Bob Newhart had just found out about Sid Caesar.
News of the comic's death was trickling out, and Newhart's wife had just told him about it. Newhart brought it up first.
"That's a huge loss," he said on a call from California. "I knew Sid had been in poor health, but boy, was that an era. I grew up in that era, through Your Show of Shows. Oh, my God. You had Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca and Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks and Larry Gelbart. I think it included every budding comedian at that time. That was the prime. That was what you always aimed for."
Newhart turns 85 this year, and remains a legend for staggered generations. There's his standup, his sitcoms, Elf, The Big Bang Theory, even 1990s repeats on Nick at Nite.
On this day, he was reflective about the business, the role of the comedian in life. He referenced satirist Nathanael West.
"He said 'Look, the world is against us. The universe is against us. Okay? So the only intelligent thing to do is to laugh.' That's the only possible answer to the world today. You aren't going to get through it any other way. I've got to say, that's my role."
Newhart was readying to come to Florida for stand-up gigs, including one at Clearwater's Capitol Theatre on Saturday. He loves Florida because of its old people. This is not Newhart trying to razz anyone. He means it.
"You're not dead at 85," he said. "You're a long way from it. Go out and enjoy. You've earned it."
He could call it a career, rest on The Bob Newhart Show and Newhart, the priceless one-way phone calls still living on YouTube. But he keeps working. He just reprised his Professor Proton character on The Big Bang Theory.
"They're so talented, the cast, and so easy to work with, and so gifted," he said. "And the writing staff, they never stop. We were in the middle of a shoot last night in front of the audience. They said, hold on, wait a minute. They came up with a better line."
Filming in front of a live crowd was a stipulation he made to appear on The Big Bang Theory.
"They feed you," he said. "You do things you wouldn't have thought of. ... You go back to the writers and you say, let's play back on that."
The audience, which exploded with laughter, was the first to appreciate beloved backwoods brothers Larry, Darryl, and Darryl on Newhart, he said.
"If we hadn't done a live audience, Larry, Darryl and Darryl would have been a one-shot, and we would have never seen them again. Right after the show, we went to the writers and said, 'We have got to have these guys back.'"
When he's on set at The Big Bang Theory, he feels like he's back at the studios where he worked for years, he said. But the energy is new, different. That someone might find fulfillment only in the past makes him forlorn.
"It's like the alternative is Sunset Boulevard," he said. "The alternative is to be sitting in a darkened room at 85… and you're in your den and it's dark and Erich Von Stroheim comes in and asks you what episode of The Bob Newhart Show do you want to watch today?"
It happened to someone he knew, he said, a star who spent final days watching their own hit show.
"It's too easy to go there," he said. "You've got to fight it. You've got to think of a reason. Don't live in the past. There's no point. You can't change anything. What a waste of time."
At his shows in Florida, he'll talk to the crowd, encouraging them to make the most of the rest of their lives. And he'll nod back to the past, of course, reprising deadpan classic routines — the Driving Instructor, Sir Walter Raleigh, the Submarine Commander.
The jokes, like his TV shows, hold up over time. He wrote them that way on purpose, so they never have to go away.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716.