My Comedy Problem: Bill Cosby

This Saturday (May 5) my wife and I are going to see Bill Cosby perform live at the Peoria Civic Center Theater.  I am incredibly excited about this.  Not only is he a living legend but he has had a significant influence on what I think is funny.  

I think The Cosby Show is one of the definitive examples of a family sitcom--it is about a strong husband and wife who truly love each other and their kids but who also go through a whole slew of problems.  The show has produced some of the funniest moments in TV history and some of the funniest moments in my own life (I'm thinking especially of "The Regular People" segment as well as the "Theo Gets an Earring" segment).  As a kid, I only knew about him from The Cosby Show but as an adult I have really come to appreciate him more as a stand-up comedian. I have listened to a lot of stand-up in the last few years and have come to see it as a really pure and daring art form.  It is just one person standing up in front of a group of people, telling them stories, trying to connect with them on a personal level, trying to reveal some kind of truth we can all relate to, and, of course, trying to make them laugh.

Leading up to the concert this Saturday I have been listening to a lot of Cosby’s stand-up.  While most of his material consists of what would be considered middle of the road familial humor (either stories of his childhood years or his experiences of being a father and a husband) he always uses an unsentimental approach and often incorporates off-the-wall and absurd humor into his sketches.  Even though I have been listening to records that are thirty and forty years old, his material still seems fresh and it seems like he has new things to say despite the fact that his subjects are well-trodden territory.  Essentially, what I am saying is that Cosby is amazing.

This does not mean, however, that I have no reservations about the show I am going to see.  I actually have some fears about whether it will be worth our money (actually, my mother-in law’s money—it was a gift to my wife for her birthday [thanks Bev!].  I will explain my fears by posting an email I sent to comedian Marc Maron who hosts the WTF Podcast, a bi-weekly free podcast consisting of Marc interviewing the best comedic minds around today.

Dear Marc,

          I am writing to you because I have a comedy problem and I think (actually I know) you will understand it.  In fact, the problem has arisen because of something I learned on your show about what comedy should be.  Let me explain.

          This Saturday, May 5 I am going to see Bill Cosby live in concert in Peoria, Illinois (my hometown) at the Peoria Civic Center Theater.  I am very excited about this as it is the first time I will ever actually get to see live stand-up comedy and I will be seeing a living legend--one of my favorite comics who has made me laugh since I was a kid.  At the same time, I am really nervous that I will be disappointed in the show; that it will all be a BIG letdown.

          My worries all started when I went to buy the tickets at the box office of the Civic Center (I wanted to avoid the Ticket Master fees).  When I went up to the booth and told the ticket clerk which show I wanted to see I asked him if he had ever seen Cosby before.  He said, “Oh yeah, a few times before.  He’s just great.”  I then asked him if he knew what material Cosby usually does.  The clerk said “Oh you know, he does his usual stuff. (brief pause) What I really like about him though is that he does a good clean show—nothing raunchy.  It’s something the whole family can go to.”

          When I heard this my heart sank—even though I did not let on to the clerk.  You see, in recent years I have heard that Cosby’s routine has gotten a little rawer, that he has kind of become this somewhat cynical old man character who “just tells it like it is” and not just a lowest common denominator comedian trying to appease the masses.  Now listen, I know who Cosby is.  I know he has always been a mass appeal comedian, always talking about childhood, parenthood, male/female tensions, and any other subjects that relate to a general audience.  But in the past few weeks I have been listening back to a lot of his old stand-up and despite the middle of the road material I don’t think Cosby ever really plays it safe.  In what I have heard so far he has talked about his daughter’s growing breasts and getting their periods, the sticky messy blankets from his son’s wet dreams, sneakily visiting a Japanese masseuse without telling his wife, trying to find the drug Spanish Fly, the unsavory aspects of a woman birthing a baby, and calling his kids “brain damaged.”  Sure I think he is trying to appeal to the masses, but in a bold way.

          My worry is not that Cosby won’t use swear words—that is, my concern isn’t about a lack of vulgarity.  Instead I fear he will not tell us the truth.  A number of times on the podcast I have heard you talk about how no matter what a comedian’s schtick is, the most important thing is whether or not he or she is telling the truth, whether or not they have the boldness to stand up in front of people and reveal something uncomfortable and still funny—about themselves, about the audience, or about the world we live in.  As I was walking away from buying the tickets it hit me that I was going to see Cosby play in Peoria—the most mediocre place in America (at least as far as stereotypes go).  Cosby is a master at his craft and my fear is that he won’t really challenge us as an audience; that he will know this is Peoria and just play it safe, appealing to the lowest common denominator, throwing out the easiest things that can make an audience laugh.

          During your interview with Chris Rock (ep. 224), he was reflecting on his favorite comedians and he compared Richard Pryor (who originated from Peoria) to Willie Mays because he was the flashiest player and the most fun to watch.  Then he compared Cosby to Hank Aaron, because even though he was not flashy everyone knew he was the greatest ever.  I thought that was a wonderful comparison and I think what I fear is that the show on Saturday will not be a baseball game but a homerun derby where Hank Aaron takes a few pitches, knocks them out of the park, waves to the audience, and then signs a few autographs.  I don’t really care if Cosby can show up to a publicity fundraising event to please the fans.  I want to know if he can still get in the game and compete and maybe even steal a few bases.

          This is my fear and I am sure you understand where I am coming from.  I do not expect a response from you, but as fan of your comedy and your podcast I thought you would be interested to hear my perspective.

          I still have high hopes that it will be a great show!

          Best Regards,

                   Chris Marchand
                   May 2012
And here is Marc's jolting and much appreciated response:

Dude, it's Cosby. Relax and be happy you will have seen him before he died. He was never lowest common denominator. I don't know what you are talking about. His truths were family truths and human truths. He will never be vulgar or use language. He's fucking Cosby. 

What's the matter with you? Go watch the old man talk and be forgiving. He's still up there doing it. If you want Vintage Cosby watch 'Himself'. It's not going to get better than that. 


Thanks so much for responding Marc. I am incredibly appreciative.

And now please enjoy the Cosby Funhouse!

And below, please enjoy a segment from Cosby's landmark comedy album Himself:

Related Articles:
Bill Cosby's New Standup Special "...Far From Finished" Released
Jim Gaffigan and the Physicality of Comedy
Making a Case For Dark Comedy  #1: Maria Bamford


maryflorence said...

Dude- that is THE BEST response from him!!! I love it.
I hope you guys have fun. I love going to see comedians. Even when I know the punchline, it's so fun to sit and laugh for an hour and a half. :)

Anonymous said...

So...what's your feeling on Cosby now? Turns out he was never truly honest, was he?