Random Musings: Enjoying the comedy of Bob Newhart


Button Down Mind of Bob Newhart

Depending on your age, your pop culture reference points and other factors, the name Bob Newhart may bring to mind the psychologist he played in The Bob Newhart Show (1972-1978); the innkeeper trying to keep his sanity amid a plethora of eccentric neighbors in Newhart (1982-1990); his many stints as guest host of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson; his various film appearances or his recent recurring role as Sheldon and Leonard’s idol, Dr. Arthur Jeffries (AKA Professor Proton), on The Big Bang Theory.

But Newhart isn’t just an actor in films and TV sitcoms. He also released a number of comedy albums beginning in 1960. Many of his routines centered around one side of an anachronistic phone call.

In “Abe Lincoln Vs. Madison Ave.” (The Button Down Mind of Bob Newhart, 1960), an advertising executive is on the phone with Lincoln, trying to keep him “on message.”

“You changed four score and seven to eighty-seven?” the ad man asks. “Abe, that’s meant to be the grabber… Abe, do the piece the way Charlie wrote it, will you?”

Later, the ad man asks Lincoln to work Abe Lincoln T shirts into the address somehow.

Then, when the ad man says he can’t make a bridge party at the White House and learns no one else in Lincoln’s circle will be available either, he gives Lincoln a suggestion.

Why don’t you take in a play?”

A phone conversation between a game manufacturer and Abner Doubleday, the purported inventor of baseball, takes place in “Nobody will ever play baseball.”

The first question the man has is how many couples?

“Eighteen people?” the man asks. “That’s a hell of a lot of people. You can’t play it in the house, either?”

He tells Doubleday that already the game’s got problems, but agrees to listen. As he repeats how there are nine guys on each side, including a pitcher and a catcher who throw the ball back and forth, he asks about the guy with the stick who stands between them.

“He may or may not swing at it [the ball]. Depending on what? If it looked like it were a ‘ball’? What’s a ‘ball’, Mr. Doubleday?”

He then listens some more to the rules, including the number of strikes and balls (“Why four balls, Mr. Doubleday? Nobody’s ever asked you before?”) and whether a ball stays fair.

“Is this a rib?…Mr. Doubleday, that’s the most complicated game I’ve heard in my life.”

In “Introducing tobacco to civilization” (The Button Down Mind on TV, 1962), we hear a phone call between Sir Walter Raleigh and the head of West India Company.

“Did we get the what? The boatload of turkeys? They arrived fine, Walt… See that’s an American holiday, Walt.”

He then listens as Raleigh tells him about “another winner” called tobacco.

“What’s tobacco, Walt? Let me get this straight? You got 80 tons of leaves? This may come as a surprise to you, Walt, but come fall in England, we’re kind of up to our— it isn’t that kind of leaf?”

The man is then barely able to control his laughter as he repeats Raleigh’s description of what people do with this leaf.

Not all Newhart’s routines involve one-sided phone calls (though they do all involve one-sided conversations). In The Button Down Mind Strikes Back (1960), he gives us “a griper in Washington’s army” who couldn’t get to sleep.

“There was some nut flashing a light on and off in a church tower all night. And then when he quits, some drunk goes riding through the town, screaming.”

Some of Newhart’s routines deal with topical events (those about Khrushchev come to mind) and some reflect stereotypes of the time. One is “The Driving Instructor”, from his debut album. In this routine, which he presents as the pilot for a new TV series, he describes a driving instructor and a woman driver.

The routine would still have worked, verbatim, if he’d said “nervous driver.” In fact, the instructor even acknowledges that his student is nervous. Despite the chauvinism, it’s a funny bit.

“Defusing a bomb” (The Button Down Mind on TV), concerns an unexploded shell found on a beach. The police chief asks the patrolman who called to report it if he considers a shell on the beach unusual.

“Oh, that kind of shell?” the chief says. “I’ll send someone out in the morning…I was kind of hoping that was your watch making that noise, Willard.”

A moment later, the chief says he can’t leave the office and shouts into the phone that Willard not bring the shell back to the station.

“I’m taking just a big a chance as you are,” the chief says. “This is my responsibility. If that thing goes off, it’s me they’re going to want to talk to, not you.”

As for the phone calls, they weren’t all anachronistic. In “King Kong”, in The Windmills are weakening (1965), a new guard has started work at the Empire State Building the day King Kong climbs it. He contacts his boss, apologizing for calling him at home, and says he’s got a situation that isn’t in the employee manual.

“I looked in the index. Yes, sir. Apes and apes toes. Yes, sir.”

The guard reports that there’s an ape’s toe sticking through a window and that this isn’t the standard ape.

“He’s between 18 and 19 stories high,” the guard says. “Depending on whether there’s a 13th floor or not.”

The guard says he was going to take the elevator up to the ape’s head, but his jurisdiction only extends to the ape’s naval.

He also reports that the ape is carrying a woman, whom the guard is pretty certain doesn’t work in the building. Her negligee would suggest she’s not part of the cleaning crew.

Humor is subjective, but if you like “dry” humor, you’ll probably enjoy the comedy of Bob Newhart.

Copyright 2017 Patrick Keating.





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