The Paley Center for Media awarded Bob Newhart, Lily Tomlin, Carl Reiner, Carol Burnett and Norman Lear at The Paley Honors: A Special Tribute to Television’s Comedy Legends on Thursday Night in Beverly Hills.
In the sixth annual Paley Honors for achievements in television, Conan O’Brien introduced Newhart, who shared stories of his attempted careers in accounting, unemployment offices and retail before getting into comedy.
As a petty cash clerk for traveling salesmen, Newhart lamented that he could never quite balance their receipts with his cash total. Rather than spend hours trying to reconcile an extra $1.75, he said he just paid the difference out of his own pocket.
“I swear to you, if I had gone with Enron, they would still be in business,” Newhart joked. “So naturally, what do you do when you leave accounting? Obviously you become a stand-up comedian.”
In the early years, Newhart still took day jobs.
“I once worked for the Illinois State Unemployment Office behind the counter and we used to get $65 a week,” Newhart said. “The claimants got $55 and they only had to come in one day a week.”
At a department store, Newhart recognized his customer as mob boss Anthony Arcado. When Arcado ordered some items for delivery, Newhart threw his colleagues under the bus.
“So I felt it incumbent on me to explain, ‘Mr. Acardo, when I take these gifts of yours, I’m going to place them on a table over there.Then the shipping department will come in and wrap them. So if any of the gifts were to arrive damaged in any way, you would want to take that up with the [pausing for comedic effect] with the shipping department.’”
When it came to his TV successes, Newhart said he learned from Jack Benny to let his co-stars have the funny lines. When cautioned that he’d given away the biggest laughs, Benny would say, “Yeah, but I’ll be back next week.”
“Learning that, I put together the greatest writers that I could find, an incredible cast,” Newhart said. “Suzie [Pleshette], Marcia Wallace, Bill Daily, Peter Bonerz and Jack Riley. Then Newhart again Mary Frann, Tom Poston, Peter Scolari and Julia Duffy. The secret is to just show up next week. Thank you very much.”
Lisa Kudrow introduced Tomlin, who recited many of her famous catch phrases from Laugh-In and her one woman shows. “And that’s the truth,” “One ringy dingy” and “I’m Suzie Sorority from the Silent Majority” were among her greatest hits.
Tomlin also had history with her fellow award winners. Reiner directed her in All of Me
which she considers one of her favorite films. And Burnett was one of her first celebrity encounters.
“The first time I was on CBS during a special, I was in the ladies room and I was a nervous wreck,” Tomlin said. “Carol came in and said, ‘Oh Lily’ and threw her arms around me. I was barely on Laugh-In. It was the most thrilling, wonderful experience of my life to have Carol recognize me from like nothing. So thank you. I am so grateful for this great, great honor.”
Rob Reiner introduced his father Carl, calling him the best MC ever. Reiner recited Ophelia’s mother’s soliloquy from Hamlet which he learned from an acting teacher and still remembers. He spoke about his late wife Estelle, his children and grandchildren.
After he thanked the Paley Center, he remembered another story and came back. He met Jack Benny in a commissary who told him a story about using a pay toilet.
“He said, ‘It’s a quarter. I reach in my pocket, I have two dimes, three nickels and a penny, nobody around to borrow money. So I slid under the door, did what I had to do. I couldn’t get out under the door so I decided to climb out,’” Reiner recalled. “So he stood on the pot, got one foot over the door and people came. They said, ‘Mr. Benny, it’s only a dime.’”
Kristin Chenoweth introduced Burnett, gloating over the executives who told Burnett that variety comedy shows were a man’s business. Burnett, whose The Carol Burnett Show ran 11 seasons, corroborated the story. Burnett had a contract with CBS with a clause that allowed her to the hourlong variety show. She said William Paley himself, namesake of the Paley Center, protected her from studio interference.
“I became acquainted with Mr. Paley himself,” Burnett said. “I’ll never forget what he said to us. ‘You guys are the artists. I’m the businessman. You do what you do and I’ll do what I do.’ That resulted in the fact that CBS never ever interfered with our process.”
Anthony Anderson and Jimmy Kimmel introduced Lear. Kimmel produced Live In Front of a Studio Audience performances of classic Lear shows, and Anderson played Uncle Henry in an All in the Family performance. Lear credited the comedians he’s worked with for his longevity.
“Laughter adds time to one’s life,” Lear said. “At 97, I want to tell you, I know like I know my name, whether it’s six months or six years, laughter has added a huge amount of time to my life. Had I not known these people and laughed with them and at them and for them and above them, I may have been too deceased to pick up this award tonight.”
Lear also indicated he’s not done yet.
“Bless you all, thank you all, to be continued,” Lear said.