(November 2, 2003)

Hel ... Hell ... Hello?

Peter D. Kramer/The Journal News

Bob Newhart's on the phone. From his Manhattan hotel room, the man who made his name with the one-sided telephone conversation is talking about what's keeping him busy these days.

There's plenty to talk about - including a performance in White Plains next Sunday.

The 74-year-old comedian is appearing at a black-tie event to open the White Plains Performing Arts Center. As usual, he'll offer his take on current events and perform classic routines with his trademark stammer and that ever-present phone.

This afternoon, though, he'll be at the Loews Astor Plaza for the premiere of "Elf," a movie about a baby who crawls into Santa's bag and is raised as elfin. (Newhart is Papa Elf, who must inform the full-grown Will Ferrell that he is, in fact, not small and must return to his parents.)

After the premiere, Newhart will don a tuxedo and head to the Hammerstein Ballroom for tonight's live telecast of CBS' 75th anniversary gala (8 p.m. to 11 p.m., CBS). The show includes clips from Newhart's two hit series, "The Bob Newhart Show" and "Newhart."

Monday, it's back to his California home.

Tuesday, his movie "Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde," comes out on DVD.

Thursday, he's on TV again, in the second of three episodes of "ER," playing a man losing his eyesight to macular degeneration. Newhart calls the dramatic role "a nice break away from what I had been doing," adding, "They took a chance ..."

At the end of the week, he's back to his stand-up tour (which he does in three-concert bursts, up to 30 a year). He'll be in Halifax, Toronto, and then White Plains.

Newhart's telephone routines were among his first when, in 1960, he made the leap from accountant to comedian. They're still making people laugh. He has made one concession to technology: He occasionally uses a cell phone instead of one of those big clunkers he used in his first comedy album, "The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart."

Newhart is known for his precise timing, which he likens to music.

"It's like a metronome in your head. I don't know if it's a matter of knowing good timing or recognizing bad timing, but when it's bad, it's jarring. It's like a 32nd note, it's not a 16th, it's not an eighth."

Last year, Newhart was the fifth person to receive the Kennedy Center's Mark Twain Prize for Humor, following Richard Pryor, Carl Reiner, Jonathan Winters and Whoopi Goldberg. Last weekend, Lily Tomlin was named the sixth recipient.

Newhart says it's fitting that Pryor was first, because he "most typifies what Mark Twain did. Mark Twain introduced us to life on the frontier at the turn of the century, and Richard introduced us to urban city life. So they kind of, in a way, did the same thing."

Does Newhart find it hard to reconcile his G-rated monologues with an admiration for Pryor, who worked in profanity like van Gogh did in oil?

"I've talked to Jerry Seinfeld about (not using profanity onstage). We just feel better at the end of the show. But at the same time, I don't find any problem with Richard Pryor and his language. I mean, that's fine for Richard. If Richard got up and said `Gosh darn it,' I'd feel cheated. He's using the vernacular, the language of the street."

"Sometimes it's done for shock value and other times it's done because that's the way it has to be done," he says. "I think you can distinguish when somebody's doing it for shock value and when somebody's doing it because that's the way it is."

Speaking of shock value, Newhart's frequent traveling partner and closest friend is comedian Don Rickles - who, Newhart allows, is a heavy tipper.

"He's trying to buy love. You go to Europe with him and they don't quite know what to make of this ranting, raving man who's insulting everyone."

In any case, 40 years ago, Newhart had to confront a true shock. He was scheduled to perform with Dinah Shore in Orange County, Calif., when President Kennedy was assassinated. After two days, the promoter asked Shore and Newhart to take the stage. They did, and, Newhart says, "it was one of the best audiences I've ever played to. It taught me something about comedy: that people just had to get away. They say, `Yeah, I know, but I can't do anything about it, and I'm just going to enjoy myself.' "