Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky writes his reviews on the backs of envelopes, on the instructions of his press agent.
"I know some of you know these routines by heart, but it…it throws me off to see your lips moving along with mine as I'm doing them."—Bob Newhart
Stand-up comedy comes in so many flavors that it could put an ice cream parlor to shame. From the quiet surrealism of Steven Wright to the fury of Lewis Black, from the redneck giggling of Larry the Cable Guy to the incisive anger of Richard Pryor—if you cannot find a comedian who fits your style, you just aren't looking.
But there is nobody like Bob Newhart.
He looks like your accountant trying to fumble his way through a conversation. He means well—he really does—but he just can't understand why things in this world can't be just so. He is awkward on the phone, in a meeting, trying to explain things to somebody who just doesn't get it. In short, he is perfectly ordinary. The last person in the world who would take the stage, be the center of attention, intentionally tell a joke without having a couple of lunchtime martinis in him. This, of course, makes him a brilliant stand-up comedian.
So brilliant, in fact, that his 1960 debut, The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart, was the first comedy album to top the charts (pushing aside even Elvis), scored him Grammy awards, and still earns more accolades and sets more records than nearly anything else in American comedy.
If good stand-up requires the ability to gauge feedback, to respond to an audience and raise or lower your material to fit the mood of the crowd, Newhart has turned that principle into the very heart of his stand-up style. Newhart's secret is his ability to use negative space more effectively than any other stand-up comedian. It is about the pauses. In his one-sided phone conversations and mock corporate speeches we picture somebody else there talking just off stage, just on the edge of hysteria. Newhart is always pulling them back. He is the straight man, the listener, timing his reactions perfectly to slide into the gap of silence on the other end of that phone line. This is why he was perfectly cast in his first hit situation comedy as a psychotherapist: His job was to listen to people and stumble through a nervous response.
The technique also offers him an opening for satire, which he handles with the precision of a surgeon. Authority figures (Abraham Lincoln arguing with Newhart as an unctuous press agent), corporate drones (a drunken retiree dressing down his bosses), blue-collar shlubs trying to rise above (a freshman security guard at the Empire State Building, trying to get help dealing with King Kong by reading the orientation manual)—instead of telling about how silly these things are, he shows you. It is stand-up and sketch comedy rolled into one.
Bob Newhart: Button Down Concert (also called Bob Newhart: Off the Record) is a 1995 live performance for cable's Showtime in which Newhart showcases the stand-up material that originally made him a star, long before his durable career as a character actor (Catch-22), two hugely successful situation comedies in the '70s and '80s (and a handful of failed shows to boot), and his elevation to iconic status in the world of stand-up.
Does Newhart still have it, 35 years after his breakthrough? Absolutely. Listen to the poor security guard on the phone with his supervisor. Giant ape's foot sticking through the window? What's a guy to do? Flustered, he explains, "I went into the broom closet…and I got a broom…without signing a requisition." Then the pause as he listens. Then the response: "I will tomorrow…yes, sir…" A throwaway bit that gets a chuckle, but completely part of his style. The consistent theme in his work is bureaucracy trying to tame chaos. Whether it is the press agent trying to steer Lincoln's address at Gettysburg about the horrors of war ("Abe, do the speech the way Charlie wrote it!") or a driving instructor trying not to panic around an incompetent woman driver (and Newhart even jokes about the sexism of the routine by offering to change it to a Chinese driver), we meet a succession of doughy white men trying in vain to make sense of the crazy world. This is the Peter Principle in effect, as middle-aged middle managers try to smile through disaster, like the submarine captain meekly apologizing for his crew's mutiny. Newhart, in his 60s when this concert was filmed, has nicely aged into his parts, and the material works just as well today.
I find that much of the stand-up comedy I grew up with—Carlin, Pryor, Steve Martin—still makes me smile, but rarely makes me laugh any more. I just know the jokes and their timing too well. They have become nostalgia and no longer surprise. But Bob Newhart: Button Down Concert made me laugh frequently, even though I listened to these routines a million times as a kid. And when I went into the other room and mentioned to my wife (who also heard Newhart's album as a kid) that I was just watching the King Kong bit and reminded her of just a couple of the jokes, she just started laughing out of the blue. And she kept laughing. What stand-up comedian still has that kind of power?
The only substantive extra on the disc is a 20-minute interview. Newhart comes across as a pleasant, unassuming performer who is genuinely appreciative of his audience, many of whom were born after his Button-Down Mind albums were recorded. He briefly explains the origins of several of his most famous routines. Don Rickles, one of Newhart's closest friends for many years, shows up to praise the comedian in his mocking manner. Given Rickles's stand-up persona as an insult comedian, it is amusing to note how Newhart finds much of his humor in skewering the "insensitivity" of authority figures. Offstage, these two guys probably crack each other up a lot.
Maybe another part of Newhart's appeal then is the sense that he is a real person, a genuinely nice guy with a great sense of humor. (And the family pictures in the photo gallery only reinforce this.) His comedy has a humane core that has sustained it through five decades—and it remains just as funny as ever. If you buy one stand-up comedy performance DVD from a classic 60s comedian this year, you should buy Bob Newhart: Button Down Concert. Actually, you should buy it anyway. You will like it, your kids will like it, and (if anybody will still have DVDs in the future) your grandkids will still get the jokes when you are old and feeble.
So, what is it like to see one of the most original comedy artists still being funny after all these years? I think it might go something like this…
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