The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart, 1960
Comedy gold, one phone call at a time.
Bob Newhart is certainly the world’s most successful former accountant. His debut comedy album, The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart, was the first comedy album to win a Grammy award for Album of the Year, and he is the only comedian to win for Best New Artist. Billboard Magazine lists the album as the 20th best-selling album of all time. Not bad for a guy onstage with a prop phone.
As a kid, I learned a lot about history through my parents’ collection of 1960s comedy albums. On this album’s “Khrushchev Landing Rehearsal” routine, we get a peek into the attempts to make light of cold war fears, two years before the Cuban Missile Crisis. (“Make a note; we’re going to have to spray his head.”)
However, while the premise of routines like “The Driving Instructor” may seem old-fashioned (women drivers), they are really about trying to stay positive and upbeat on the job in the face of incompetence. In short: customer service. And the genius of Bob Newhart is that this album isn’t a perfect capsule of its time – it’s just as true today. “The Cruise of the U.S.S. Codfish” and especially “Abe Lincoln vs. Madison Avenue” get more and more relevant with each passing year.
The main thing, of course, is that Bob Newhart is funny. His routines are the perfect balance of the ordinary with the extraordinary. And as a straight man in a one-sided conversation, he lets the audience fill in the gaps, bring them into the routine.
In a recent interview, Newhart explains: “So at the end, when you finish, they applauded, but they really were applauding themselves on how clever they were to figure out what was going on on the other [side], so they were involved. They weren’t just passively sitting back and listening to something.”
Newhart’s timing is always impeccable. He said later that in the early days he didn’t have a lot of control over how the albums were mixed, and was especially disappointed in the way the pauses were shortened. That’s hard to imagine, because the timing of Newhart’s routines on this album seem to use jewel bearings. Listen to “The Driving Instructor” (especially the “flashing red light” bit) and you’ll see what I mean.
As terrific as the album is, the circumstances that went in to its production were pretty unlikely. Newhart hadn’t even performed in front of an audience before getting the record deal. Check out this fascinating BBC radio documentary about putting the album together.
It’s hard to pin down a favorite from the album, but I guess it would have to be Abe Lincoln. It’s such a smart routine, and so funny the way it dismantles the myth of Lincoln to produce a more familiar brand of politician. And of course, it has the best ending punch line ever.
One listen to this album and you’ll be grateful that Newhart’s career as an accountant didn’t take off. Accountancy’s loss is definitely our gain.