When Getting Laughs Got You a Grammy

A few months ago, I was trolling Wikipedia to disprove a friend’s rash claim that all Grammy Award winners for Album of the Year have been terrible. After I triumphantly pointed out No Jacket Required by Phil Collins, among others, I discovered that twice in the show’s history, the big award went to comedy acts. With the Grammys coming up this Sunday, I thought it’d be worth revisiting the time when comedy actually had a shot at the biggest award in music.

In 1961, deadpan superstar Bob Newhart won for his debut stand-up record, The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart: The Most Celebrated New Comedian since Attila. That title is representative of the slightly off-kilter, nice-guy humor of the album, which held the number one position on the Billboard charts for eight weeks in the summer of 1960.

In six sketches, Newhart plays characters like Abe Lincoln’s marketing guru and — in a track titled “The Cruise of the U.S.S. Codfish” — the mild-mannered captain of a submarine. Addressing his restless crew, Newhart-as-captain sounds like an accountant discussing last year’s budget, and it’s his understated tone mixed with his outlandish scenarios that make the album work.

“Looking back on the mutiny,” drones the captain, “I think a lot of the trouble stemmed from the fact that you men weren’t coming to me with your problems. As I’ve told you, the door to my office is always open. And you know why it’s open; because it was stolen.”

The comedy’s priceless as a kind of time capsule, and though it’s a little dated (one bit is based on woman-drivers), it’s calmly hilarious. In the opening sketch of the show, recorded only weeks after Newhart, a former ad-man, walked onstage for the first time, he imagines himself calling up Abe Lincoln to give him P.R. advice on The Gettysburg Address. Newhart’s impeccable timing has to be heard to be fully appreciated, but the following snippet should give a sense of it:

“Hey Abe, how are ya kid? How’s Gettysburg? Sort of a drag, eh? [. . .] Listen Abe, I got the note, what’s the problem? (Pause) You’re thinking of shaving it off? Abe, Don’t you see that’s part of the image?” Newhart, as the semi-sleazy press agent, then chastises our 16th president for choosing to wear a cardigan sweater instead of his customary string tie. And he takes exception to some of Lincoln’s imaginary edits to the speech: “You changed ‘four score and seven’ to ’87’? Abe, that’s meant to be a grabber. [Pause]. Abe, we test marketed that in Erie and they went out of their minds [. . .] Abe, do the speech the way Charlie wrote it, would you? The inaugural address swung, didn’t it?”

That sketch itself swings, and most of the others do, too. It’s especially fun to hear Newhart as a young man, telling jokes to what sounds like an audience of three dozen (cutlery is audible in the background). After the release, his audience grew rapidly, of course, and Button-Down Mind became the first comedy album ever to hit the top of the charts. At the ’61 Grammy’s, everyone’s favorite television innkeeper beat out Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Harry Belafonte, and Johannes Brahms(!) in what has to rank as one of the greatest upsets in the history of competition.

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Two years later, the impressionist Vaughn Meader scored his own astronomical hit with the album, The First Family, and took home the second and last Album of the Year award for a comedy act. Meader, as J.F.K., teamed with Naomi Brossart as Jackie to create gentle parodies of the Kennedy White House, and the album sold more than 7 million copies in its first year.

Though it’s a novelty record, and a novelty record closely pinned to a specific time period, The First Family delivers political punchlines that still resonate. So while Meader’s Mayor Quimby-esque inflection couldn’t be better, it’s the tweaking of officiousness that still seems current. In the best sketches, Meader plays Kennedy treating minor events in a forcefully presidential manner, and the live audience — watching the show on the same day the real Kennedy gave his Cuban Missile Crisis speech — can’t get enough.

In “After Dinner Conversations,” the family peppers President Kennedy as though he’s at a press conference. Jackie, who sounds here like a combination of Arianna Huffington and Kristen Wiig’s banana-eating SNL character, Shana, questions why he hasn’t touched his salad for days; Kennedy answers with a talking point: “Yes, let me say this about that. Now, number one, in my opinion the fault does not lie with the salad but with the dressing being used on the salad.”

Like Darrell Hammond impersonating Clinton, Meader can take a relatively bland line and squeeze it for all it’s worth, giving us a president who’s slick, lovable, and perfectly recognizable. Even his har-har jokes about the Kennedy accent land, as in the famous line from a sketch called “Auld Lang Syne.” After an off-key rendition of the song, Kennedy implores his family, “Now everybody take it togetheh, with vigah.” That “vigah” quickly entered the comedy pantheon and was oft-recited by delighted fans.

In fact, listening to The First Family, it’s easy to imagine those excited recitations, and the parties at which this record was played: the smell of the chicken à la king, the scotch on the rocks, the Endicotts laughing hard even though they voted for Nixon. The album was a fixture, a sensation, and Kennedy himself apparently ordered copies to give out as Christmas gifts. Through that winter season of 1962, it was the number one album in the country, and remained in that spot nine weeks into 1963, the last year of Kennedy’s life.

The First Family is a silly, innocent piece, but it’s hard to ignore the fact that so much was about to change in the country. Wonderfully, though, the album alludes to some of the deeper problems Kennedy faced, and so it’s a boon for comedy- and history-buffs alike. In the not-to-be-missed sketch “Economy Lunch,” Meader imagines Kennedy hosting various world leaders. Noting budget cuts, Kennedy decides to order food from a local deli. That Israel’s David Ben-Gurion and Egypt’s Abdel Nasser bond over pastrami and gefilte fish is enjoyable enough, but the best line of the album comes when China’s Chiang Kai-Shek orders a club sandwich. Kennedy asks, “Do you want mayo?” and Chiang yells, “Please not to mention that name!”

Castro and Khruschev figure largely into the album, too, giving it a tint of darkness. In the last sketch, Kennedy tells his daughter Caroline a bedtime story in which a “tall man with a lot of hair” defeats “an evil prince with a black beard from the island in the south” and “the terrible fat bear from the north,” saving his people and keeping everyone safe. It’s a great bit, if a little sad, and there’s something strangely haunting about the way Jackie talks to Jack in an earlier track, too: “Isn’t it nice being here alone. On a Saturday night. Just the two of us. For a change?” The sketch ends before the crowd knows whether it’s time to clap, and modern audiences will feel an odd twinge from moments like this, funny as the rest of the record is.

Meader and Brossart made a follow-up album, The First Family, Vol. 2, for release in the spring of ’63, but after Kennedy was killed that fall, both albums were taken out of stores and remainder copies destroyed. In March, Vaughn Meader had been the toast of the country: a celebrity in political circles with a sold-out show in Vegas and a household name. But, as The Washington Post wrote, “Mr. Meader’s career was stopped short when Kennedy was assassinated [. . .] It was also that day that Vaughn Meader died, he would say.” Indeed, Vaughn changed his name to Abbott and endured a period of substance abuse before settling, at the end of his life, in Maine. There, he returned to the stage, not as Kennedy, but as a bluegrass singer in out-of-the-way bars.

One of only two comedy stars to receive the recording industry’s top honor, Meader died in 2004 at the age of 68.

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Both The First Family and The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart evoke their era in an irreplaceable way. They’re full of courteous comedy, and the live audiences seem delightfully gullible in their responses, precious somehow. While the albums are undoubtedly of their time, though, we can still hear echoes of their style. Speaking about Newhart’s work in particular, Conan O’Brien has said, “He’s not begging for [laughs]. You have to go to him. It’s premise comedy and that’s king today.”

Well, it was certainly king then. Newhart is one of three acts, along with Nelly and Guns ‘n Roses, to hold both the first and second spots on the Billboard chart at the same time (his follow-up, The Button-Down Mind Strikes Back was also wildly successful). And as their Grammy awards attest, both Bob Newhart and Abbott Vaughn Meader were rock stars during a time when comedy albums had a secure place on the Hi-fi and wide appeal in middle America.

David Wanczyk is a huge fan of Larry, Darryl, and especially Darryl. He remembers exactly where he was the day the last episode of Newhart was shot.

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