Bill Cosby’s reassuring and familiar voice pauses. They’re deliberate pauses, perfectly timed breaks he has down to a science, evident in his first televised comedy special in 30 years, “Bill Cosby: Far From Finished” Saturday, Nov. 23, on Comedy Central.
Taped at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts near Los Angeles, it’s more of a sit-down than a stand-up show. Cosby mines subjects he knows well: long-term marriages (he and Camille have been wed for 49 years) and kids (they had five). He tells stories about the differences between pals and wives. Pals are fine when you call at 3 a.m. because your car broke down. Wives, when they have been telling you to get the car fixed for ages, are less so.
From 1965 through 1972, Cosby won a Grammy annually for best comedy performance or for best recording for children, then won another in 1987. In “I Spy” (1965-68), he became the first African-American to co-star in a drama, and he won three Emmys. Over the years, there was “Fat Albert” and “The Electric Company,” but it was as Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable, the happily married father of five on “The Cosby Show” (1984-92), for which he became most beloved.
On a recent early morning, Cosby talked with Zap2it for 80 minutes. What follows is an edited version of the interview.
Q: Why did you decide to televise a performance now?
A: For the same reason that we are doing social media. I still perform. I still write and overall I still think, so that adds to Descartes’ theory (I think therefore I am.) It’s very, very important to me to get the information out that I am performing, and what I do.
Q: How often do you perform?
A: I work by myself, and if I could do three nights a week for 52 weeks, that would be wonderful.
Q: Do you write with anyone?
A: The one brain; it is all in-house. The idea, the writing, and the direction, the choice, and then the changes occur during the performance.
Q: Do you write every day, and how? On laptop? Paper?
A: I keep active, observationally, and I have a feeling that a certain observation, the feeling, registers: “This is funny.” And then I will write — please — longhand, No. 2 yellow [pencil], legal pad; same as 1960.
Q: Which comedians influenced you?
A: The ones on the radio, Jack Benny, Jimmy Durante. Arthur Godfrey had a variety show, and in the middle he always had the comedian. When television came into play, I just gravitated to comedy. I loved it, loved watching it on TV.
Q: When did you know you would be an entertainer?
A: The self-esteem, one in which I had to climb out of a poorly managed, self-managed life, not a story of one dealing drugs or running numbers, just mismanaged in terms of what responsibility one would have and where one could use education that was not important to me, nor credentials. I did not throw them away. I just did not try to get them, so it was the wake-up call, which insisted I would have to cooperate with the rest of the world. That I could not just sit around and be happy with 25 cents from my mother or get a job which paid $20 a week and keep up with my friends, etc., etc., without having credentials to work. The boredom of working low level gave me a problem. I knew I didn’t want to stay there, but how do I get out? No complexity there. Everything is available if you want it.
Armed with wanting to be different, I did not know of anyone around my age and my color who wanted to work in a style that was Ivy League and college and writing about one’s observation in the storytelling way.
Q: Where did you start telling jokes?
A: I was a bartender, also, and the bar was about the size of your living room, the Cellar. You get about 10 people in there, and the place is full. I am at Temple University, and I am a student, and my books are back with the liquor bottles, and I exchange dirty jokes with the customers, and I also collect them. It was a lot of fun because you are funny, and the person you are exchanging with likes you and would leave a nice tip under the ashtray, so that is the way it was.
Q: Whose work do you admire?
A: Steven Wright. He is funny. There are some cerebral, funny [comedians], and when they come off and they say, “I was too smart for the room.” Guess what — they are not funny. You can have a whole audience sit there and not like you.
Q: What are your goals?
A: To work and the fun of working. My last job was a Saturday, and the exchange, the work to perform to give people, the thought and to hear them thinking to anticipate to set them up and do it with the timing — and to hear the laughter.
Q: What would like to add?
A: Family and — without it being corny — family. Because there are times when your children, in their brain damage, want to make you the culprit. It is a weird life, and you do not know how you got to be the culprit.