Newhart, George Robert ("Bob")

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NEWHART, George Robert ("Bob")

(b. 5 September 1929 in Chicago, Illinois), stand-up comedian and comic actor who first came to public attention for the sophisticated monologues of his comedy record albums, especially The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart. He began a television career in the 1960s that included a short-lived variety show and two hit situation comedies, all of them favorites among urbane viewers.

Newhart was born on the West Side of Chicago, the second of four children and the only son of George Newhart, a self-employed plumber and heating repairman, and Julia Pauline (Burns) Newhart, a homemaker. He graduated from Loyola University of Chicago in 1952 with a B.S. degree in business. After spending two years in the U.S. Army, he earned a credential as a certified public accountant in 1958. "Sometimes I wonder how I ever got to be a comedian," he later told an interviewer. "I didn't come from a broken home."

While working as an accountant, Newhart enjoyed killing time with a friend during the business day by chatting out comedy routines over the telephone. The pair hatched a scheme to sell tape recordings of the calls to radio stations. Though the plan was unsuccessful, it opened a back door into show business for Newhart. Dan Sorkin, a Chicago disc jockey, found Newhart's satiric barbs at contemporary life funny and fresh. Sorkin helped Newhart get his earliest professional exposure, which included a comedy spot on a local television morning show. At the turn of the 1960s the long-playing (LP) record was transforming stand-up comedy from a leftover relic of the vaudeville age into a form of artistic expression. The growing audience of young, up-scale LP-buyers particularly appreciated the social commentary found in record album humor. Sorkin took Newhart's audiotapes of the "telephone call" routines to contacts at Warner Bros. Records, where the talent director George Avakian signed the unknown comedian to a recording contract. Although Newhart had no professional experience before a live audience, Avakian booked him into the Tidelands, a Houston, Texas, nightclub, with the idea of making a live comedy album.

Newhart's performances were recorded during the two-week gig in February 1960, and these were edited into an LP, which was released on April Fool's Day. The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart was the first comedy LP ever to reach number one on Billboard's charts, outselling the cast album of The Sound of Music and several titles by Elvis Presley. It won three Grammy Awards: Album of the Year, Best Comedy Performance, and Best New Artist. Sequels, The Button-Down Mind Strikes Back and Behind The Button-Down Mind, soon followed.

The Chicago accountant became an instant star. His "button-down" humor—a reference to the style of shirt collars worn by the swelling ranks of urban office workers in the early 1960s—hit home, with jokes about office tyrants lecturing on paper clip theft and bus drivers trained in the art of leaving elderly ladies in their exhaust fumes. In June 1960, just two months after the release of the album, Newhart made his national television debut on The Tonight Show Starring Jack Paar, followed by appearances in prime time on The Garry Moore Show and The Ed Sullivan Show.

While other young club comics of the period made sponsors skittish with their reputations for political or sexual material, Newhart's low-key style and focus on "everyday life" put them at ease. His plaintive tagline, "Same to you, fella!" with which he ended his telephone routines, bespoke the resignation of a victim rather than the anger of a radical. When Mike Nichols and Elaine May, the hippest comedy team of the period, quit the 1961 Emmy Awards show over a censorship issue just days before the April telecast, Newhart was brought in to replace them. Needing someone that could perform topical material without causing sponsor problems, the producer Bob Finkel thought of Newhart. "Bob did an airplane bit on landing in Miami at the same time that [the Soviet premier Nikita] Krushchev was coming in," recalls Finkel. "The day after the show, Bob Newhart was the biggest thing in show business."

The first Bob Newhart Show premiered on the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) in fall 1961. Network executives had been trying to "modernize" the variety format, which had gone into a steep decline since its popularity in the 1950s, and Newhart seemed like the comedian who might be able to save the genre. The show was a critical triumph but a failure in the ratings. "It got an Emmy, a Peabody, and a pink slip from NBC—all in the same year," Newhart said. The comedian wrote much of the material, which dealt with some subjects that were considered too daring for TV audiences, including right-wing extremists and restrictive immigration policies.

For the balance of the 1960s Newhart gradually paid the show business dues that he had bypassed with his sudden stardom, playing the club circuit as well as college campuses in the new, concert-style format being developed by other stand-up comedians of the day. He got his first roles as a comic actor during the decade, winning small parts in a handful of Hollywood films, including Hot Millions (1968) and Catch-22 (1970). Considered more appropriate for late-night television than prime time following the cancellation of his variety show, he substituted as host of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson eighty-seven times.

Just as Newhart had ridden the wave of a new, more sophisticated style of stand-up comedy to launch his career, his return to prime-time television was part of a similar phenomenon in situation comedy a decade later. MTM Enterprises, the studio responsible for The Mary Tyler Moore Show, was at the center of the revitalization of the genre. Its second series to reach television was The Bob Newhart Show (1972–1978), which aired between The Mary Tyler Moore Show and All in the Family on the Columbia Broadcasting System's (CBS) famed lineup of Saturday night "sophisticoms" during the 1970s. Newhart played the role of Dr. Bob Hartley, a Chicago psychologist.

Having achieved series stardom, the comedian collaborated in developing his next sitcom, Newhart, which aired on CBS from 1982 to 1990. Newhart fans particularly appreciated the grand punch line of the final episode of New-hart, in which the innkeeper Dick Loudon wakes up as Dr. Bob Hartley, revealing the entire second sitcom series to have been a dream of Newhart's first sitcom character.

Newhart married Virginia Quinn in 1963, and the couple has four children. In 1993 Newhart was inducted into the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences' Hall of Fame. His other interests include a radio station, KZBN in Santa Barbara, California, which he purchased in 1995.

A biography is Jeff Sorenson, Bob Newhart (1988). Details of the comedian's early success appear in articles in the New York Times Magazine (7 Aug. 1960) and Current Biography 1962. A ninety-minute interview, available on audiotape and in transcription, was conducted by Daniel Nussbaum in 1998 and is held in the Steven H. Scheuer Television History Collection at Syracuse University Library.

David Marc