Bob Newhart encountered a major setback when he recorded his chart-topping, Grammy Award-winning debut comedy album, “The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart,” at a Texas nightclub in early 1960.
The setback had nothing to do with the fact that – until two weeks earlier – the former Chicago accountant had never done a single stand-up performance in his life and was unknown to his Houston audience. Nor was it related to the fact that Newhart, who became a standout TV sitcom star in the 1970s, arrived in Texas with just three routines and had to quickly write three more for the flip side of his first album.
Instead, the setback came in the form of a very drunk man, seated in the front row. He repeatedly interrupted the neophyte comedian’s act, as the tapes were rolling, on the first evening of the deadpan Newhart’s two-day Texas nightclub stand. The fact that the performance featured such future classics as “Driving Instructor,” “Nobody Will Ever Play Baseball” and “Abe Lincoln vs. Madison Ave.” didn’t deter the drunk in the least.
“He kept yelling, throughout my set: ‘That’s a bunch of crap! That’s a bunch of crap! That’s a bunch of crap!’ ” a bemused Newhart recalled, speaking May 4 from his home in Los Angeles.
“We went and listened to the recording after the show, and you could hear the drunk better than you could hear me. That left the two Saturday night shows to record, which we did.”
Heckle-free, “The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart” came out on May 6, 1960. Its soon-to-be-famous star was unaware of its release at the time.
“Four months after we recorded it, a friend of mine in Chicago asked me, ‘What ever happened to that comedy album you were going to do?’” Newhart said.
“I called Warner Bros. Records, and said: ‘Hi, I’m Bob Newhart. I recorded a comedy album for you and I’m calling to find out what happened to it.’ They said: ‘It’s selling great in Minneapolis!’ And it was. That was the first inkling I had that something was happening.”
The album topped the national Billboard sales charts. While it still held the No. 1 position, Newhart’s follow-up album, “The Button-Down Mind Strikes Back,” was released.
It rose to the No. 2 spot on the Billboard charts, making him the first comedian to simultaneously have the top two bestselling albums in the United States. In 1961, he also became a TV star with “The Bob Newhart Show,” a variety series. It aired for only a single season, but won a Peabody Award in the process.
His third album, “Behind the Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart,” came out in 1961, followed by “The Button-Down Mind on TV” in 1962.
“All this material was stored up inside me and it just poured out until, probably, three years later. And then, all of a sudden, it didn’t pour out like that and took its time,” said Newhart, whose iconic use of a telephone in his routines was saluted in the 2017 debut episode of the hit TV series “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”
Newhart is one of the few comedians to have starred in two separate hit TV sitcoms a decade apart, first in the 1970s as a Chicago psychologist, then in the 1980s as a New England innkeeper. He was introduced to a new generation through his appearances on “The Big Bang Theory” (for which he won a 2013 Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actor) and its spinoff series, “Young Sheldon.”
As sharp and witty now at 90 as most comedians half his age, Newhart spoke for more than 40 minutes for this interview. Here are edited excerpts from that conversation.
Q: To have your debut comedy album beat out Frank Sinatra, Harry Belafonte, Nat “King” Cole and two classical music releases for the Album of the Year Grammy Award, as you did in 1961, seems improbable. How did you react to winning, and how did Sinatra, Belafonte and Cole react to your winning?
A: I never found out how Frank felt about it. But I don’t think he was thrilled, because he was nominated for one of his great albums (“Nice ‘n’ Easy,”). To get beat out by some kid who had never done a stand-up comedy act before, I don’t think he would have been too happy.
Q: You were very good friends with Don Rickles, and Don was good friends with Sinatra. Were you friends with Sinatra, too?
A: Yeah, I got to know Frank after a while. We all had beach houses in Malibu and we’d go to their house, or they’d come to ours, or we’d both go to Don’s. I got to know Frank, and he was an incredible talent, but I kind of had a tiger by the tail.
Q: Sinatra’s singing was similar to Miles Davis’ trumpet playing, in that they both let their music breathe, emphasizing the space between the notes as much as the notes. Your comedic timing used pauses very effectively, especially in your routines that you conducted as telephone conversations. Your delivery was always so relaxed.
A: There is some kind of connection between music, math and comedy. I don’t know what it is, but I’m sure that it exists. The timing and the pauses are very important. You have to let the audience have time to give them an idea of what is being said at the other end of the conversation. The secret – and I did not know this at the time I started doing the telephone routines – is that the audience is doing the heavy lifting. They’re supplying what you don’t hear. So when they applaud at the end, they’re really applauding themselves for figuring what the other end of the conversation was. Marshall McLuhan talked about ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ media. The phone made the routines a hot medium for the audience through their participation in the conversations. They were involved.
Q: Comedy made a big shift around 1960 to a more contemporary and situational approach, championed by a younger generation of performers. Were you aware of that shift at the time, or only in hindsight?
A: I was aware of it, and it wasn’t just me. It was Mike Nichols and Elaine May, Shelley Berman, Lenny Bruce, Jonathan Winters and myself. Growing up, I was a huge fan of (the comedy duo) Bob and Ray, so what we did was a departure. All of a sudden, there was a social edge to comedy that I don’t think existed before. . And it was largely because of the college students (in our audience) at the time. I think most changes in the world come from college students, and then they become part of the establishment. I always had the feeling that a stand-up comedian, at the time I started, was an iconoclastic kind of guy who was always finding something wrong with the system and making fun of it – an anarchist, really. Stand-up comedians are basically anarchists. They want to take the system and shake it all up.
Q: Was it an advantage that you looked like a button-down member of the establishment at the time?
A: (laughing) Yeah, definitely! Of course, they couldn’t look at me (while listening to my records). But I had a stammer, which I still have, and that’s my way of talking . After my first album came out, a writer from the New York Times came to see me, and he said I was biting the hand that fed me, which was true. Because I was making fun of the corporate mentality and (the concept of) merchandising Abe Lincoln, the Wright Brothers and Abner Doubleday. All that was a change, a social change, that happened in comedy. And I happened to be part of it.
Q: Hindsight being twenty-twenty, was flunking out of Lolyola University law school one of the best things that happened to you?
A: (laughing) Well, of course! My explanation was that I’d go to classes at Loyola in the morning and then work as a law clerk in the afternoon to pay for my education. At night, I was in a stock comedy group. So something had to give, and it was law. Now, that’s my explanation. My decision to leave law school was somewhat hastened by Loyola’s decision to flunk me.
Q: Did your background as an accountant help you parse your recording and TV contracts?
A: No, no, no! I always said that if I had stayed in accounting, the Enron corporation would still be in business. Because no one could figure out my books. I wasn’t a great accountant, at all. But it was math, which is part of comedy, and I was always good at math. It seemed like the simplest thing in the world . I gave myself a year; it was back to accounting if comedy didn’t work out . I advise young comedians that, when they’re starting out, to disguise their voice a little. That way it’s not you out there, it’s this persona you create with kind of an odd voice. Then try a routine and see if it works, and push it a little further the next night, and push it a little further the night after that. And then, one night, you’ll drop that (persona) and it will be you out there. But find some place to hide behind while you’re you’re discovering you.
Q: But you didn’t do that, did you? You didn’t disguise your voice or create a persona.
A: No! It was just bravado. When I was starting out (doing stand-up), in my first year I was opening for Peggy Lee at Harrah’s in Lake Tahoe. I did 18 minutes on stage and then watched her show. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. I was getting laughs for 18 minutes and then I’d go to the back of the club and watch Peggy Lee do “Fever” every night. It doesn’t get any better than that. One night when I opened for Peggy, I did my 18 minutes, came off stage and they were applauding, so the stage manager said: “Go back out.” I said: “But that’s all (the material) I have!” And he said: “Well, go back out.” So I went back out on stage and they were still applauding. And I said: “Which (routine) would you like to hear again?” Then I repeated the routine. That’s how green I was!
Q: You were doing stand-up dates on the road as recently as last fall. If the coronavirus crisis had not happened, would you be touring now?
A: Yeah, it’s my first love, as long as I’m physically able to do it. The gratification is immediate, and the shock is immediate, too, when it doesn’t work! I think that the impetus for me is having the danger of failing. Not to fail, but to succeed against the possibility of failure. . People say to me, “You’re 90, why do you keep doing stand-up?” And I always say, “Well, the alternative is (like the classic 1950 movie) ‘Sunset Boulevard.’ ” You sit in your darkened den and Erich von Stroheim knocks on the door, comes in, and asks you, “What episode of ‘The Bob Newhart Show” or ‘Newhart’ do you want to watch?” I’m not ready for that.