August 2003

An Accounting Sense of Humor

By William E. Huffman, Ph.D., CPA

Some time ago, The CPA Journal asked its readers: If you could go back in time and do it all over again, would you still become an accountant? The vast majority of respondents have said “yes!” But probably some readers are less happy in their present positions and may question themselves, “Why am I an accountant?” I doubt, however, that they regret earning an accounting degree and a professional designation such as the CPA. I’m sure they also don’t regret starting out as an accountant. Many people have left the accounting profession and been extremely successful in their new professions due in part to their start as an accountant.

One such person is the comedian and actor Bob Newhart, who stereotyped himself as an accountant by stating in an interview with Accountant’s World in 2000, “The truth is, I look like an accountant, which was my trouble. I looked the part of an accountant, so I’d get hired as an accountant even though I got my degree in management.”

Every semester I ask my students: What famous actor used to be an accountant? One semester when the guessing was over and they had finally figured out it was Bob Newhart, someone blurted, “Bob Newhart? Who’s Bob Newhart?” Newhart, of course, had two extremely successful television shows in the 1970s and 1980s, and his career in nightclubs, television, and movies now spans almost half a century.

George Robert Newhart graduated from Loyola University of Chicago in 1952 with a Bachelor’s of Science degree in Commerce. Upon graduation, he spent two years in the U.S. Army, after which he worked as an accountant in the engineering department of U.S. Gypsum in Chicago. A biography published in 1988 quoted Newhart talking about this phase of his life:

My theory of accounting was that as long as you got within two or three bucks of it, you were all right. But that didn’t catch on … At the end of the day I had to balance the petty cash with the slips—every time you give out money you had to get a slip. It had to balance. Well, I’d be there for three or four hours tying to figure out where the last dollar or dime went to. So finally I’d just take it out of my pocket and I’d put it in. If there were two dollars leftover, I’d take it out … And they told me you can’t do that. You gotta find it. I said, “you’re paying me five dollars an hour to find two cents—it doesn’t make sense.” So I wasn’t a very good accountant.

Newhart’s coworkers from those years say he wasn’t as bad an accountant as he claims. He was probably as likable then as he is now.

Newhart started out writing and performing skits on radio while still working as an accountant. He also performed in a theatrical stock company in Chicago. Although he believed he would have to work for several more years as an accountant, his big break came in 1960, with the release of his comedy album “The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart.” It became one of only 15 albums to sell more than a million copies that year and received two Grammy Awards, for Best Comedy Performance and Best New Artist, and was the first comedy album to reach No. 1 on the record charts. His follow-up album in 1961, “The Buttoned-Down Mind Strikes Back,” also hit No. 1 on the charts and won a Grammy Award. The two albums set a record for the longest simultaneous No. 1 and No. 2 records on the charts, a record that stood for more than 25 years.

His 1988 biography quotes Newhart as saying that if he hadn’t taken a gamble with comedy he would still be an accountant: “Keep in mind, when I started in the late fifties, I didn’t say to myself, ‘Oh, here’s a great void to fill—I’ll be a balding ex-accountant who specializes in low-key humor.’ That’s simply what I was and that’s the direction my mind always went in, so it was natural for me to be that way.”

Newhart has appeared in several movies, even portraying a cost accountant in a 1980 made-for-TV movie. In the early 1960s he won an Emmy and a Peabody award for a short-lived variety series, but he’s most famous for his two highly successful situation comedies that will probably run forever in syndication.

“The Bob Newhart Show,” costarring Suzanne Pleshette, aired from 1972 to 1978. In 1997, TV Guide selected two episodes for its 100 greatest sitcom episodes of all time. “Newhart,” co-starring the late Mary Frann, aired from 1982 until 1990. In 1996, TV Guide ranked this series’ final episode as fifth in the 100 most memorable moments in TV history, calling it “unquestionably, the cleverest sitcom finale in TV history.” The episode—and the series—ended with Newhart waking up in bed with Pleshette, his wife Emily from “The Bob Newhart Show,” telling her about this crazy dream he’d had—everything that had happened during eight seasons of “Newhart.”

Newhart was inducted into the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame in 1993, and in 1996 TV Guide ranked him No. 17 of the 50 greatest TV stars of all time. In October 2002 Newhart received the Kennedy Center’s fifth Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.

Newhart continues to tour and perform his famous stand-up routines, brainy comedy that doesn’t try to shock the audience. Newhart leaves blanks and pauses in his one-person phone routines to try to get his audience actively involved. This style could come only from an accountant.

Newhart is an avid golfer, a favorite pastime of many accountants. Just think of all the great moments in comedy we would have missed out on if Bob Newhart had not been an accountant! Indeed, Newhart still reminisces about those days. In his 1988 biography, he said, “There are some days when I wish I were still sitting there with my green eyeshade and a garter on my sleeve … Show business can get frantic, but on the whole I would say that my demise as an accountant was mutually beneficial to all concerned.” He acknowledges an irrational fear that one day someone will tap him on the shoulder and say, “Sorry, Bob, but it’s all been a big mistake—you’ve got to return all the money and go back to being an accountant.”

And people say accountants don’t have a sense of humor.

William E. Huffman, PhD, CPA, is an assistant professor in the School of Business Administration of Missouri Southern State University–Joplin.

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