As the great Bob Newhart turns 91 today, the Library of Congress, with the assistance of Professor Wayne Federman, looks back at his seminal, star-making album “The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart,” released in 1960 and added to the Library’s National Recording Registry in 2006.
“The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart” is one of the most fascinating and unlikely success stories in show business history. The album became the first stand-up comedy recording to reach #1 on the Billboard 200 chart. It sold over a million copies. And, most incredibly, the album is a recording of Bob Newhart’s very first nightclub gig.
In 1959, Bob Newhart was an obscure wannabe comedian from Chicago. The ex-accountant had a few routines that he would recite on local radio. Chicago disc jockey Dan Sorkin heard that Warner Bros., a fledgling record label, was looking to get into the stand-up comedy album game. So Sorkin had Newhart make a tape recording of his three best bits (“Abe Lincoln vs. Madison Avenue,” “The Driving Instructor,” and “The Submarine Commander”) and then passed it on to Warners. Amazingly the company said they would take a chance on this unknown local comic. Warners prepared to send a crew to record Newhart at his next stand-up gig.
The only problem was that Bob Newhart had no gigs. In fact, he had never before performed stand-up in a nightclub. Plus no clubs in Chicago would book him for the album taping. So, Warner Bros. had to search out of state to find a venue that would use him. They eventually found a club in Texas. They sent Newhart to Houston and arranged a two-week gig at a nightclub called The Tidelands. Bob Newhart would be the opening act.
During his brief run at The Tidelands, in February 1960, Newhart honed his three comedy bits–and also created several more routines. Warners recorded his material over two shows and then left Texas with the masters. Several months later, in May 1960, “The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart” was released. “I thought it might sell maybe 5,000 albums,” recalled Newhart. “I would’ve been very happy with that.”
Instead, a show business dream came true. The album became a wild success. First in Minneapolis, then San Francisco, then all across the nation, deejays replayed Newhart’s clever routines. The album climbed up the charts. Within three months of the release, “The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart” was the #1 album in the United States. And it held the #1 spot for 14 weeks (not consecutively). The staggering success of the album transformed Bob Newhart into a household name. In a matter of months, he became more well known than thousands of aspiring comedians who had traveled the country for years, or even decades. The power of the comedy album was established. Bob Newhart, a newbie comic, was now able to sell out Carnegie Hall.
Newhart’s routines turned out to be a perfect fit for a generation of comedy fans looking for more than just a string of mother-in-law jokes. Along with Mort Sahl, Nichols & May, Lenny Bruce, and Shelley Berman, Newhart was part of a new wave of comics who brought a thoughtful, satirical edge to comedy. The album’s first track, “Abe Lincoln vs. Madison Avenue,” imagines a phone conversation between a New York ad agency “suit” giving President Lincoln notes on his upcoming speech at Gettysburg.
At the Grammy Awards that year, Newhart had a night for the ages. He won three awards: Best New Artist, Best Comedy Performance–Spoken, and Album of the Year (besting singers like Harry Belafonte, Frank Sinatra, and Nat King Cole). Bob Newhart was the first comedian to win Album of the Year and remains the only stand-up comic to ever win Best New Artist.
“The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart” launched Newhart’s storied career in the most spectacular fashion.
Wayne Federman is a stand-up, actor, author, and USC professor. He wrote the 2021 Amazon best seller “The History of Stand-Up: From Mark Twain to Dave Chappelle.”
*The views expressed in this essay are those of the author and may not reflect those of the Library of Congress.