Legendary performer Bill Cosby is many things – a comedian, author, grandfather, Navy veteran and doctor (on TV and in real life). But beneath all these aspects of the man lies his true vocation: A captivating storyteller.
Generations have grown up with his name floating across the airwaves – either on primetime television, in the Saturday morning cartoon block or on their parents’ old vinyls. His material resonates with audiences everywhere for their “slice-of-life” quality.
And, for the first time in years, he’ll be making a Johnstown appearance – on Wednesday night at the Cambria County War Memorial Arena.
And he will bring something everyone wants to hear – a good story.
“Viewing something and feeling that it is funny became a part of writing, styling it and delivering it,” Cosby said of the process behind developing his early material. “So we would have something in the form of Superman changing clothes in a phone booth and a cop coming up and asking him why he’s taking his clothes off in a phone booth.
“Writing would take me to Junior Barnes and the ‘slush’ snowball – real life,” he said.
In real life, the 75-year-old Philadelphia native has raised five children with his wife of almost 50 years, the former Camille Hanks.
When they met, Hanks was studying child psychology at the University of Maryland.
Cosby was majoring in physical education at Temple University and had just taken his first steps toward the stage, drawing some laughs – and notoriety – at a bar in Washington, D.C.
“The identification (that I could do comedy) came before I even wanted to address show business and that came at Temple University,” he said.
Cosby did quit college in the early ’60s, however, to chase those laughs on stage as well as the small screen before returning to complete his degree. He had come to realize the value of higher education, and now he holds more than a dozen honorary doctorates from several of the country’s most prestigious universities.
Memories on stage
In his thoroughly honed bits, the pristine, halcyon nature of childhood memories or the unsmoothable wrinkles of the modern family dynamic are coupled with a language that makes familiar-sounding music out of situational comedy. It’s arguably the strongest driving force behind his humor writing.
“One day when my father was reading in the living room, my brother and I decided that we could play basketball without breaking anything,” wrote Cosby in an excerpt from his best-selling book, “Fatherhood.”
“When I took a shot that redesigned a glass table, my mother came in with a stick and said, ‘So help me, I’ll bust you in half.’
“Without lifting his head from his book, my father said, ‘Why would you want twice as many?’ ”
The irreverent nature of the childhood and family portraits he’s painted in over 40 years on the stage hasn’t changed. Instead, he said, his routine has matured.
“The style has morphed into a deeper character study,” Cosby said during a Thursday morning telephone interview with The Tribune-Democrat.
Instead of painting from childhood memory a vivid Philly afternoon with “the gang” – who formed the basis for the educational children’s program “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids” – his newer material focuses on one of the most basic human struggles.
‘A change that comes’
“It’s husband and wife,” he said. “There’s a change that comes (when you marry).”
It’s a change he can sum up in two words: “Give up.” His voice, however, betrays a mind that’s looking back on a full and colorful career, with her by his side. And, like the goofy, fun-poking grandfather everyone wishes they had, he broke off bits of the wisdom he’s gained in all his time spent studying – and joking – about love and life.
“If you let her have it all,” he said, “as a wife, she will guide you to the end of your life.”
Reviews of his latest comedy tour see the comic still warmly spinning yarns, but from an uncomfortable-looking chair in the center of the stage. He makes tender jests at his wife – or warden, as his slightly fearful tone suggests. Although Cosby seems helplessly led around by the women in his life – for his unique brand of self-deprecating comedic effect – it’s clear he can still command an audience from on high, or even sitting down.
In the interview, he compared his earlier bits to “fast food” or himself as a young pugilist dancing in the ring – weaving and jabbing with some dry wit before stepping back, letting the widely relatable scene he’s lovingly crafted form in the mind, then knocking the audience silly with an uppercut punchline. And he was certainly fighting fit on Thursday.
Hard not to laugh
Even his greeting on the scheduled interview call – a moaning, “Ohh, what is it NOW!?” – exuded the same lighthearted surprise hooks his audience has come to expect.
He can’t turn it off – and it’s hard not to laugh with him (or stay on track with a premeditated set of questions).
And it’s all family-friendly material - most of it is about families, really. Cosby’s brand has always been a wholesome one and it’s hard to believe that some edgier modern comics could have molded themselves from his example.
“How do you get to be John Coltrane? There’s a billion people with a tenor saxophone in their hands, but who can play?” he said. “So, with comedians, you listen to them and even if they have the freedom of profanity or the freedom to use ‘n----r’ or (talk about) genitalia – do they connect with you? Or are they just part of your evening out?”
On Wednesday, those spending their evening with Cosby at the War Memorial Arena will be treated to a “heckuva show,” according to Acting General Manager Tom Grenell.
“I don’t really think people understand how timeless he is,” he said, referring to the annual McAneny Brothers trade show as the arena’s “Super Bowl.”
As of Thursday evening, tickets were still available for the Wednesday show, but Grenell stressed that they will not be available for long.
“There’s not a bad seat in the War Memorial and really, we do have some fantastic seats still available,” he said. “Every day we’re selling more, and each seat we sell is further from the stage, so don’t wait.”
Evening of laughs
What: “An Evening With Bill Cosby.”
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday.
Where: Cambria County War Memorial Arena, 326 Napoleon St., Johnstown.
Tickets: $35 to $55, plus applicable fees.
Information: 800-745-3000, Ticketmaster.com or at the box office.