Bob Newhart's "Driving Instructor" routine is one of the most fondly remembered comic sequences of American stand-up comedy. Performed by a beloved comedian at the height of his popularity, how does it stand up to present-day analysis, in an era with markedly different cultural standards?
The career of Bob Newhart
Born in late 1920s Chicago to a strong Roman Catholic family, Newhart became a comedian after gaining a reputation as an entertainer in his job at an advertising company. His comic routines at this company - originally dialogues with a colleague, but later solo creations were recorded on tape and sent to a local radio station, where a producer noticed Newhart's potential and promoted him to Warner Brothers, who signed him in 1959. Newhart began recording comedy audio albums, and became popular on the strength of this now declining medium. Indeed, so popular was his debut album in 1960 "The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart", which features the "Driving Instructor" routine, that it superseded Elvis Presley and the Sound of Music to the top spot in the Billboard charts. On the back of his successes in the audio format, Newhart was commissioned by NBC to produce a variety TV show, and subsequently developed a career in movies, appearing in relatively well-received films such as "Catch-22" (1970), "In & Out" (1997) and "Elf" (2003). An ever-popular figure even in modern comedy, Bob Newhart's "Stop It!" sketch appearance on "Mad TV" continues to draw colossal viewing figures nowadays on YouTube.
The Driving Instructor
Newhart's "Driving Instructor", an 8-minute recording on his aforementioned debut album, centres around the comedian's stereotypical and offensive understanding of female drivers. Exaggerating sexist cliches and outdated perspectives repeatedly beyond comic effect, the performance should produce more shudders than laughs among a modern audience. The shtick of the story is that Newhart, who personifies the eponymous driving instructor and who is the sole voice in the piece, has a dangerous job. He acts out his experience with one impossibly awful driver, who manages to make increasingly damaging mistakes, and increasingly stupid decisions, failing to understand even the most basic instructions, and seemingly totally unaware of the car's surroundings. The driver is, of course, a woman. Newhart gets a laugh immediately when he mentions a "woman driver" - a reaction which now sparks more embarrassment than mirth. One struggles to find a level of comedy above (or even below) the simplistic theme that the student driver is rubbish. She is rubbish because she is a woman. Regardless of how well-performed the segment may be (and indeed it is a fine performance), and regardless of how loveable a treasure Newhart is, there is no comedy in this routine.