"Somebody told me this story…" Bob Newhart began many of the bits in tonight's hour-plus Just for Laughs headlining set at the Chicago Theatre with a variation on this line. As if the 83-year-old comedy legend needs to borrow jokes from others. Still, while Newhart's timing remains impeccable, the evening's domination by observational retellings of wacky local-news stories was a slight letdown as someone who'd hoped for more character work.
Taking the stage after a 15-minute opening set by a ten-piece band and vocalist who performed standards like "Night and Day" and "My Funny Valentine," Chicago native Newhart amiably recalled his own days as a visitor to the Chicago Theatre to see the likes of Martin and Lewis. He namechecked his alma maters, St. Ignatius College Prep and Loyola University, before moving into a set that included some groaners that could be borderline offensive coming from a less beloved and agreeable comic, like this line about the Vietnamese gang problem in Los Angeles: "How do you know your home's been robbed by Vietnamese gangs? Your dog's gone… but your kid's math homework is done."
There was more of this old-school outlook in Newhart's breaking down of the variances in German, Irish and English senses of humor and in his memories of growing up Catholic in Chicago. There were none of his classic telephone bits, disappointingly, but he did perform one classic from his 1960 debut album, The Button Down Mind of Bob Newhart: "Driving Instructor," in which he's in the passenger seat with a fledgling (ahem) "woman driver" behind the wheel.
Following what he called a "phony bow," Newhart came back for an extended encore in which he narrated a long video montage recounting his history and career, including clips of his appearances on Ed Sullivan and Dean Martin's variety shows and outtakes from both of his own sitcoms, including the famous final scene of Newhart. The man remains as charming and spry as ever, but for better or worse, this was more of an evening with Bob Newhart than a performance.