Why So Serious, Bill Cosby?By John Wenzel | September 13th, 2013 | 1 Comment »
NOTE: The Bill Cosby show at the Budweiser Events Center in Loveland will go on as scheduled on Saturday, Sept. 14, despite the widespread flooding in Colorado.
Like a pop-culture carnival game, it’s easy to guess people’s generation based on which version of Bill Cosby they relate to most.
Do you like “I Spy” and groundbreaking comedy albums such as “Wonderfulness”? You’re a child of the 1960s. “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids”? You’re in the Me Generation. “The Cosby Show” and Jell-O pudding commercials? What’s up, Reagan-era progeny?
What’s most astonishing about Cosby’s five-plus decades in show business is how effortlessly he spans and connects those generations. And while the 76-year-old Philly native isn’t exactly on the cutting edge of popular culture, his name still invokes a persona that looms large (and fatherly) over most of the English-speaking world.
We were lucky enough to speak to Cosby a couple weeks ago for a Denver Post Entertainment section feature, but you can read the full, uncut interview with him below, in advance his show at the Budweiser Events Center on Saturday, Sept. 14.
Like his stand-up act these days, the Q&A flies into digressions and side narratives but always returns to the nest.
Hello, Mr. Cosby. Thanks so much for your time today, it’s nice to speak with you again. So you’ll be in Loveland on Sept. 14th at the Budweiser Events Center. I was wondering if…
You know, the word center bothers me. Sometimes the word center includes ice hockey. My concern is that people who want to see me may feel intimidated. “Wait a minute, this place is so huge! A part of what he does is in his performances, he does these faces and these pauses that are a part of the fun of watching him.” So now when they see the venue they may say, “I don’t think I’m going to get the feeling. They have screens. Big screens!”
In my experience this venue’s more intimate than your average arena. Lots of comics of have performed there so I think you’ll be fine.
Still, you can get up there in the rafters for (a show) and the point for me is that the sound system is great, that the people, the promoters they hire, do great sound. Even before the iPhone they said, “Well, you’ll be able to see things on your phone in the palm of your hand, with that little picture, amazing things.” And I said, “That’s not going to work. People are used to the huge things, you know, as big as will allow things.” And people are getting big things into the living room for their home entertainment and then they got the theater with the wrap-around deafness and the flying objects. So for what entertainment is becoming, are people going to want to sit and look at something with horrible sound? When I say horrible, it’s relative. But horrible sound and a small picture of something? That’s what I was thinking, but man, am I wrong, because obviously the billions who tune in and watch things with iTunes on iPhones are doing it.
I’m guessing you weren’t expecting this sort of digital shift?
You look at that stuff and it’s mostly just stuff that you would never let your mother know you were watching. It’s stuff that really is like show business: watch a performance, listen to the singer, that (kind of thing). So I was way off base, but I knew something was coming because they said it was coming! And I said, “Well, that’s not gonna work.” In the ’70s to put two screens up in a live venue would be tantamount to having to teach people how to watch, in other words they would know nothing about it. They would go into the hall and think, “It’s better than sitting all the way in the last seat with an 8×10 glossy of the performers.” Now all these acts show up with the smoke and the fire and the nakedness. It’s sort of like Sodom and Gomorrah with electric guitars, but no harps.
Maybe some loin cloths.
(Laughs) I think it’s been shortened to more like a piece of leather.
Speaking of iPhones, you have your own app now, don’t you?
I do everything, John. I have to do everything, even though people know me. I’m in the airport and if you could sit next to me and no one would know that you are John Thee Great, you would see people come up and have all kinds of approaches. I mean, all kinds of approaches when they come up to me. “May I take a picture with you?” That’s what they want. That’s what they’re saying. “May I take a picture with you?” as opposed to, “Would you take a picture with me?” Some of them are so nervous. “You know, Mr. Cosby, you are my biggest fan!” I am? Some of them even claim that I raised them. So with that, the picture with the person relieves me of having to sign an autograph. Now maybe 1 out of 19 will say, “But I need an autograph!” But I say, “No, you can’t have an autograph,” and then they’re gone. They don’t even want to hear me describe the history of the autograph. “It’s sort of like a postcard from camp.”
Right, they just want to the proof they met you. They don’t actually want to talk to you, although I’m sure a lot of them are pretty intimidated to do that.
I’m in show business. I have placed myself in show business. I’ve been here 52 years, and things have changed, changed, changed, and if you’re going to stay in this business you have to morph. Some people call it reinventing yourself. I think that’s wrong. You don’t reinvent yourself, you get better with what you do. To reinvent yourself would be perhaps to move from singing to doing something else, maybe with an instrument, you know? That would be to reinvent. But I’m still doing what I did when I got my job in Greenwich Village at the Gaslight coffee house (in Greenwich Village), which was such a small place. I think the fire marshal said no more than 90 people could fit in there.
And that’s really where you got your start, isn’t it?
All of what I do, except for “I Spy” — which I really want to talk to you about — except for that and “The Cosby Mysteries,” these things are from my monologues. I don’t know how you felt in freshman English, but I was in freshman remedial English. It was the first time in my life that I was very, very serious. I was 23-years-old, a freshman, and I was in remedial everything. I wanted so badly to become a school teacher to warn 7th and 8th grade boys about the pitfalls of what I did.
Do you mean in terms of dropping out or the choices you made at that time in your life?
Think about 1958: I’m in the Navy finishing off getting out in 1960 in May, finishing off four years in the Navy and John, I’m serious about catching these boys who are thinking the way I thought about life at the time — to discard education. There it is. That’s No. 1. No. 2 is: I write two compositions requested by the professor of remedial English, this is what I call it, but it was remedial creative writing. And this man, I don’t know where he is, but I really give a prayer of thanks to this man every time somebody asks me about how I got started. This man gave me an A in my first composition and an A in my second one, with a “slash C-minus” for the first and B-minus for second. But he read both papers way before I was Thee Bill Cosby, way before I was sitting in his classroom, way before I was recognized by anybody as a funny fellow. He was the one who read my works and it began without my knowing it. What I call divine intervention, without my knowing it.