Life would’ve been very different for Bob Newhart if he had followed the sensible path laid out for good Illinois boys back in the 1950s.
“I graduated, I had a degree [in accounting], and in the Midwest, you don’t just go into show business,” Bob Newhart tells Billboard. “It’s a cultural thing. You get a job, a profession, you work at it, you’re there 50 years and then you retire. And that’s what it looked like life was going to be, even though I had a preference for comedy – but, of course, that was unpractical.”
For a while, Newhart — a Catholic school educated Army veteran — did exactly what was expected of him. He got an accounting job in Chicago after college and set himself on that long 50-year path to retirement. But the itch to do the unpractical didn’t subside.
“I quit accounting and decided I’d give comedy [a go], as a writer or performer, for a year,” he recalls. “And then a year became two years and two years became three years. I was pretty close to giving up and going back to accounting, and that’s when the Warner Bros. contract and record album [happened], thank God.”
From there, his rise was meteoric. Signing with WB’s one-year-old record label in 1959, Newhart released The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart in 1960 and quite literally changed the game. It became the first comedy album to top the Billboard 200, and won the album of the year Grammy in 1961, netting Newhart the best new artist Grammy as well. And while he may be best known today for two GOAT contender TV shows (The Bob Newhart Show in the ’70s and Newhart in the ’80s), his run of ’60s albums set the stage for the booming business of standup comedy LPs from a generation of comedians inspired by his deadpan delivery and erudite material.
In 2019, Newhart will celebrate 60 years since that Warner Bros. contract signing, which saved him from a return to accounting and us from a world without his droll comedic styling. That impending anniversary is the focus of a Nov. 13 tribute to Newhart at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles, which will find Newhart discussing his storied career with the Museum’s artistic director Scott Goldman.
Ahead of the Grammy Museum honor and his 60-year showbiz anniversary, the 89-year-old comedy legend spoke to Billboard about signing to Warner Bros.’s nascent record label, the unexpected runaway success of his debut album (“It was like New Year’s every night”), and pranking an employment agency over the phone back in the day.
So Warner Bros. signed you in 1959, and even though the movie studio had been around for years, the record label was brand new. Was it chaotic, or did they seem to know what they were doing?
Joe, I’m the last one to ask if they knew what they were doing. I’m not sure I knew what I was doing. Dan Sorkin, my friend, he brought up my name [to Warner Bros.] and they called me and said, “these people are interested.” It was Jim Conkling, I don’t think George Avakian was there yet, I think Hal Cook was there. Suffice it to say, the recording industry, I had no knowledge whatsoever of it. I knew of it and would follow it for singers, but it was never in my world.
They called on Dan, who was a big disc jockey in Chicago, [and I thought] they were just blowing smoke, and I never expected anything to come of it. Then we made the album, and that took about six months to find a club that would take a chance. They said to me, “We’ll record at your next nightclub.” And I said, “We have a problem – I’ve never played a nightclub.” And they said, “Well, we have to get you into one,” because they wanted to record with a live audience. It took about six months and they found a club in Houston, Texas called the Tidelands that was willing to take a chance. They were willing to take a chance on somebody who had never stepped on a nightclub floor if there was a recording contract, and at least they could enjoy some publicly. I thought [the album] might be an adjunct to a standup career. I figured maybe if it sold 10,000 albums maybe in every city there’d be 100 people who had heard of it and would come out. That’s about what I expected.
It certainly exceeded that.
[Laughs.] So we recorded the album. There was a show Friday night and two shows on Saturday, and they were going to use all three shows. George Avakian had set it up with all the sound equipment. And on the Friday night show, there was a drunken woman in the front row who kept saying “that’s a bunch of crap” throughout the entire recording. And we went into a guest room and listened to it, and she was clearer than I was – you could hear her better than me. So that left two shows on Saturday. So we did them, and I waited, and waited. That was January of ’60 I think and then it was April and I called up Warner Bros. and was like, “what’s happening to that album I recorded?” They said, “It’s going crazy, every album we can press it’s going to Minneapolis, the disc jockeys are plugging it up there.” A disc jockey named Howard Viken. They would put in the newspaper: At 5:30 we’re playing “The Driving Instructor,” at 7:30 they were playing “Abe Lincoln.” And then as you know, it took off, far beyond anybody – certainly Warner Bros. and my [expectations].
Listening to the album, you seem completely in control. But considering you had no nightclub experience, you must have been nervous.
Terrified. Terrified. Absolutely terrified. But the first night you learn that you can’t show any fear. If you show fear, it makes the audience nervous. So with all the bravado I could muster, I went out there like I knew what the hell I was doing. When we went down to record it, I had the “Driving Instructor,” “Abe Lincoln” and the Submarine Commander [“The Cruise of the U.S.S. Codfish”] and that was one side of the album. And so I had to write two routines, the baseball and the Wright Brothers routine, while I was down there. I would try it out at night with Ken and Mitzie Welch. I was the opening act for them, and they were great. After a show, we’d go to my room or their room and say “well what other ideas do you have?” because they knew I was a side short of an album. And I said “well, I have this idea about the Wright Brothers…” and they’d say “Well, do that tomorrow night!” So I’d do that and hone that over three or four nights. And I came up with the other side of the album.
That’s fast work.
These were ideas I had in the back of my head for years, with no outlet for them.
So the album goes No. 1, you get Grammys for album of the year and best new artist. You went from a comedian with no experience to out of the gate success. How did you react to that?
It was like New Year’s every night. I never knew what the next day was going to bring. I was getting calls to do the Sullivan Show – did I want to do six Sullivan shows or eight Sullivan shows? [Laughs.] These were offers I never expected. They were producing the Emmy Awards show in 1960 and I was in Minneapolis at a club and the album had started to break a little bit, and they wanted me to appear on the Emmy Awards show. So I went to the owner or manager and I said, “can you let me off three days so I can fly to Los Angeles and be on the Emmy Awards?” And he said “yeah, sure, it’ll help here.” So I flew in and [the producers] had a disagreement with Mike [Nichols] and Elaine [May]. They were supposed to do a routine, and as I recall they had a routine about hair conditioners, and it was partially sponsored by Clairol or one of the hair conditioners. And they said as a matter of principle, “No we’re not going to change it,” so they left. And they came to me and said, “You got another routine?” And I said “yeah I got this submarine commander” and they said, “Do that.” And I think that was a big impetus for the record, the two appearances on the Emmy Awards.
Where did you draw inspiration for these sketches? Did you know PR people you were imitating on “Abe Lincoln vs. Madison Avenue”?
Well, I’ll tell you what happened with the “Driving Instructor.” I was an accountant and decided to leave accounting, and I was going to try comedy. And I wasn’t sure if my future lay in radio or television, local television in Chicago, so to support myself since I had no income, I would take part-time jobs. Sundays, The Chicago Tribune would have a standing ad, a full-page ad, for driving instructors. So I’d look for part-time jobs and I’d always see this full-page ad for driving instructors. After a couple weeks I thought, “Boy there’s this insatiable demand for driving instructors, I wonder why?” And then I began to picture their lives and thought “Well, that’s why.” And that was “The Driving Instructor.” And “Abe Lincoln” was the result of a book I read called Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders and it was about subliminal advertising and the beginning of group sampling. So, what if they had this guy who wasn’t an Abe Lincoln, and they’d have to make an Abe Lincoln out of him? And that was the basis for that routine. And the submarine commander, I had been in the service for two years in the Army and saw the inefficiency of the military and that was the basis of that. I guess it was autobiographical to a certain extent.
It’s a comedic bent of mind. Larry Gelbart, the writer for M*A*S*H and Caesar’s Hour, he said the comedy writer and comedian see the world through a different lens. I used an example of when I was in New York, and this was 5-6 years after the album came out, and I’m in a cab driving on Sixth Avenue, and there’s a sign for a psychic and people are waking by and no one is paying much attention. And in the window is a sign, “Lost our lease.” Well, you’re not much of a psychic if you couldn’t see that coming. Most people would keep walking by it, but I had a flash. It’s a different lens – we tend to notice things.
So you had a build-up of ideas for the first few albums, but what about later on? Was it harder to come up with ideas?
The first two albums flowed like a dam burst. You had these ideas. “Retirement Party” was based on my background in accounting, “Grace L. Ferguson Airline” was based on plane flights I had taken while in service, looking for the cheapest way to get back home. And then it became harder. They dammed up the dam. [Laughs.] The good ideas come full born, it’s like giving birth. And it worries you sometimes, it’s like, “Did I hear this somewhere? This is going so fast, did I see another comedian do it?”
What about the phone conversation construct for your sketches — I know at one point you were having actual jokey phone conversations with a friend to kill time. Did you just decide you wanted to keep up that setup?
My good friend and I, we’d do it over the phone. I was still an accountant then — that was just to break up the monotony of accounting. And he was in advertising and was offered a job in New York, so then I was on my own. And it was a question of finding another straight man as good as Ed, and I decided to do it by myself. And Shelley Berman had done it, Mike and Elaine had done it. I remember the one routine of Mike talking to his mother, who is Elaine [in the sketch], and she says, “I hope one day you’ll meet a nice Jewish girl, you’ll get married, and she’s as rotten to you as you’ve been to me.” [Laughs.] The phone goes back to George Jessel. I’ve never researched it but I was told, one of the first recordings by Edison was called “Cohen on the Telephone.” So it’s been a comedic device that lends itself to certain routines. What happens is the audience winds up doing half the lifting; they supply the unheard portion. At the end, when they applaud, they’re really applauding themselves for figuring out what was going on at the other end.
So that first album was nearly 60 years ago. How do you feel looking back on those first few years of your career?
The weird thing was, you had to learn the standup business from the top. You had to learn your craft in front of 3,500, 4,000 people. That was the hard part. And it was like a singer’s album – the people wanted to hear me do those routines. The hits. It was tough. You were a success already, but there was a lot to learn about standup.
It must have been an ego boost though, having such immediate success. How did you stay grounded?
I’m not sure I did. [Laughs.] I was in San Francisco doing a movie called Hell Is for Heroes  with Steve McQueen and Bobby Darin, and I had two weeks off. And I had been stationed in San Francisco in the Korean War, and I got down there, I’m walking around Union Square, enjoying it. Who knew six months after my discharge I’d have this record album? I’d go by these stores, a Maserati store or an expensive car store, and I’d look in the window and go, “I could buy that.” And go by another window: “I could buy that.” I didn’t buy it but –
You liked the idea of it.
Oh yeah. And then there was the time, when I was an accountant, I was going to leave accounting and go to another firm, so I signed up with an employment agency in ’57, ’58. So after the album and after I’ve done four or five Ed Sullivan shows, I’m at home and I get a call from the employment agency. And they say, “are you happy in your present job?” And I said “yes,” because I knew what was coming. And they said, “Well we have an opening as a plant comptroller, and we think you’d be ideal.” And I said, naturally, I’d be willing to make a change if the money is correct. They said, “Well that should’ve be a problem, what would your salary demands be?” And I said “right now I’m making about 250,000 a year, so it would have to be at least 300,000 for me to consider.” And there was a long pause. And they said, “the president of this firm only makes 150,000.” And I said, “well, I wouldn’t be interested.” It was… [the feeling was] like buying the company you used to work for.
I know you’ve talked about this before, but since it’s one of the most genius things in comedy I have to ask about the Newhart finale, where you wake up and find the entire TV series was a dream that your character from your previous TV show had. It’s so good, but was there any trepidation that people would feel ‘had’?
There was that concern, yeah. It actually was my wife’s idea. She came up with the idea. The Newhart show, so much was inexplicable. You had Larry, Daryl and Daryl, who I always thought right out of Deliverance – what the hell were they doing in Vermont? The maid was an heiress. There were inexplicable things about it, and she said, “You ought to end it explaining to Suzanne [Pleshette, who played his wife on The Bob Newhart Show] this dream you had about owning this really odd inn.” I said, “that’s a great idea!” There was some concern. St. Elsewhere had ended where it was a fiction – and [you think] “but we’ve spent all this time!” But the reaction when we did it in front of the audience was immediate. The minute they saw the bedroom set from The Bob Newhart Show, they started applauding.