Fifty years ago this week, a failed Chicago accountant who became a comedian changed the face of American comedy. The young unknown did it without telling a single joke and, by his own admission, without saying anything that would strike casual listeners as particularly funny. But his comedy album, The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart, released May 6, 1960, was a groundbreaking event in American culture.
Bob Newhart, from Oak Park and St. Ignatius Prep, graduated from Loyola University in the early 1950’s and went into accounting. Soon after, his employer informed Bob he wasn’t cut out for the profession (Bob’s accounting motto was, “That’s close enough.”). A career change beckoned.
Turning to comedy, his signature routine, brilliant in its simplicity, was performing one end of a phone conversation, having his audience imagine the unheard other half. This depended on absurd premises such as a press agent instructing Abraham Lincoln on the best way to deliver the Gettysburg Address (“Abe, we test-marketed ‘Four score and seven years ago’, they went out of their minds”). Newhart’s approach was revolutionary – he played his own straight man, letting the audience fill in the jokes. His befuddled, stammering everyman character enhanced the effect.
Warner Brothers Records recorded his nightclub routine and released it as an album. An instant hit, it sold 600,000 copies and became the first comedy album to top the charts, remaining there for 14 weeks. It won the 1961 Grammy, the first comedy record to win Album of the Year and remains among the largest selling albums of all-time. Bob Newhart, only a few years removed from an accounting career, won the 1961 Grammy for Best New Artist, a first for any comedian.
In 1960, Warner Brothers Records was a fledgling label floundering financially, not the conglomerate it was destined to become. Jack Warner was rumored to be threatening to pull the plug when Newhart’s album (and “Cathy’s Clown” a hit by the Everly Brothers, who had been signed to an unprecedented million-dollar contract) basically rescued the failing label. Newhart’s success had immediate repercussions for Warner, allowing it to diversify into folk music, which, like comedy, was then a narrow niche market. The label soon signed a folksinging trio, Peter, Paul and Mary who capitalized on the nation’s growing interest in folk music, popularizing songs by an obscure new folksinger, Bob Dylan. The folk trend became the voice of the civil rights movement, featured prominently at the 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington, site of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
But besides rescuing Warner Records, The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart had a profounder impact, prompting a virtual comedy revolution. Before Newhart, comedy albums were never best sellers. During the later Eisenhower years, a cadre of comedians ventured from traditional joke and vaudeville humor into monologues and social commentary. This “avant-garde” included Lenny Bruce, Shelly Berman, Mort Sahl, and Elaine May teamed with Mike Nichols. With humor too edgy for early television and no outlets other than nightclubs, their appeal was confined to college campuses and “hip” enclaves like Greenwich Village and Hyde Park.
The mainstream popularity and blockbuster sales of The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart changed everything. Comedy albums and comedy careers took off as a result. New stars, including Bill Cosby, George Carlin and Richard Pryor, emerged. Comedy was essentially reinvented in the early 1960’s, bolstered by the sudden popularity of Chicago’s improv group, Second City, progenitor to Saturday Night Live.
Meanwhile, Bob Newhart continued his comic role of reacting to peoples’ absurdity in two popular TV series, playing a psychologist and then an innkeeper. His second show contains what many believe the best finale in TV comedy history (You Tube: ”Newhart finale”).
In 1998, the Kennedy Center asked Newhart to present the inaugural Mark Twain Prize for American Humor to a fellow Illinoisan, Richard Pryor. In his acceptance, Pryor, widely considered the best comedian of his generation, confessed to shoplifting a copy of The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart from his local hometown Peoria record shop as a young man. He wanted to study it to perfect his own routine. In his inimitable deadpan, Newhart replied in front of the august crowd, “Well then Richard, you owe me a quarter in royalties.”
Another contemporary, Johnny Carson, nonpareil host of The Tonight Show (forerunner to Jay/Conan/Dave), once analyzed comedy thusly, “Buy the premise, buy the bit”. Meaning if you accept the absurd situation the performer creates, you’ll laugh at things you wouldn’t otherwise find funny. Refined by Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, it’s the essence of modern comedy.
Taken for granted today, groundbreaking fifty years ago. Consider how annoying a public cellphone conversation can be. Bob Newhart’s genius was taking the one-way conversation as the premise and making audiences laugh at the bit, just as Carson explained.
If Woody Allen is the “neurotic nebbish” comic persona of New York, Bob Newhart is the “guy next-door” comic persona of Chicago. Newhart, honored with a bronze statue (in his psychologist’s chair) at Navy Pier’s entrance once said, “Laughter gives us distance. It allows us to step back from an event, deal with it and then move on.” Bob Newhart left accounting and helped comedy move on, into the 21st Century.
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