The surprisingly subversive album that changed stand-up comedy forever

The surprisingly subversive album that changed stand-up comedy forever

In We’re No. 1, The A.V. Club examines an album that went to No. 1 on the Billboard charts to get to the heart of what it means to be popular in pop music, and how that concept has changed over the years. In this installment, we cover The Button-Down Mind Of Bob Newhart, which went to No. 1 on July 25, 1960, where it stayed for 14 non-consecutive weeks. 

George Robert “Bob” Newhart certainly didn’t look like a visionary. Nothing about his receding hairline, businessman dress, and plainspoken, Midwestern manner suggested that he’d revolutionize anything, much less comedy. He looked every bit like an accountant, which was in fact his day job. In 1959, no one outside of a few people in his hometown of Chicago knew Bob Newhart. A year later, he would be a superstar. 

The 1950s were the last gasp of old-school stand-up comedy, “a time in which comedians, clad like band leaders in spats and tuxes, sporting cap-and-bells names like Joey, Jackie, or Jerry, announced themselves by their brash, anything-for-a-laugh, charred-earth policy and by-the-jokebook gags,” writes Gerald Nachman in Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians Of The 1950s And 1960s. The performance was quasi-vaudevillian with a barrage of one-liners—think Milton Berle, Joey Bishop, Henny Youngman, or even Abbott And Costello.

Stand-up in those days was a “sweat act,” as Conan O’Brien once described to NPR. “I think that was an old vaudeville term… Someone is a sweat act, someone who’s running around and begging for the audience to laugh.” Bob Newhart, O’Brien said, was the opposite of a sweat act. “Bob Newhart is kind of the iconic image of the comedian whose timing and his material is so good he’s not begging for it, you know? You have to go to him.”

In the early ’50s, change started to bubble up from the underground as a new breed of comedians shunned that hamminess in favor of something realer. By 1959, it had become a bona fide movement, as a group of comedians in their early 30s shaped a new comedy paradigm: Lenny Bruce, Jonathan Winters, Mort Sahl, Shelley Berman, Mike Nichols and Elaine May, and Tom Lehrer. Time magazine labeled them “the sickniks” in a condescending story about the changing face of comedy. “What the sickniks dispense is partly social criticism liberally laced with cyanide, partly a Charles Addams kind of jolly ghoulishness, and partly a personal and highly disturbing hostility toward all the world,” said the article. 

It was, to use a cliché, the original alt-comedy. The story could pretty much run as-is in 2013 by swapping out “sicknik” with “alternative comedian.” “This is an age of genocide. Falling on a banana peel used to be funny, but now it takes more to shock us. And there is no more fun in the old comedians. People nowadays would rather be hurt than bored.” The only way to know that’s a quote from decades ago is to realize that Nelson Algren said it. Another quote from an old-school comedian—“Those guys tried their hardest to make it our way; when they couldn’t, they switched”—could just as easily come from Larry The Cable Guy now as it did from Joey Bishop in the Time story. 

Although Bob Newhart would come to be associated with the sickniks, he isn’t mentioned in the Time article. In 1959, Newhart was in the third year of a one-year plan to make it as a comedian. “I set aside a year, and then a year became two, and two became three,” he once told PRI. To alleviate some of the boredom of his office job, he would call his friend Ed Gallagher as a character he made up. Gallagher would respond as a different character. They were imitating the radio comedy team Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding, and in time, they started to record their calls and sell the records to radio stations. Eventually, Gallagher moved to New York, but Newhart kept writing bits as if he were on the phone. The audience would hear Newhart’s half of the conversation. It would become his signature.

“I don’t know how he came up with that device of the telephone,” O’Brien says in that NPR story. “But for his rhythm, it’s absolutely perfect because you’re hearing one side of the conversation. You’re filling in the other side yourself, which I think makes it 50 percent funnier.”

In his most famous bit, “Abe Lincoln Vs. Madison Ave.”—“The best piece of writing I ever did,” he says—Newhart portrayed an advertising/publicity executive, what would be called a “branding expert” today, who tries to keep Lincoln on message at Gettysburg. 

Another bit found Newhart addressing sailors on the submarine U.S.S. Codfish after a record-setting, continuous two-year voyage.

A Chicago DJ named Dan Sorkin was familiar with Newhart and mentioned him to some people he new from Warner Bros. Records. The new label had been started by the eponymous movie studio as a way to release soundtracks and albums by the studio’s stars, but it was floundering. Newhart recorded some of his bits onto a tape recorder, and he and Sorkin played them for Warners’ head of A&R, George Avakian—who had signed and/or produced artists like Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck, Duke Ellington, and more for Columbia Records—when he visited Chicago. Newhart wrote about the meeting in his memoir, I Shouldn’t Even Be Doing This!

“George loved the routines and thought they might make a funny album. When I met with George, he told me to let him know the next time I played in front of an audience so he could send a team of engineers to record the performance. He felt the interplay with the audience would make a much better record than a studio recording. That sounded fine, but there was one small problem: I had never played a nightclub.”

Because Newhart’s routines were all more or less based around a phone, he had never attempted to perform them like a traditional stand-up. That had to change. He signed with Frank “Tweet” Hogan, who managed Berman and Nichols and May, and Hogan spent five months looking for a venue that would host an unknown comedian. Finally, Hogan booked Newhart at the Tidelands Club at Houston’s Tideland Motor Inn, a tony destination for the city’s movers and shakers in the ’50s and ’60s. Newhart spent two weeks workshopping his material, because he only had enough for half an album at that point: “Abe Lincoln Vs. Madison Avenue,” “The Driving Instructor,” and “The Cruise Of The U.S.S. Codfish.” During those weeks working on new material, he created “The Wright Brothers,” and another that would become a signature bit, “Nobody Will Ever Play Baseball.”

Eventually, he had enough material and blocked off four shows over two nights in February of 1960 to record. “The first night there was a drunken woman in the front row who kept yelling out through the entire set, ‘This is a bunch of crap,’” Newhart would later say. She rendered both Friday shows unusable, but he had enough from Saturday to round out The Most Celebrated Comedian Since Attila The Hun—a title Warner Bros. nixed. Because four of the album’s six tracks were about advertising or marketing, one of label’s publicity people had an idea.

“At the time, the uniform of the day on Madison Avenue was the button-down collar, so someone made the connection and I became synonymous with this ad slogan,” Newhart writes in I Shouldn’t Even Be Doing This! “It’s a catchy phrase, but I had nothing to do with it.” The theme would continue on subsequent Newhart releases: The Button-Down Mind Strikes Back (1960), Behind The Button-Down Mind Of Bob Newhart (1961), and The Button-Down Mind On TV (1962). Warner Bros. let him use the Attila line as a subtitle on the first album.

The album was supposed to be released that April, but Newhart couldn’t find it anywhere in Chicago. Not that he was expecting much; “We thought it might be a nice adjunct to a nightclub career,” Newhart said in that NPR story. But a call to Warner Bros. shocked him. “They told me it was already out and that they were shipping every available copy to Minneapolis because it was flying off the shelves there,” thanks to some regional radio play. 

By July, it had moved from a regional to a national phenomenon and topped the Billboard charts, beating Elvis and the Sound Of Music soundtrack and selling more than 200,000 copies. “We couldn’t press the records fast enough,” said Warner Bros. Records president James Conkling in With Amusement For All: A History Of American Popular Culture Since 1830. They didn’t even know how to classify what was happening; at the time, comedy albums were musically oriented novelty albums, not stand-up recordings in the modern sense. “The format was so new that it was called a ‘spoken-word’ album, not a comedy album,” Newhart writes in I Shouldn’t Even Be Doing This! It became the first “spoken comedy” album to sell more than a million copies. 

Warner Bros. immediately wanted another album, so that summer and fall, Newhart recorded another set of shows in clubs in Minneapolis and San Francisco. The Button-Down Mind Strikes Back! emerged later that year and hit No. 1 on Billboard in January, sharing chart space with the original Button-Down Mind. At one point, the albums occupied the No. 1 and No. 2 spots in the comedy category, above other sickniks like Jonathan Winters, Shelley Berman, and Mort Sahl. The fringe had become mainstream.

That April, the third annual Grammy Awards drove that point home: Newhart took home three awards: Best New Artist, Album Of The Year for The Button-Down Mind (beating Frank Sinatra—who was not pleased—Nat King Cole, and Harry Belafonte), and Best Comedy Performance-Spoken Word for The Button-Down Mind Strikes Back. Newhart remains the only comedian who’s ever won Best New Artist, and only four people have ever won both Best New Artist and Album Of The Year (Newhart, Christopher Cross, Lauryn Hill, and Norah Jones). 

In Revel With A Cause: Liberal Satire In Postwar America, Stephen E. Kercher notes that Newhart’s broad appeal came from his “little man” persona. “With his diffident, easygoing manner and this three-button suit, there appeared to be little threatening about this fellow middle-class Organization Man.” 

Newhart wasn’t confronting people like Lenny Bruce, but his material had teeth. It mocked corporate culture, the emptiness of manipulative marketing, bureaucracy, and all aspects of “the impersonal corporate bigness in modern life,” as he once described. “Humor was the only way I could retain my sanity.” His style may have appeared non-threatening, but that was a ruse. “He pricks bombastic balloons, disembowels stuffed shirts,” wrote The Saturday Evening Post. “He performs the operation so deftly the pompous are unaware they’re being eviscerated.”

That skill propelled Bob Newhart through more albums, two massively popular TV shows, The Bob Newhart Show (1972-1978) and Newhart (1982-1990), and status as one of the most successful and revered comedians of all time. He may have had a button-down mind, but he had a sicknik’s heart.

Next: Genevieve Koski on Backstreet Boys’ Millennium.

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