Why So Serious, Bill Cosby?

He just turned a year old.

Do me a favor: if you start now training the kid, a big problem which people outgrow is getting to understand you are a servant, you are a parent. And the way you keep yourself from being a servant is to give responsibility to the person you’re serving. So that at one while you’re busy wishing he would get up and run and bring in a book and sit down and read to you at one — all of these wonderful things — you say, “I want to begin to teach you that this is neatness, my son.” Your child can be trained to understand that the shoes, you don’t take them off and leave them on the floor. But teaching does not happen where you said it and the kid did for the rest of his life. No! You have to keep ringing the bell so that the child understands and enjoys neatness.

If you let it go then you’ll be in the ring with the rest of us trying to explain to the kid what a pigsty looks like, when the kid has not really seen a pigsty. So you’re not going to go look in your iPhone and see if there’s a picture of a pigsty. You blow it up and put it in your kid’s room on the wall and say, “When it gets to this, call me. I’ll bring the vacuum.” And he’ll say, “By the way, this picture, what does that mean? It doesn’t have an odor,” because he’s never seen a pigsty of course.

Pretty much any reason I have to plaster a giant picture of a pigsty on a wall is a good one. If you don’t mind me changing gears, I wanted to ask about your stand-up set and what keeps you motivated to keep touring the country. You obviously could have retired years ago, but what keeps you coming back?

I can liken it to any person in the arts. But like any person in the arts, the only thing that stops you from performing is that you can’t really perform. And by that I mean if you mentally say, ‘I’ve had enough.’ My wife and I were reading an interview with Tina Turner and she was saying she went out on the stage and was tired at 73 and said, “I just cannot do it anymore.” And for me, and this is about as clear and as truthful as ever, when I get a funny thought I begin to smile and immediately I begin to think it out and write it down, and as this happens I can’t wait to give it to an audience.

Is it as much about the process of writing jokes as it the performing?

Some people play crosswords puzzles, cryptograms, you understand? I make up my own little puzzles. I can’t wait to give it to (an audience). Not to “try it out,” but to give it to them, you see? Sometimes we’ll admit that the way we work is that you’ll go to a smaller club, “try it out,” and of course succeed or fail. But when you put it on the big stage, you either put it on the big stage or you don’t. That’s not the same thing. I don’t “try it out.” I already know how to write. I already know the characters involved, and I really know the feeling that I want and I do it.

So for you, is it about honing the material before it ever hits the stage?

I don’t want to put anybody or a work style down, but I have never been comfortable going out to do something without feeling that this is funny.

What about when you were putting out your stand-up albums in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s? How did you work out material then?

Well, look: the idea comes, and it’s funny to me. Better yet, I’ll give you this one: an idea sits and it stays in my head there and there has to be something funny about it. Like riding these New York subways. There has to be something funny because it’s just people shouting and yelling and doing things in the cars. And so I have a feeling but it’s not that funny. This is when it’s 1960-something and I’m at the Gaslight, but I’m not fulfilled because even though it’s funny it’s still there. But it’s funny and I’m writing and writing and I have it there. And at the Gaslight there are these people who are… how do I say… medicated?

So one day I’m talking to a guy and we’re discussing how much a Broadway play costs, and how much it costs to go to the Village Gate. The cover charge plus two-drink minimum to see whoever’s there, and it’s very expensive. BING! I go back to the old yellow pad, with the No. 2 yellow pencil, and it’s there. It’s very expensive but New York City is such a great city — this is what I say to the audience — and they know that you may not have the money, the $30 cover charge for the two-drink minimum or the Broadway play. But they also don’t want you to come to New York City without being entertained, so they put on the subway a nut in every car! So that is the mining of a piece and how to make it work, and that piece was probably one of the first I ever put on an album.

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John Wenzel is an A&E reporter and critic for The Denver Post. Follow him @johntwenzel and @beardsandgum.