Ivy Style continues its tribute to Squaresville Appreciation Month with a tribute to hipster comic Lenny Bruce’s nemesis, Bob Newhart, who, despite having a button-down mind, wore mostly tab-collared shirts.
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Sometime in the early ’80s I was visiting my great grandfather’s third wife, who was living in the Dell Webb retirement golf community of Sun City, Arizona. When my father announced we were going to see Bob Newhart, I did not give it much thought, since he was a regular guest in our home Saturday nights via his sitcom “The Bob Newhart Show.”
Newhart was on a standup tour. “The Bob Newhart Show” had concluded in 1978 and he had not yet pick up “Newhart,” which debuted in 1982. We went to the theatre on the appointed day. I looked at the crowd of sportswear-clad seniors, their skin the color and texture of vintage saddle bags, their ages ranging from Jurassic to the living dead, and realized I was the youngest person in the audience by decades.
Newhart went through his personal canon with acts like the “Driving Instructor” and “Introducing Tobacco to Civilization.” It can safely be said the material was new to me and yet I had the awareness that the audience knew the material by heart. There were elements of the act that were 20 years old, longer then my life time and yet merely yesterday to the nostalgia-hungry audience.
I couldn’t fathom at the time how large Bob Newhart figured in the popular culture of the early 1960s. Newhart’s first album, “The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart,” was recorded at the Tidelands Club in Houston, Texas and released in 1960. The album climbed to number one on the Billboard chart, beating out Elvis. The album would hold number one with its follow-up, “The Button -Down Mind Strikes Back!” anchoring the number two position. They would then switch positions, with both Newhart albums holding the top two slots for 35 weeks, a feat not replicated again for 30 years, while “The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart” remains the to- selling comedy album of the 20th century.
Season one, episode four of “Mad Men,” entitled “New Amsterdam,” opens with the “Driving Instructor” routine. I mention this because the scene reinforces how omnipresent the album was in 1960, and also to introduce one of the its best routines, which is advertising related. Newhart told PBS in 2005 that “Abe Lincoln vs. Madison Avenue” was his favorite. Newhart uses the best-selling 1957 exposé by Vance Packard, “The Hidden Persuaders,” to introduce the act. What follows is the conversation between the 16th president and his Madison Avenue handler:
Newhart has been making audience laugh for over 50 years by playing it straight. Much has been made of Newhart’s deadpan style and his trademark stammer, which he credits for earning the capital to buy a home in Beverly Hills. The imaginary telephone conversations he first dreamed up as a copywriter in 1958 are now legendary. What I believe is unique and shows comedic insight is that he turned the paradigm upside down. By eliminating a secondary funny man, he made the straight man funny all by himself. Quite an accomplishment for a business major and frustrated accountant whose motto was “That’s close enough.” — CHRISTOPHER SHARP