Bob Newhart tells a story about a scene on his erstwhile TV show "Newhart," the second of his two popular sitcoms. Actor Julia Duffy had an extended scene in which she was supposed to be talking to someone on the telephone. Of course, she was talking to no one.
When she was done she turned to Newhart with an exasperated expression and said "It's not as easy as it looks, is it?"
Bob Newhart always made it look so easy, those classic stand-up bits of his in which he pretended to be talking on the phone. Back in the 1950s and '60s, the telephone bit was a comedy staple, and several comedians specialized in it. Newhart did it so well that virtually no one has done it since.
To hear Newhart tell it, it's the easiest kind of comedy to do, because the audience does so much of the work.
"I've never told them this," Newhart said in a telephone interview form his California home, "but they're supplying at least half of the show. What I'm saying isn't funny. They're piecing it together with their imagination from clues that I give. If they figure that out, they'll ask for half their money back."
Newhart will be in Sarasota Feb. 25 for concert at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall.
He'll do a combination of his classic routines and new stuff. Of about 40 bits he'll do that night, he said, maybe 10 will be telephone pieces.
Besides those telephone routines, Newhart's trademark is his stammer. He uses it for comic effect, but its not an affectation. It creeps into most sentences in his conversation.
"No, it's, it's, it's a stammer," he said. "It's not a stutter. Stutterers have trouble with letters. Stammerers have trouble with the whole damn word. It became a comic device, but it's a real stammer."
Newhart's 84 years old, and it's hard to believe that he really needs to keep working. But he still loves what he does.
"It's either this or it'll be like 'Sunset Boulevard,'" he said. "I'd be sitting in a big house watching reruns of 'The Bob Newhart Show.'"
Besides doing standup concerts, Newhart still does regular television appearances, including a recurring role as Professor Proton on "the Big Bang Theory."
"I just did another one, and it will lead to more," he said. "I can't tell you what happens. When you see it you'll know why I can't tell you, but it ill lead to more."
The episode he recently filmed was his third. That's all he had signed up for originally, but he's been enjoying the show so much that he agreed to keep the charcter going.
"They're such great people to work with," he said. "They're re-writing constantly all week during rehearsal, so by the time you're doing it, if they're something that doesn't work, it's gone. That's a great feeling for a performer."
One reason he keeps working regularly, he said, is to show something to the world. He wants people to know that being an octogenarian doesn't mean you have to stop living.
"I'm 84 years old," he said, "and I'm going to get on a plane, fly to Florida check into a hotel, do a sound check, do the show, get on another plane and come home. It's not a death sentence. It's anything but a death sentence."
Details: 8 p.m. Feb. 25, Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, 777 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. Tickets: $45-$75 Information: 941-953-3368, www.vanwezel.org.
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.