Comedic Icon Bill Cosby returns to Central PA with new stories (and more laughs)
Bill Cosby has played many roles on his way to his status as a popular icon – Naval sailor, high school dropout, bartender, collegiate athlete, storyteller, singer, author, teacher and intellectual.
He went from failing 10th grade and only scoring 500 on the SATs to receiving his doctorate in education and a Presidential Medal of Freedom. He has remained a fixture in the collective imagination for six decades, popularizing bad sweaters and Jell-O Pudding Pops and having the uncanny ability to make us laugh about the everyday nuances of family life that cross racial divides.
Cosby can be called many things, but just don’t call him a dreamer.
“I don’t like to talk about dreams,” Cosby says. “I’m talking about reality and goals. I’m not dreaming.”
Cosby released his newest book, I Didn’t Ask To Be Born (But I’m Glad I Was) in November of 2011, and he returns to Lancaster this month for an appearance at the American Music Theatre. In fact, Lancaster holds special significance for Cosby, who created a scholarship at Franklin & Marshall College in the name of his son, Ennis, who was killed in a shooting on the Los Angeles freeway in 1997.
Speaking from his hotel room in New York City in December, Cosby says most of his newest stand-up material comes from I Didn’t Ask To Be Born, which consists of a series of monologues and stories about his life. They run the gamut from his days growing up in Parrish Place in the Richard Allen projects in Philadelphia to entertaining his grandchild with a Godzilla DVD.
While his monologues are not what he calls “spicy stories,” Cosby does come out, gets comfortable and tells about his first love – Bernadette Johnson – and how he took a bath in Canoe cologne to win her affection.
“A part of the show will be, ‘How did he get in my house,’ and the other part of it is, ‘I’m suing him, because somehow he found out some information about us,’” Cosby says. “The third part, which is very important, is to laugh because you hear a guy talking, and you find out you’re not alone.”
Cosby’s ability to weave humorous tales dates back to his days at Temple University when he had to take a remedial English class. He was 23 years old and had just spent four years in the Navy, helping to care for Korean War veterans.
He was instructed to write a composition about one of his life’s “firsts.” Rather than focusing on the first time he rode a bike or made a tackle in football, Cosby decided to write about the first time he ever pulled a tooth. He went back to his room, stood in front of a mirror with a legal pad and a No. 2 yellow pencil and crafted his story.
Cosby turned the story in, and two weeks later when he didn’t receive his paper back from the teacher, he thought he had done something wrong. Instead, the teacher read the story in front of the class, citing it as a perfect example of what they were looking for.
“That was the beginning and the opening up of what I do now,” Cosby says. “I am now putting down thoughts that I know and think happen to be funny.”
But not everything is jokes and laughs in Cosby’s world. The comedian is known to go on unruly rants on a wide array of topics during interviews, and ours was no exception.
The conversation took a turn from comedy to current events, covering everything from sports to politics. When asked about some of the things bothering him today, all he could do was laugh.
“Oh, this is not going to be good, man,” Cosby says with a chuckle. “This is sort of like asking, ‘So what have you really been doing as opposed to what you should have been doing?’”
Cosby dove in to talk about Denver Broncos’ quarterback Tim Tebow. He says he grew to like Tebow this season after sports pundits wrote off the team and his unorthodox playing style. He says the Denver offense reminds him of old-time football – the single wing formation made popular by famed coach Glenn “Pop” Warner.
Another aspect of Tebow that Cosby says he appreciates is his ability to deal with adversity to overcome and succeed as a team member.
“It’s important to me that we not lose the eye directed at this young man who the media seems to want to laugh at,” Cosby says. “Tebow talks about the faith that one is able to continue all the way to the end.”
Known as someone who won’t shy away from controversy, Cosby shifts his attention to Penn State and the Jerry Sandusky sex scandal. He takes the media to task for creating the “Jump on Joe” Paterno bandwagon, noting that Paterno was turned into a scapegoat by a group of people that had been looking for him to leave the university for years.
Cosby says there was no clarity in the first weeks of the controversy to get an honest understanding of what the media knew before the story broke and all the deep running emotions surrounding the heinous accusations. However, Cosby was quick to point out Sandusky’s own transgressions, including the images of him wearing a Penn State Wrestling sweat suit after he was arrested for the second time.
“Whatever it was that Sandusky is or has, why would you let something like that continue?”, Cosby says. “What was it Sandusky had that to this day this guy can feel comfortable wearing – in the heat of all of this – a Penn State Wrestling sweat suit? How dare you. How?”
(An interesting side note: according to Sandusky’s 2001 autobiography, Touched: The Jerry Sandusky Story, Cosby made a personal phone call to him in the late 1980s, encouraging him to take the head football coaching job at Temple and even invited his daughter to attend a taping of The Cosby Show.)
Cosby says stories like Tebow and Sandusky are symptoms of the 24-hour news cycle and a disrespectful media organization he sees as “people at a buffet who never really tasted the food on their plate” and are constantly looking for the next story without any depth of thought on the real issues.
That unruly dialogue, Cosby says, has crossed over to all parts of society, creating a political system where politicians are able to come back to prominence after making fools of themselves – or even worse. He says the media loves talking heads and will do anything to parade them back out into the spotlight.
“It’s entertaining to show the public that there are two men running for the office of President of the United States who are lighting up the idiot board, and they make heroes of them,” Cosby says, although he wouldn’t point out who he thought was on the idiot board for this election cycle.
He shares his thoughts on how out-of-whack politics has become, noting that someone like Abraham Lincoln would have never been elected president today because he didn’t have money.
When asked how to get the money out of politics, Cosby simply laughs. “I think you’ve got the wrong window,” he says. “I’m just in charge of complaints. I don’t do answers.”
And when asked what people can expect in his current live performances, Cosby laughs again.
“Well, none of the things you and I have been talking about,” Cosby jokes. “We’re not going to run those things out.”
American Music Theatre • February 18