himself in the annals of contemporary comedy?
"Right behind Richard Pryor," he deadpans, thanking me for setting him up with an easy curveball.
Newhart hasn’t limited his post-sitcom activities to standup; he’s continued to work on television and in film, including a part in "Elf" with Will Ferrell ("I loved the message of it") and in an original movie for TV, "The Librarian: Return to King Solomon’s Mines."
In a departure — "about as far away from the Bob Newhart persona as you could get," he says — he took a dramatic role on "ER," for which he received an Emmy nomination. The family wasn’t thrilled about the character, he comments: "I ended up blowing my brains out."
But he admits that in real life, he’s much like the mild-mannered fellows he portrayed in his classic sitcoms: "That’s about 85 percent me," he says, "the other 15 percent, my wife says we must keep away from the public."
He attributes the success of his two series to a formula, of sorts. In both shows, he was the calm guy surrounded by lovable kooks, first in the setting of a Chicago psychologist’s office, and later at an inn in Vermont.
"We wanted to incorporate in ‘Newhart’ what was successful in ‘The Bob Newhart Show,’" he says. "So in the second show, the guests were like my patients and the employees were like my home life."
Newhart, who’s looking forward to returning to the Bay Area for the first time since he was stationed at the Presidio when he was in the Army in the 1950s, has plans for more TV. He’s working on a comedy anthology for TBS, with shows featuring a different cast every week, a format like the old "Twilight Zone."
Where: Veterans’ Memorial Auditorium, Marin Center, 10 Avenue of the Flags, San Rafael
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Tickets: $25 to $60
Contact: (415) 421-8497 or www.ticketmaster.com