"My Jurisdiction Only Extends to His Navel...": Kong vs. Bob [The Ballad of Kong Pt. 10]
It is my belief that his assumed gentleness and quiet nature has served to cause the world to grow complacent about Bob Newhart. We came to just accept him too much. I feel that Newhart is a monumentally underrated performer, not just on television and in film, but especially in his stand-up comedy years early on in his career. It is easy to forget, but Newhart was the very first comedian to top the Billboard charts with a stand-up comedy album.
This happened in 1960, when he released The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart, a landmark in comedy, which not only won the Album of the Year award at the 1961 Grammy ceremony, but also earned Newhart a Best New Artist award. It was the only time that a comedian (or at least an intentional comedian) has won Best New Artist, and it was also the first time a comedian won Album of the Year (though impressionist Vaughn Meader would win Album of the Year two years later with a parody LP of the Kennedy clan called The First Family. Coincidentally, Newhart starred in a film called First Family, also about a presidential family in the White House but no relation to this material, in 1980. And yes, I saw that film in a theatre.)
The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart established the comic's simple but astoundingly effective persona: that of a man, often a cog or subordinate in somebody's machine somewhere, who finds himself in an odd situation, and then has to explain his actions over the telephone with the unseen and unheard receiver of his call (sometimes even Abraham Lincoln, years before the telephone was invented). Bob would usually begin with a set-up of the situation, and if you have ever heard a comedian say, or even mock, a sentence like, "And I think it might go something like this...," such a line was likely inspired by Newhart's comedy.
This formula worked remarkably well for Newhart throughout the sixties. While his first album was still on the charts, he released The Button-Down Mind Strikes Back, and the two albums sat at #1 and #2 on Billboard at the same time. He won another Grammy (this time for Comedy Performance - Spoken Word). And then, throughout the Sixties, he continued to release album after album.
But while I saw Newhart perform many times on TV in my youth, I did not hear any of his comedy albums until I was well into my teens. I was barely cognizant of this particular stage of his career, and I came upon his stand-up material in the same manner that I discovered most of my favorite bands: by accident. A friend's house, in fact, where I happened upon a couple of old LPs of his. They were not in the best shape, but my friend had listened to them hundreds of times, according to how much he used to recite sections of Newhart's routines to me in our spare time. (This was roughly the same manner in which I discovered most of the early Bill Cosby stand-up albums, but the less said about that for the moment, the better. I will reflect upon it in time.)
And there was, naturally for me, one routine that stood out above the rest amongst the tracks that my (then) friend would play for me. It was called King Kong (Something Like This). If ever there was a comedy routine -- perhaps even more so than Abbott and Costello's famous Who's on First? bit -- that was squarely within my comic wheelhouse, it was this one. The track appears on Newhart's 1965 album, The Windmills Are Weakening, and is a perfect summation of the Newhart style: succinct, precise, and with the absurdist details sold by Newhart's perfectly timed stammer and responses, imparting to the listener that the oddball situation -- that of a newly hired night watchman dealing with the arrival of King Kong on the Empire State Building -- was very real indeed.
Here is the track:
If this is not your type of stand-up comedy, I do not apologize for making you listen to it. Newhart's style, much like his sitcom persona, is measured and methodical, and serves the strangest lines up with absurdist glee. This is a comic style that has served him well in his late '80s, where he is still making comedy tours today.
And with Newhart, it all comes down to precise details, that not only comment on the situation and the participants, but on the underlying fabric of the American landscape. One of my favorite bits in this routine is how the unheard boss nags the new Empire State Building guard to strictly follow company procedure even while faced with what has to be the most ridiculous story he has ever been told:
"I know how you like the new men to think on their feet, so I went to the broom closet and I got out a broom, without signing out a requisition on it....I will tomorrow, yes sir..."
Of course, the boss cannot help but to comment on the guard's efforts, but naturally, once again, the company's rules forbid such actions from being truly successful:
"Did I try swatting him in the face with it? Well, I was going to take the elevator up to his head, but my jurisdiction only extends to his navel..."
And once more, the boss' main concern is not so much the safety of the guard or the girl in the ape's clutches or the residents of the building, but the very reputation of the place:
"Well, sir... the first thing I did was I filled out a report on it. Well, I don't want to give the building a bad name either, sir, but I doubt very much if we can cover it up, sir. The planes are shooting at him, and people are going to come to work in the morning and some of them are going to notice the ape in the street and the broken window, and they will start putting two and two together."
The payoff comes with a double gag. The first is the boss' asking of a truly goofy question and the guard's response:
"I doubt very much if he signed the book downstairs."
And then finally, the guard's idea to coax King Kong away from the Empire State Building:
"You don't care what I do. Just get the ape off the building. Well, I came up with one idea. I thought maybe I could smear the Chrysler Building with bananas..."