Bob Newhart was born George Robert Newhart in Oak Park, Illinois to George David Newhart and Julia Pauline Burns, both of whom were devout Catholics. A sister, M. Joan Newhart, is a Roman Catholic nun. Newhart is of Irish and German descent.
Newhart attended St. Ignatius College Prep and graduated in 1952 from Loyola University, Chicago with a business degree. He was drafted in the U.S. Army, and served stateside during the Korean War until discharged in 1954.
After the war he got a job as an accountant for United States Gypsum. He later claimed that his motto, "That's close enough", shows he didn't have the temperament to be an accountant. He also claimed to have been a clerk in the unemployment office who made $60 a week but who quit upon learning weekly unemployment benefits were $55 a week and "they only had to come in to the office one day a week to collect it". In 1958 he became an advertising copywriter for Fred A. Niles, a major independent film and television producer in Chicago. It was at the company that he and a coworker would entertain each other in long telephone calls which they would record then send to a radio station as audition tapes. When his coworker ended his participation, Newhart continued the recordings alone, developing the shtick which was to serve him well for decades. In addition to his various standup bits, he incorporated that shtick into his television series at appropriate times.
Stand-up comedy albums
The auditions led to his break-through recording contract. A disk jockey at the radio station – Dan Sorkin, who later became the announcer-sidekick on his NBC series – introduced Newhart to the head of talent at Warner Bros. Records, which signed him only a year after the label was formed, based solely on those recordings. He expanded his material into a stand-up routine which he began to perform at nightclubs.
Newhart became famous mostly on the strength of his audio releases, in which he became the world's first solo "straight man." This is a seeming contradiction in terms–by definition, a straight man is the counterpart of a more loony comedic partner. Newhart's routine, however, was simply to portray one end of a phone call, playing the straightest of comedic straight men and implying what he was hearing on the other end of the phone. Newhart was the first comic to use an intentional stammer, in service of his unique combination of politeness and disbelief at what he was supposedly hearing.
His 1960 comedy album, The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart, went straight to number one on the charts, beating Elvis Presley and the cast album of The Sound of Music. Button Down Mind received the 1961 Grammy Award for Album of the Year. Newhart also won Best New Artist, and his quickly-released follow-on album, The Button-Down Mind Strikes Back, won Best Comedy Performance - Spoken Word that same year.
Subsequent comedy albums include Behind the Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart (1961), The Button-Down Mind on TV (1962), Bob Newhart Faces Bob Newhart (1964), The Windmills Are Weakening (1965), This Is It (1967), Best of Bob Newhart (1971), and Very Funny Bob Newhart (1973).
Years later he released Bob Newhart Off the Record (1992), The Button-Down Concert (1997) and Something Like This (2001), an anthology of his 1960s Warner Bros. albums.