When we first see Bill Cosby in his element again, performing stand-up comedy on our TV screens at his current age of 76, he’s letting us know we’re in the right place. He’s in Cerritos, Calif. We’re tuned in on Comedy Central.
Comedy Central? Cosby notes quickly that his friends wondered why he’d ever perform a show for that cable channel. “They said, ‘Is this a new Comedy Central?'” No. Not new. Nor is it a new Cos. No cursing. How could Cos speak to the kids without cursing? He explained you mostly play by the rules. Mostly. “You aim at it. And you hit it. But nobody heard your firing.”
Of course, anyone doubting about Cosby’s ability to connect with “the kids today” hasn’t been paying attention for the past 40 years that he has been excelling at exactly that. He was our father figure as much as he was comedy’s father figure in the 1980s, and 30 years after he reintroduced us to “Himself” in his classic concert film, he’s here today to tell us he is “Far From Finished.” That’s the title of his edited 95-minute special that premieres Saturday night on Comedy Central (and emerges through 135 minutes on two CDs on Tuesday).
In less than eight minutes, he already has the crowd in his palm describing to them the circle of life, from putting up with old people to becoming one yourself; and from finding a girl who can be “The Girrrlfriend” to finding the woman who can be “The Wife.” Or as he calls her, the girl to be your friend until you die. His wife, his girrrlfriend, has been Camille. And here, he illustrates marriage as a life game of chess.
It’s not exactly a revolutionary concept. But the beauty of Bill, the comedy of Cos lies within his the timelessness of his premises. Neither tireless nor tired, but timeless.
The conceit about Cosby, in lesser critical circles, maintains that since this is his first stand-up special in 30 years, he hasn’t done anything in the interim. That’s forgetting the fact that he has toured North America the entire time. Excepting perhaps the years from 1984 to 1992 when he revived sitcoms and gave NBC “must-see TV” with The Cosby Show.
Sure, it’s 30 years since “Himself,” but also 50 years since the release of his first comedy album, Bill Cosby Is a Very Funny Fellow…Right!. Between 1963 and 1973, Cosby produced 16 comedy albums (and a couple of other music records, too!) — and won the Grammy for best comedy performance six years in a row (1965 to 1970), with I Started Out as a Child, Why Is There Air?, Wonderfulness, Revenge, To Russell, My Brother, Whom I Slept With, and Sports. The following two years, he won Grammys for best recordings for Children. And that led straight into the “Fat Albert” years.
He has been there, done that.
Cosby was the O.G. guy to beat during the comedy boom of the 1960s. Does he really need to be pumping out new specials now, 50 years later? Do we need a weekly Cosby podcast to add to the mix of hundreds of other comedy podcasters? It’s not as if he is not keeping up, anyhow. He’s on Facebook and Twitter. How many 76-year-olds do you know personally who you’d want to follow online? Much less pay money to see live onstage or listen to their CDs?
When Cos makes a to-do about the fact that he’s on Comedy Central in 2013, it’s not so much about the cursing (because he’d be on HBO if he were doing that, and that was just as true an option for him when he recorded Himself). It’s really about the fact that Comedy Central chases after viewers who are boyish men under the age of 24 — and none of those viewers have a reference point for Bill Cosby. To them, he exists only as an impersonation made by other, younger comedians; or perhaps Kids Say The Darnedest Things. Or if they’re fortunate enough, their parents or older friends introduced Cos to them. As others introduced Cos to me once way back when.
A new generation must know about Cosby.
We can help spread the word. In a recent interview, Louis C.K. said Cosby performed one of the most memorable stand-up shows he had ever seen (I happened to attend that performance, too, as C.K. and I rushed down the hill after C.K. himself had performed an hour-plus at Montreal’s Just For Laughs festival). Cosby sat and regaled a sold-out theater in Montreal for two-and-a-half hours that night a few summers back, with tales from his childhood, from puberty and up through to his wife, closing with an encore of his “dentist” routine.
He has aged gracefully, from father figure to grandfather now. The one comedian you gather around and sit on hands and knees, begging him to tell you more stories, any story really. Tell the story again, Cos!
He is a survivor of life, a survivor of marriage, a survivor of show business. He is here to tell us what he has learned. He is our home away from home. He is our comedy Colossus, for as Emma Lazarus wrote in her sonnet for the Statue of Liberty, he is a beacon for us huddled masses. When we’re tired, when we’re poor, when we yearn for comfort, Bill Cosby is there for us.
Thank God he is far from finished.
Bill Cosby, “Far From Finished,” premieres Saturday night on Comedy Central, and replays Sunday evening and Thanksgiving afternoon. The DVD and two-disc CD are available Tuesday.
The Comedy Central special is a little more than 90 minutes (including commercial breaks). The two CDs offer up 135 minutes from the complete show, including two bonus tracks worth 41 minutes of Cosby talking about “Bernadette” and “Otis,” two important people from his teen years.