Copyright ©2007 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

From a comedy about a recording artist to the recording of a comedy artist. This is the story of Bob Newhart's first album - "The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart."

When it came out in 1960, it was the first comedy LP ever to hit number one on the Billboard charts. It saved the struggling Warner Brothers recording company. And it changed the direction of American humor.

The album has now been chosen as one of this year's 25 entries into the National Recording Registry at the Library of Congress. We hear about this landmark in sound from two of America's finest comedic minds.

Mr. CONAN O'BRIEN (Talk Show Host): My name is Conan O'Brien. I'm a talk show host.

Mr. GEORGE ROBERT NEWHART (Comedian): The name is George Robert Newhart, legally. I never bothered to change it to Bob Newhart. I just - I was an accountant and worked as an accountant and was terribly bored by it.

A friend of mine in Chicago, a disc jockey - Dan Sorkin - the Warner Brother record people were coming through town, and he said: I have this friend of mine that I think is funny. And they said, well, put, you know, put down some of his material on tape. So I put it down on tape and brought it downtown, and they listened to it and they said, okay, we think we'd like to make a recording contract with you and we'll record you at your next night club. And I said, well, see, we have a problem there because I'd never played in night club. And they said, well, I guess we're going to have to book you into a night club. So in February of 1960, with all the bravado I could muster, I walked downstage and I would do stand-up comedy.

(Soundite of monologue "Abe Lincoln Vs. Madison Avenue")

Unidentified Man: Right now, ladies and gentlemen, Bob Newhart.

(Soundbite of clapping)

Mr. NEWHART: I went down to Houston, Texas, to a club called The Tidelands to make my first appearance on a nightclub floor, and two weeks later, to record the "The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart."

(Soundbite of monologue "Abe Lincoln Vs. Madison Avenue")

Mr. NEWHART: This is a telephone conversation between Abe and his press agent just before Gettysburg.

(As Abraham Lincoln's press agent) Hi, Abe, sweetheart. How are you again?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NEWHART: (As Abraham Lincoln's press agent) How was Gettysburg? Sort of a dry, huh?

Well, friends of Abe Lincoln, which I'm still proud of, which I think is maybe the best piece of writing I ever did. And it's probably more true today than it was 47 years ago.

(Soundbite of monologue "Abe Lincoln Vs. Madison Avenue")

Mr. NEWHART: (As Abraham Lincoln's press agent) Yes. Listen, Abe, I got to know, what's the problem? You're thinking of shaving it off.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NEWHART: (As Abraham Lincoln's press agent) Abe, don't you see that's part of the image? Right, with the shawl and the stovepipe and the string tie. You don't have a shawl.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NEWHART: (As Abraham Lincoln's press agent) Where is the shawl, Abe?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NEWHART: It just belonged. It belonged as a telephone conversation because nothing I'm saying is at all funny. What's funny is what is unheard on the other end of the conversation - what Abe is saying to me.

(Soundbite of monologue "Abe Lincoln Vs. Madison Avenue")

Mr. NEWHART: (As Abraham Lincoln's press agent) Abe, you got to do speech. Abe, you haven't changed the speech, I get it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NEWHART: (As Abraham Lincoln's press agent) Abe, why do you change the speeches for?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NEWHART: (As Abraham Lincoln's press agent) You changed - you changed four score and seven to eighty-seven?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NEWHART: (As Abraham Lincoln's press agent) I understand. I understand. Abe, that's meant to be a grabber.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. O'BRIEN: I don't know how he came up with that device of the telephone. But for his rhythm, it's absolutely perfect because you're hearing one side of the conversation. You're filling in the other side yourself, which I think makes it 50 percent funnier.

One of my favorite monologues on the album is the one about baseball. The strength of it is all that the - that Bob Newhart is doing is explaining the rules of baseball. It's someone hearing how baseball is played for the first time over the phone and repeating it, hearing it from Abner Doubleday and repeating it and, to me, that's brilliant, is when you can sustain laughs like that and, actually, you're not doing anything else than telling the exact truth. It's brilliant. It's brilliant for that reason. He's explaining how baseball really works, and it's the stupidest thing you've ever heard.

(Soundbite of monologue "Nobody Will Ever Play Baseball")

Mr. NEWHART: Three strike and you're out. And three balls.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NEWHART: Not three balls, four balls. Why four balls, Mr. Doubleday?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NEWHART: Nobody's ever asked you before.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NEWHART: Or you may hit it. If he hits it, what happens?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NEWHART: He runs as far as he can before somebody catches it. As long as it stays what?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NEWHART: As long as it stays fair.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NEWHART: The record came out around April. We thought it might be a nice adjunct to a nightclub career - a nascent nightclub career. And then it just exploded. It just took off beyond anyone's, especially my expectations. And it still is - according to Billboard - the 20th best-selling album of all time.

I have the number one and number two album. My first album was number one. My second album was number two. And then my second album became number one. My first album became number two. So I had the number one and number two album on the Billboard charts for something like 35 weeks or something. There was a whole change in comedy that took place in late '59 and the early '60s. And it was Mike and Elaine and Shelley Berman and Lenny Bruce and myself and Jonathan Winters, and we just kind of started doing a whole different kind of comedy.

(Soundbite of monologue "Abe Lincoln Vs. Madison Avenue")

Mr. NEWHART: (As Abraham Lincoln's press agent) But Abe, if you got a pencil and paper there, will you take this down? You can fool all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time. But you can't fool all the people all the time. What? You keep doing it differently (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. O'BRIEN: He's the opposite of what they used to call a sweat act. I think that was an old vaudeville - if it's a vaudeville term, an old club term. Someone is a sweat act, someone who's running around and begging for the audience to laugh. And Bob Newhart is kind of the iconic image of the comedian whose timing and his material is so good he's not begging for it, you know? You have to go to him.

It's premise comedy. It's a guy whose - has these great premises. And by that, I mean, if you take any one like here and there from "Button-Down Mind" out of context, it's not that funny. It's him laying out these ideas, these really beautiful ideas. It's premise comedy. And that's king today. Jerry Seinfeld can go for 15 minutes on just a good idea, you know, and a good concept. And he can mine and explore it. And I think that's all so much of this the legacy of Bob Newhart.

(Soundbite of monologue "Abe Lincoln Vs. Madison Avenue")

Mr. NEWHART: (As Abraham Lincoln's press agent) All right. Saturday night? Oh, Abe, I'm sorry. I'm going to be in New York Saturday night. A bridge party at the White House? Oh, Abe, I love to make it. How about Steward, you try him?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NEWHART: (As Abraham Lincoln's press agent) He'll be out of town too, huh? Oh, that's a - you and - what's her name? Be home alone, Mary - be home alone, huh?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NEWHART: (As Abraham Lincoln's press agent) (Unintelligible) Why don't you take her and play?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NEWHART: (As Abraham Lincoln's press agent) I'll be talking to you. (Unintelligible).

(Soundbite of clapping)

SEABROOK: "The Button-Down Mind" of Bob Newhart, another chapter from the National Recording Registry, produced by Ben Manila and Media Mechanics.

(Soundbite of music)

SEABROOK: Our parting words tonight come from our staff. The show this evening and every weekend is produced by a cracked team of journalists who dedicate their minds and souls to their work. The producers are Brakkton Booker.

BRAKKTON BOOKER: Merry Christmas to everyone out there. And mom, I'm coming home soon. Don't worry.

SEABOOK: Goodtu Sue(ph)

GOODTU SUE: I love you, mom.

SEABROOK: Diane Was(ph).

DIANE WAS: An angel just got its wings.

SEABROOK: And Kate Davidson, along with Laurel Wamsley and Tina Tennessen who are home for the holidays. Our director tonight is Petra Mayer.

PETRA MAYER: (Speaking in foreign language)

SEABROOKS: The engineers are Sean Philips(ph)…

SEAN PHILIPS: To my family in California, wish I could be there.

SEABROOK: And Peter Elina(ph).

PETER ELINA: I'm usually on the other side of this microphone. I'd like to say merry Christmas to my sisters and my brother.

SEABROOK: And our reference librarian is Kee Malesky.

KEE MALESKY: I wish all you ancient pagans a happy festival of Sol Invictus, the unconquered sun.

SEABROOK: The senior producers are the lovely Alice Winkler and the dashing Phil Harrol(ph). Our senior editor is Martha Wexler.

MARTHA WEXLER: Merry Christmas. Safe travels and hassle-free travels so we don't have to run any more stories in the New Year about flight delays and lost luggage.

SEABROOK: And I'm Andrea Seabrook. Merry Christmas, everyone, from all of us at ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.