My father was an accountant, and not entirely by choice. He'd had to drop out of college to support his parents through serious financial problems, and accounting was a steady profession, one that would survive economic downturn and instability. But my father was also a dreamer, one who loved telling stories and who, in his younger, single years, would fly from Montreal to New York City for a weekend, take in a Broadway show or two, purchase boatloads of records, and return before the work week began again.
By the time my brother and I were growing up, in the early-to-mid-1980s, we had become our father's dreams. The solo trips to New York were long past, replaced by annual family road trips where visiting relatives took precedence over seeing theater. The necessary pragmatism of accounting, now for larger stakes working for the federal government, provided for us, but also showed us the costs of doing what you didn't love. Listening to the contents of my father's record collection, on the other hand, amply demonstrated the results of choosing your passion as your profession.
I've no idea if my dad bought so many comedy and parody records because of secret and/or thwarted creative aspirations, or simply because he found them funny. But because he did, and because he played them often in the home and on those annual road trips, my sense of humor developed around a certain style that became wildly, yet inexplicably, popular between about 1957 and 1963.
This was a time when Elaine May and Mike Nichols' fusion of improvisation, sketch comedy, and wordplay could launch a hit Broadway concert show, when Tom Lehrer found fame singing about chemistry elements to Gilbert & Sullivan tunes, when Stan Freberg could skewer the echo & reverb on “Heartbreak Hotel” or the incessant mumbling of “Sh-Boom”, when the Canadian duo Wayne & Shuster could turn baseball into Shakespeare, and when a onetime television producer named Allan Sherman could reach #1 on the Billboard charts with My Son, the Nut, one of many comedy records that were pointedly (if at times self-conflictedly) Jewish.
The combination of JFK's assassination and Beatlemania helped put a stake in the comedy record success; nothing ever reached #1 again until one of Weird Al Yankovic's albums did in 2014. The window of time when comedy was America's most mass-market entertainment enterprise may have been fleeting (though not as fleeting as, say, folk music), but its effects would endure in clubs and concert halls, in film and books, on college radio stations, and most especially television.
I knew none of this as a child, of course. I only absorbed what my dad chose to play, which would later influence what I chose on my own. But it's impossible to divorce sensibility from parental intent, especially in relation to one of comedy's grandest old men, the first comedy record Billboard Number One, who became an even bigger staple on my TV set. Bob Newhart's improbable swan-dive out of professional drudgery into chosen passion is instructive for me, but I wonder how much more instructive it was for my late father.
George Robert Newhart was an accountant, and not entirely by choice. But whatever childhood visions of a creative life existed, they only manifested long after he graduated Loyola University Chicago with a business management degree, a two-year Army stint in Korea, and a spell at USG Corporation where he realized he might not be cut out for balancing books, even if he wanted to be.
He got a copywriting job to pay the bills, but comedy was his real love. And that's when things got weird. Newhart recorded some sketches with a friend, and they got some local radio play. But the friend's move to New York – he was married with kids, while Newhart was single, still living in his parents' basement, yes really – ended the partnership, and Newhart continued on his own. A disc jockey pal introduced him to a talent agent at a record company, which was serendipitous enough. But the record company green-lighting the album solely based on recordings, before Newhart had ever performed in a comedy club? That was the wildly improbable part.
What happened next is truly the stuff of legends: a couple of false starts before one evening's worth of material was fit for recording. And then that recording, The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart, broke records and topped charts as soon as it was released. The whiplash was beyond disorienting, as Newhart said in a 2014 interview: “I never expected that the album would be as well received as it was. It was New Year’s every night.”
What people loved then and what makes the album still hold up (mostly) now can be best described by a quote from another great American comic genius, the crime writer Donald E. Westlake: “I believe my subject is bewilderment. But I could be wrong.” Newhart took the telephone conversation, a fairly classic comedy trope with roots in George Jessel routines and perfected more recently by Nichols & May and by Shelley Berman, and tweaked it. Instead of the audience hearing someone make jokes and actively be funny, Newhart played the straight man – and clued people in to the jokes through repetition, befuddlement, and lots of deadpan delivery.
So much of comedy is about timing, and waiting the precise amount of time between words and phrases before going on to the next one. Hitting a beat and then pulling back on the next, messing around with the rhythm when it suits. The finest comic routines are like the best jazz solos, full of improvisational delight because the changes are deeply grounded. You know what's coming, and yet it's a surprise nonetheless, and the only reaction is to laugh hard, and then even more so.
Newhart gets at this with the comedy routine he still regards as his favorite. “Abe Lincoln vs. Madison Avenue” which envisions a conversation between the president and his “press agent” just before Gettysburg. Asking “how's Gettysburg”: funny. The beat before Newhart quips, “kind of a drag, huh”? The audience busts up. From then on it's a series of well-placed sighs, pleadings, reversals, and well-chosen phrases (“you've changed 'fourscore and seven' to eighty-seven? Abe, we test-marketed it and they went out of their minds”) that leave us with the gnawing sense that advertising (and capitalism) infects everything it touches.
I'm dwelling so much on The Button-Down Mind because without it, Bob Newhart couldn't have become one of the vaunted television dads. True, there were never any actual children on The Bob Newhart Show (1972-1978) or Newhart (1982-1990), because Newhart didn't think the family sitcom format worked for him, yet how else to describe his dynamic as psychologist Bob Hartley, ministering to an assortment of lovable lunatics, and then as Dick Loudon, contending with the motley crew bustling in and out of his Vermont Inn?
This was a “bemused parent” dynamic that I found far more relatable than I did other notable TV dads, who tended to be scolds, dopes, or generally in the grip of all-consuming toxic masculinity. Not Newhart. Even when the chaos around him engulfed his sense of order, week after week, there he was, slightly stammering his way out into the light, still able to convey some measure of compassion for the Larry, Darryl & Darryls of his orbit. Of course it helped that his main television wives, Suzanne Pleshette and Mary Frann, were fascinating women in their own right, modeling what it could mean to be vibrant and yes, sexy at various points of middle age. It was these two that really made the final Newhart broadcast – and twist – stand out as far more than a parody of the “it was all a dream” Dallas episode, turning melodrama into high comedy, turning a figment of Bob Hartley's imagination into an entire television show.
Newhart did other shows and other gigs after the end of Newhart in 1990, but by then I was growing up and moving on to different modes of entertainment. My father retired from the government that same year – it was Canada, and there was a generous pension – which was a strange thing to explain to people when you're not even a teenager yet. There would be some consulting gigs over the next few years, taking my dad to places like Turkey and Morocco, but by the time I finished high school, he wasn't working anymore.
I wish I could say my father enjoyed his retirement, and perhaps there were moments when he did. But too often the weight of what he wasn't able to pursue, for lack of money or opportunity, weighed upon him, and thus upon the entire family. When he died in 2008, after a four-year-bout with colon cancer, the fog of grief masked the sensation of relief, that finally he could find some measure of peace.
His own button-down mind couldn't soar the way that Bob Newhart's did, but I think he gravitated towards those early records – and introduced them to me – because they were a path towards doing what you loved all of the time. Comedy, after all, isn't just about the jokes, but about the life and meaning underlying those punch lines, which couldn't exist otherwise.
Sarah Weinman is the author of The Real Lolita and Scoundrel and editor of several anthologies, including Evidence of Things Seen, publishing in July 2023. She writes the Crime & Mystery column for the New York Times Book Review and has written for The Atlantic, New York, Vanity Fair, and the Washington Post, among other publications.