In February 1960, an accountant-turned-comic named Bob Newhart walked into the Tidelands Club in Houston to record his first comedy album for Warner Bros. Records, which had just signed the relative unknown. But there was a slight problem. While Warner Bros. had heard some of Newhart's taped routines and thought the Chicago native was quite funny and inventive, the comic had very little stand-up experience. So the Houston audience was handpicked for Newhart. Which seemed to help. Even though he experienced stage fright -- sometimes even hiding behind set pieces -- he delivered six comedy routines in that stammering, regular-guy fashion that has since made him famous.
After a few takes, Warner Bros. had a record: The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart, an album fueled by Newhart's one-sided conversations, including the classic "Driving Instructor" and "Abe Lincoln vs. Madison Avenue" routines that have become his specialty. Seemingly out of nowhere, The Button-Down Mind became the first comedy album to top the Billboard charts, spending an amazing 14 weeks at No. 1 and 67 weeks in the Top 40.
While comics like Lenny Bruce, Shelley Berman, Mike Nichols and Elaine May were pushing the boundaries of nightclub comedy, Newhart was more like the guy next door who just happened to be intelligent. But he was also soft around the edges; heck, he didn't have any edges.
He just had a timing that made his act impossible to plagiarize. "I don't think it's something you can teach," Newhart says. "It's innate to the extent that if you're musical, you just hear it. It's a 32nd note, not a 16th note. I've always felt there's a little guy on my shoulder, and he would just tap me on my shoulder and say, "Now.' I really don't try to examine comedy too much, because I'm afraid it will go away, and I will stop being funny."
Not that he has anything to worry about. He's been called the comic everyman, and it's in that role that he set high-water marks for the sitcom genre with The Bob Newhart Show and Newhart. "It's just your natural way of looking at life," Newhart says of his comedic gifts. "You see things differently. You have a mind for that."
Despite those timid beginnings, Newhart has always gone back to his stand-up roots when between television series. He loves the immediacy of the live performance, and who can blame him? The timing of a hearty laugh is always perfect. Whether he'll ever do another TV series or stick with stand-up, he's not sure. Not that it matters. We'll make a point to see our old friend Bob on a sitcom or at a nightclub or wherever. "It's like an old pair of shoes," Newhart says with a laugh when explaining his longevity. "It's very comfortable. It sounds like a put-down, but it isn't."
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