No Comedian Can Touch What Bob Newhart Did at the 1961 Grammys

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No Comedian Can Touch What Bob Newhart Did at the 1961 Grammys

Do you know what’s mind-blowing about Bob Newhart’s night at the 1961 Grammy Awards? It wasn’t that he won an award or two, nor that Newhart was honored for leaving his hometown of Chicago to record his debut comedy album at a club he’d never heard of, the Tidelands Motor Inn in Houston. The truly incredible fact was that Newhart had never performed in front of a live audience before recording that album — one that would go on to win the year’s biggest prize. 

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The Bob Newhart comedy origin story is bonkers. His “comedy career” began when he’d call a buddy who worked at an ad agency and perform extended prank calls as an airline pilot or the manager of a yeast factory. Another friend heard about Newhart’s funny phone bits and suggested recording them to sell to radio stations. A few stations bought in, and the hilarious recordings ended up in the hands of an executive at Warner Bros. The guy thought Newhart’s phony phone calls would make a funny album and wanted to record them at one of the comic’s club gigs. The problem: Newhart had never performed in front of an audience. 

With recording contract in hand, Newhart found himself an agent, who had difficulty booking a comic who’d never done his act in front of paying customers. Five months later, Newhart finally got a booking at Tidelands Motor Inn as an opening act. “On February 10, 1960, my performance was recorded for my first album, and I became the newest pledge to the fraternity of working stand-up comedians,” Newhart writes in his memoir, I Shouldn’t Even Be Doing This. “There was no secret ceremony. I simply went backstage at the end of the night and poured myself a double scotch.”

The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart sold like gangbusters, soon hitting #1 on the charts. Not the comedy charts (which didn’t exist at that time) — the music charts. The album was so popular that Warner Bros. demanded an immediate follow-up, which was a problem since Newhart had used all of his material on the first one. He scraped together enough bits to get The Button-Down Mind Strikes Back in stores before the end of the year. It reached #2 on the charts, right behind his debut album. 

That year at the Grammys, Newhart pulled off a feat that no comedian will ever match again. It was Newhart’s hasty follow-up record, The Button-Down Mind Strikes Back, that won the award for Best Comedy Performance. But the big shocker was The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart beating out Frank Sinatra and Harry Belafonte for Album of the Year. At that point, Best New Artist was kind of a given, making Newhart a triple Grammy winner on the night. 

Another way to wrap your head around the year Newhart had? “It turns out my two albums held the No. 1 and No. 2 spots for two consecutive weeks. This record stayed in place until the simultaneous release of Guns N’ Roses Use Your Illusion I and II in 1991,” the comic has explained. “When my daughter Jennifer delivered the news that Axl Rose had supplanted my record, I was philosophical about it: ‘Well, you hate to lose a record, especially when you don’t know you hold it, but at least it went to a friend.’”

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