The first laugh Bob Newhart ever got came when an elementary-school teacher suggested that young Bob had an artistic temperament. Bob Newhart
"I can't even draw," Newhart replied, and the resulting laughter started him on his way.
You won't learn that from tonight's American Masters: Bob Newhart: Unbuttoned (9 p.m., WFYI 20). Newhart told me and a few other reporters that story a couple of summers ago at the Television Critics Association press tour.
You won't learn that, but you will find out almost everything else you'd want to know about how a $40-a-week accountant from Chicago became a comedy icon. Unbuttoned works superbly as a biography - there's all kinds of rare footage, including some early radio bits and clips from his 1961 The Bob Newhart Show, a variety show that won an Emmy and Peabody, and his other early variety/sketch-comedy show, The Entertainers (1964).
It's also successful at putting Newhart's work into historical context, explaining how his style fit into the landscape of standup comedy and TV sitcoms. Friends, family and other comics talk about his ability to use silence to generate laughter and how he's made a career of being the last sane man in an insane world.
Unbuttoned - named for the classic 1960 Newhart comedy album, The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart - does justice to a brilliant comic mind.