An Appreciation of the Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart
Quick Warning: This article spoils a minor plot point from the first episode of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Reading this won’t ruin your enjoyment of the show, but you’re (probably) a good person, so you deserve a heads-up.
When did you become aware of Bob Newhart? While it’s not a fool-proof theory, I believe your answer to that question can determine your age: just subtract 15 years from the pop culture artifact you use to answer the question. Was it as the comedian that Joel Maisel steals material from? Teri Hatcher’s mom’s boyfriend on Desperate Housewives? Buddy the elf’s adopted father? An accidental mourner at Krusty the Clown’s funeral? The star of Newhart? The star of The Bob Newhart Show? The standup comedian on the phone all the time? I guess if you go further back and say “that guy who went to St. Ignatius Prep with me,” my theory falls apart, but my point has been made: not only has Bob been an institution in the world of comedy for more than a quarter century at this point, his style and personae endure and remain as funny as ever.
Today we look back at the 1960 comedy album, The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart, an album that changed not only the life of the guy who recorded it, but the very face of comedy and the way the world experienced standup, forever.
In 1958, Newhart was working as a copywriter in Chicago for a film and television producer. It was here that he and a co-worker developed a routine where they would invent one-sided phone calls revolving around crazy scenarios. The pair recorded a sample of these, which they shopped around to local radio stations. None of them bit, his partner dropped out, and Bob went solo.
Around the same time, Warner Bros. decided to branch into the music business, already owning a vast library of publishing rights from their films, and launched Warner Bros. Records. The label had the soundtrack business locked up with their first major hit being the soundtrack to the series 77 Sunset Strip. Beyond that, however, things were dismal. Outside of their film tie-ins, Wikipedia describes one of their primary genres of music as the “middle-of-the-road” type, designed to be inoffensive to as many people as possible. Additionally, they released several spoken word albums and a number of novelty records with titles like Music for People with $3.98 (Plus Tax If Any), Terribly Sophisticated Songs: A Collection of Unpopular Songs for Popular People, and But You’ve Never Heard Gershwin with Bongos.
A Chicago DJ by the name of Dan Sorkin introduced Newhart to some Warner Brothers executives that were coming through to look for talent by talking to Dan and several other disc jockeys in the area. In an interview for the PBS documentary Make ‘Em Laugh, Newhart recalls: “Dan called me up, he said, ‘Put what you have on tape and I’ll play it for them.’ So I put them on tape, brought it down there, they listened to it. And they said, ‘Okay, okay, we’ll give you a recording contract, and we’ll record your next nightclub.’ And I said, ‘Well, we have kind of problem there — I’ve never played a nightclub.’ So they said, ‘Well, we’ll have to get you into a nightclub.’”
And so, as Bob Newhart performed his material in front of a live audience for the very first time, The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart came to be.
Well, pretty much. The first recording was unusable because Newhart was audibly nervous throughout the entire performance. The second night, a drunk woman in the audience kept yelling, “That’s a bunch of crap!” ruining that recording. The third night, though— that was the winner.
When listening to the album in the 21st century, the thing that immediately strikes the listener is how it is unlike anything being done in modern standup. Newhart’s performance on the record probably shares more DNA with sketch or storytelling than it does standup, but it packs just as many laughs as any comedian’s most well-honed chunk. The short version is, Newhart performs conversations, most famously over the telephone, but also in imaginary cars, or as public addresses, in which the audience only hears one side. This allows Newhart to use his expert skills in timing to pause and build anticipation as the audience waits as the person on the other end responds to Bob, eagerly awaiting the next deadpan response to whatever ridiculousness our put-upon performer is forced to deal with.
But even more subtle in Newhart’s comedy is his ability to marry the modern innovation with the relatable. There are six tracks on his debut album, and with only one exception (and it’s really only two half-exceptions, a concept that I just invented and will explain in a moment), there really isn’t anything on this album recorded 57 years ago that is stuck in time. Let’s do a quick run-through.
“Abe Lincoln vs. Madison Avenue”
Easily Bob’s most famous bit, and one of the three that he had written prior to receiving a record contract, Bob examines the brave new world of the Madison Avenue advertising executive and imagines a world in which he must groom President Lincoln into the icon he was. On his end of the conversation, we hear him attempting to convince Abe to keep the beard and the outfit, as it fits with the image they’ve created. “Four score and seven years ago” sounds so much better than “87 years ago.” Just read it the way Charlie wrote it. But even once you remove the veneer of Gettysburg, this is a routine about dealing with someone at work who just doesn’t get it — the exasperation one feels when having to gently explain why their ideas are awful and why you are the voice of reason. Everyone knows that feeling, and wrapping it in the absurdity of Lincoln and an ad agent only serves to make the universal even stronger as it breaks through the time-space continuum.
“The Crisis of the U.S.S. Codfish”
The captain of this Navy submarine that is addressing his crew after being out to sea for two full years walks the opposite line. No longer dealing with someone who is completely wrong, now Bob attempts to bring forth one final rally from a group of men who have been wronged and have lost their patience with their captain long ago. The jokes begin more generally as the captain reminds them that they’ll soon be reunited with their “loved ones… in some cases, your wives.” Slowly we get a picture of what life on the Codfish has been like as the captain insists that no one enjoys a joke more than himself, but “I’d like the executive officer returned. …it’s been over two weeks, men.” But the strongest punch comes after a brief pause as the captain collects his thoughts before launching into, “Uh, looking back on the mutiny…”
“Merchandising the Wright Brothers”
This piece, significantly shorter than the other two tracks on side A, was also the first new piece Bob wrote for the album and follows a similar trajectory as “Lincoln,” only this time it’s about marketing the airplane. Speaking to Orville Wright, Bob tries to figure out how many people they can lay on the wings, whether or not they can get a john on there, and how many 120-feet flights it’ll take to get to California.
“The Kruschev Landing Rehearsal”
This routine imagines the camera rehearsal for the Russian leader’s visit to America. It’s the first half-exception to my dated comment. Yes, the Kruschev specifics are very 1960, like the director telling the camera man to focus on the “short, stocky guy in the grey suit… looks like he slept in it? That’s him,” but the core of the bit, concerning the overproduced fakery of television, is just applicable to today’s reality shows, if not more so.
And here’s the other half-exception. Bob plays a harried driving instructor, hanging on for dear life as he attempts to teach an incredibly bad driver how not to back into traffic or to check the rear-view mirror before backing into a car. It’s a very funny bit and features some of Bob’s best acting on the record as he tries to remain calm in spite of his near-death experience. Things get a little uncomfortable in the modern day, however, as the bit trades primarily on the stereotype of “the woman driver” (but if you can accept the fact that this particular woman is a really bad driver and it has nothing to do with her sex, then it’s a fun time).
“Nobody Will Ever Play Baseball”
Closing out side 2 is one final bit written expressly for this album, in which Bob plays a game manufacturer being pitched the incredibly complicated rules for baseball when all he really wants is a game that couples can play inside after they get a little smashed. Bob keeps asking clarifying questions about the game that we already know the answers to, slowly revealing just how intricate and insane the rules of America’s pastime are when you enter into it with absolutely no prior knowledge.
It’s a tight album, running just over half an hour, and is packed to the brim with jokes. 1960s audiences loved it too, and it immediately jumped to the top of the Billboard Top 40, staying at that slot for 14 weeks, staying on the chart for more than two years, and selling more than 600,000 copies. Smelling a hit, Warner Bros. rushed out a sequel, The Button-Down Mind Strikes Back!, later that year which also went to number 1, pushing the original down to the number 2 spot. These two albums occupied the top two spots for nearly 30 weeks, a record that wouldn’t be broken until 1991 by Guns N’Roses. Bob says on the loss, “Well you hate to lose a record but at least it went to a friend.”
The music community was quick to recognize Newhart as well. The Button-Down Mind became the first (of two) comedy album to win a Grammy for Album of the Year, and Bob remains the only comedian to ever win a Grammy as Best New Artist. Newhart created a masterpiece, changed what a standup performance could be, and recorded the 20th best-selling album of all time on the Billboard charts.
Not too bad for your first time on stage.