Bob Newhart streams his classic bits as they were meant to be heard
For the first time in his six-decade career, the comedian brings his iconic cable TV special to digital platforms.
In 1959, an accountant named Bob Newhart was trying his hand at stand-up comedy in Chicago. Soft-spoken, dressed in a leisure suit, the unknown comic was reinventing the genre, and he didn’t even know it.
By 1960, everyone in the country knew his name, thanks to “The Button-Down Mind Of Bob Newhart,” a groundbreaking comedy album that sat at the No. 1 spot on the charts for more than three months. His days as an accountant were over; he would go on to get his paychecks by making people laugh —for the next 60 years (and counting).
Recorded at the Tidelands Club in Houston, Texas, the album of the year Grammy Award-winning disc was eventually filmed for a TV comedy special. With iconic routines such as “Abe Lincoln vs. Madison Avenue,” “The Driving Instructor,” and “King Kong and the New Security Guard,” Newhart made an art form out of having “phone conversations” with the characters in his routines, or portraying each of them at their respective workplaces with mind-boggling attention to detail and subtle, yet sidesplitting wit.
Newhart’s successful career includes multiple network TV shows in the 1970s and ’80s, including “The Bob Newhart Show” and “Newhart.” He’s a recipient of the Kennedy Center’s “Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.”
And 25 years ago, Showtime aired his first comedy special, “Bob Newhart: Off the Record,” recorded at the Raymond Theater in Pasadena, California, and featuring material from that groundbreaking album and followup, “The Button-Down Mind Strikes Back!” That hourlong comedy concert is now being made available digitally for the first time, via stream on all major digital platforms beginning Thursday.
At 91, Newhart was doing about 20 shows a year pre-pandemic, often returning to his hometown (he’s a graduate of St. Ignatius High School and Loyola University). He talked to the Sun-Times about comedy and the digital age.
Q. The video looks good and sounds amazing. And the routines held up well over the years. That’s a testament to timeless comedy.
A. Yes, I think so. Some of [the routines] are 60 years old. Like Abe Lincoln, for example. That’s as relevant todayor even more relevant today than it was in 1960.
Q. What’s it like for you to watch your comedy special, versus listening to an album?
A. Well, what happened was they put out the album, and it went crazy far beyond anyone’s expectations. Certainly mine. [Laughs] What they did, because they were music people and not comedy people, the would hear a pause [in the delivery of the material], and they would say we can’t have that two seconds of silence there. So they took it out on the album. I was not in a position to say “call back the album that’s not the way I did it!” ButIt still worked. So years later Showtime gave me this opportunity to film the album and said do whatever you want to do. I always wanted to re-record the original material the way I had heard it as opposed to the way it wound up on the album. So this was it.
It also gave me the chance of reminding people that before the TV shows I did this.
Q. Stand-up is an art form, and yet you make it look so easy and seamless. As a comedian, isn’t that one of the hardest styles of comedy to do?
A. I suppose it is. I found out that it took me years. I’d be in Vegas the 1970s and I’d be in the wings waiting for the opening act to finish, and the band would be playing my intro song and I’d say to myself why couldn’t I sing? [Laughs] It’s so much easier to sing than to stand-up and make people laugh for anhour and 15 minutes. Then I realized that the danger of stand-up was why I was doing it. I didn’t want to be a singer. I wanted to be stand-up comic. There’s always that danger that it isn’t gonna work that makes it so [exciting and challenging]. ... It’s work, but you make it look like it isn’t.
Q. You’ve never used a profanity in your comedy. Was it a conscious decision not to go there?
A. I was known as the “clean comic.” And my answer as to why I never “worked blue” — that’s what it’s called — is because it’s harder.