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Laughing is a beautiful look

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A conversation with Bill Cosby

Quick - name your top five stand-up comedians of all time.

Got a list? I'm willing to bet that at least one of the names on that list is Bill Cosby (though I freely admit that if you've seen the cover of this edition, you've probably got Cosby on the mind). For decades, Bill Cosby has been bringing his own unique take on comedy to millions of people through his live performances and numerous television and movie ventures. He's one of the most famous men in America, not to mention one of the most admired.

Recently, Mr. Cosby - who has a performance coming up on June 24 at the Augusta Civic Center - was kind enough to agree to spend a few minutes chatting with me. Little did I realize just how different this interview was going to be.

It started right at the beginning. When I asked if he was excited about the upcoming show, he laughed and said, "I've got other things to do, man. Shucks." I could hear the grin in his voice as he said it. And then, without prompting, he launched into what had to be the most hilarious outlining of a travel itinerary in the history of ever.

"Let me tell you what I'm doing," he said. "I've got a single engine plane, a Pilatus turboprop. I get in the plane and fly 400 some miles to Dayton, Ohio. I'm doing a speech there, [going to] make people feel good for 25 minutes or so. Then we head to Fort Lauderdale."

CosbyTwo shows in Fort Lauderdale. Then back on the plane and fly to Detroit, not arriving at a hotel until 2:30 a.m. From Detroit, he was heading to Hartford for work on yet another project. And so on. So much in so little time.

(At this point, I need to inform you that every time travel in the plane was mentioned, Mr. Cosby made the sort of putt-putt noise of an airplane propeller. Every time. It sounded exactly like you're imagining it in your head right now - and it was hilarious. That's the sort of storyteller we're talking about here.)

Mr. Cosby went on to describe the amenities of his mode of transport.

"You get in the plane," he said, "and there are two seats pulled out. There's a mattress down on the floor with pillows and blankets." There was a subtle shift in his tone as he began (I think) to pull my leg a little.

"The blankets are blessed by a Native American nation," Cosby said, his voice the epitome of seriousness. "They're full of good wishes; I cuddle up and think about good things."

It's not all blessings and cuddling, though.

"The plane has a small bathroom," he continued. "Very small. Not as small as a Ziploc bag, but small. I don't like it. I go to the bathroom at the airport, I'm good for four hours."

It seems like he has a good relationship with air travel, from his pilots ("I tell them 'You fly, I do the jokes. I don't fly, you don't do the jokes.') to the freedom it affords him ("I just really enjoy being able to manage my time.").

The shift from funny to forthcoming (and still funny) was enlightening to say the least. When Bill Cosby starts talking to you about the nature of creativity, you listen. You listen, you take notes and you do your best to learn something.

It stemmed from me asking him if he still enjoyed what he did.

"Yes." Silence.

After a moment, we both started to laugh. Speaking of me, he said "For a living, you think and you write. Then you take it to the editor. The editor makes changes.

"Well I get to go out on a stage and say what I think. I edit myself. I can put myself in any position." A pause. "This is marvelous. I have funny thoughts, I can go back and relate them to things in the past.

Cosby again"To be able to hear the sound of the laughter, it reinforces how I perform and how I write. It helps me find that connection. People want to laugh.

"I'm sort of a gourmet," Cosby said. "I know what a smile does to someone. A laugh, too."

(At this point, a digression occurred. A number of things were involved, but I spent most of it so enthralled and entertained that I took no notes. It started with a discussion of Maine mosquitos where Mr. Cosby offered up a home remedy to prevent itchy bites. After a phone glitch led to a loud noise on his end, he asked if I had evacuated the building. I said no, he said you have to be careful up there in Maine, so close to the Russians. I may have said I could see them from my doorstep, he laughed at my "Sarah Failin'" reference (his words), I got actual goosebumps from having made Bill Freaking Cosby laugh and then I remembered that I'm supposed to be a journalist.)

Cosby then told me the story of how he developed his style and became a stand-up comedian.

"I just sit and talk," he said. "People laugh as I recollect. As I remember. I like to make people feel.

"When I was at Temple in my sophomore year, I didn't know if I was going to make it - this was in 1963. I didn't know where to go or what to do. I said to myself 'I enjoy writing funny things.' So I tried to sell routines."

Those attempts took place at a local comedy club called Columbo's.

"I'd go to the club and wait for the comic to come off. I'd tell them that I had some comedy material for them. They'd read it. And there was always something. They'd say 'This is not funny.' So I'd do the routine for them. And they'd say 'Still not funny.'"

However, one fateful day in a local restaurant, Bill Cosby found his path.

"I was sitting in a Chinese restaurant, writing a routine," he said, the wistfulness of memory in his tone. "And then ... I saw my style.

"A man was sitting at a table with eight people or so. They were [clearly] all friends. He was talking and they were laughing. Laughing hard."

(Here, Mr. Cosby went on another tangent about how so many women cover up their mouths when they laugh. He doesn't get it: "Laughing is a beautiful look." I couldn't agree more.)

"Friends talking to friends. That's my style," he continued. "I'm going to be a friend with funny things to say to my friends. Everyone can identify with that."

It's a simple and elegant description of what makes Bill Cosby great at what he does. He invites you into his world. He doesn't assault you with his humor; rather, he sits down next to you and shares his thoughts and observations on the world. It's intimate and - if you couldn't tell by the decades of success - extremely effective.

He left me with a story about a commencement address he gave at his alma mater.

"I'm speaking at commencement at Temple," he said. "There are 8,500 graduates in the basketball arena. The place is jammed. So I start to tell a story.

"Well, way up high, a baby starts to cry. Then it stops. I continue telling the story. The crying starts again. That baby is really crying. I thought 'I've got to say something.' So I started thinking. 'Should I say something about Dr. Huxtable delivering a baby?'

"Then, I found it. I turned slowly and looked up at the baby (who had stopped); the audience followed me. There was silence. And I said:

"'Give that baby a Jell-O Pudding Pop!' The place erupted.

"After all this time, to still be able to walk out and say 'Jell-O' and have people laugh? That is something special."

With that, our time together was over. He wished me well and hung up the phone, doubtless off to some other engagement or commitment in what I'm sure is an endless string of them. Yet never once did I feel like he was in any sort of rush to get off the phone. He was funny and charming and honest and thoughtful. Not only did he answer all of my questions, but he was interested in me. He asked about my job, where I went to school; when I told him I went to Orono, he called me a black bear.

Bill Cosby is one of the greatest of all time. He's a consummate performer and a consummate professional. He is a trailblazer and a trendsetter. And if our conversation is any indication, come June 24 the Augusta Civic Center is going to be an engaging, genuine and very, very funny place to be.

Last modified on Wednesday, 14 December 2011 16:01

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