- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 2, 2002

Past recipients of the Mark Twain Prize for humor had the likes of Steve Martin, Jerry Seinfeld and Billy Crystal on hand to tease and toast them for a lifetime of comedic art.
This year's honoree, Bob Newhart, made do with Dorf, Tim Conway's shinless, golf-instructing alter ego.
That precipitous drop in talent shouldn't reflect badly on Mr. Newhart, whose deadpan delivery and legendary sitcom work more than justified his selection by the Kennedy Center for its esteemed annual award.
But the disparity did drag down this year's "On Stage at the Kennedy Center: The Mark Twain Prize" show, to be telecast Nov. 13 at 9 p.m. on WETA (Channel 26).
The event, held Tuesday, delivered a genial blend of humor and appreciation for the 73-year-old comedian, who entered the Kennedy Center's Concert Hall from the public entrance, ever the Everyman.
Compared to previous Mark Twain celebrations, this year's program proved overly long and too willing to let its varied guest comics prattle on with mediocre material.
"Frasier's" David Hyde Pierce began the night on a crisp comic note, no surprise given his elite work as that sitcom's persnickety Niles Crane.
"I've watched you, emulated you and just plain stole from you," Mr. Pierce told Mr. Newhart.
Mr. Conway's tired Dorf shtick followed, an early warning that the night might be falling short of previous standards.
Richard Belzer summoned the ghosts of borscht-belt comics past with a tired bit featuring Moses talking to God on a cell phone. The comedian, clad as always in all black, enjoyed the routine far more than the audience.
Tom Poston ("Newhart's" befuddled George) painted Mr. Newhart as both a gentleman and a professional on the set.
"It's a treat to work with Bob. I envy myself," Mr. Poston said during his witty remarks.
The performances by some of the assembled comics, including Steven Wright and Jake Johannsen, showed how much Mr. Newhart's delivery has trickled down to this generation's stand-up comics.
Others on hand to say "Hi, Bob" included Jane Curtin, Fred Willard, Bill Daily ("The Bob Newhart Show") and musician John Pizzarelli, whose musical trio lent the evening a vibrant musical interlude.
Between the live comments came a series of clips, both of longtime collaborators like Suzanne Pleshette (also from "The Bob Newhart Show") and bits culled from Mr. Newhart's lengthy career.
Those, too, proved a mixed delight. One clip, featuring Mr. Newhart bickering with Miss Pleshette, recalled one of the small screen's great comic duos. Today's sitcom stars would be well advised to take notes the next time "The Bob Newhart Show" airs on cable.
Other video moments, like a rarely seen bit from "The Tonight Show" when Jack Paar ruled the couch, seemed hopelessly dated.
Of course, Mr. Newhart's trademark one-sided phone bits proved delightful. He even performed one live during his acceptance speech. That call, a modern day spin-meister advising President Lincoln, wasn't his finest but his impeccable delivery made that sin forgivable.
"Tonight was like a near-death experience," Mr. Newhart said upon receiving the small bust of Mark Twain.
A comedy show that can break two hours with nary a swear word or obscene gesture is a testament to Mr. Newhart's abilities and staying power in a fickle comedy world.
"It's not a question of not offending anyone," Dick Martin said in a taped tribute, "it's just the way he is."


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