Returning to the spotlight, storytelling skills shine

Closer to 80 than 70, the man works.

Nov. 8: Red Bank, N.J.

Nov. 14: Great Falls, Mont.

Nov. 15: Missoula, Mont.

Nov. 16: San Bernardino, Calif.

That’s Bill Cosby’s performance itinerary for the past two weeks. Then come the next two weeks. Nov. 21: Virginia Beach, Va. Nov. 23: Columbia, S.C. Nov. 29: Las Vegas. Nov. 30: Boston.

In between, on Nov. 23, Comedy Central will air “Far From Finished,” Cosby’s first televised comedy special in three decades. Need a milestone for the last time a live Cosby performance was recorded for air? You’d be hard-pressed to find a better one than this: “The Cosby Show” hadn’t yet premiered on NBC. (That last special, “Himself,” provided the basis of the material for the show widely thought to have saved the television sitcom.)

If you track careers based on how often people appear onscreen, you’d be excused for thinking Cosby had essentially retired from the public scene, save for the occasional, pointed, headline-grabbing socio-political remark. Think about it: For about the last 40% of the 20th century, you never had to wonder what Cosby was up to. He was everywhere. In the 21st century, it hasn’t been the same.

But a lower profile doesn’t mean a disappearing act.

Dec. 6: Columbus, Ohio. Dec. 7: Evansville, Ill. The road keeps calling, and Bill Cosby keeps telling stories.

* * *

Bill Cosby even has a story about telling stories.

“There has always been a mystery, to me, about ad-libbing, that was answered maybe 20 years ago,” he says. “Jonathan Winters is the only man that I know who would walk out and hell’s a poppin’. The only one. I think that the rest of us mortals – 12% on a fantastic night – ad lib. So everything that I do when I’m working comes from the thought of something to writing, whether I’m walking with no pencil, no paper — just walking and thinking and setting the thing in story form. That’s the way I work, in story form, so that I could have a funny idea or an idea that says, look there’s got to be something funny about all this, right?

“I’ll take you all the way back to the time I was playing Greenwich Village — and by the way I don’t care what anybody says, my place was the Gaslight, not the Bitter End. It was the Gaslight. I’m in Manhattan, I’m living there, I’ve gone from $60 a week to $125, and I’ve made my mother very unhappy because I left Temple University, I’ve made my father very unhappy because my father wanted me to play my senior year and maybe go into pro ball.

“I live over the Gaslight in the storage room, and I bathe in the bathroom. I play basketball at Waverly Place, I finish, and I come back and shower. I think, there’s got to be something funny about riding up the subway train, because when I’m riding it, things happen. I know there’s something, but I can’t in storytelling put it together. I write and I talk about what I see on the subway. It doesn’t feel funny, and so the audience also told me that. But I’m still working in a storytelling mode. The trick comes in as I’m talking to someone about New York City, Manhattan, Broadway, off-Broadway. The night clubs (with their) three-drink minimum. Manhattan is very, very expensive.

“The idea comes. I now have the setup for what I’ve been saying about people on the subway train. … This city is very, very expensive. Don’t forget, this is 1963. But New York is also very benevolent. What the city has set up, on the subway trains you pay — and I don’t remember what the price was – and you are entertained because New York City has put a nut in every car. And I would imitate the different acts.

“So that’s what it needed, was what most comedy writers called a set-up, so people would see clearly. In my writing, I will also keep my senses open. Even with what you saw, I was still thinking. I was still working. I was still searching … If I’m John Coltrane and the song is ‘Bye Bye Blackbird,’ and time, the seconds, everything is ticking, and there’s movement as I speak, it’s the beginning, middle and end — but there’s also a opening, listening to one’s self, that never gives up on a piece. You can’t tell time by what I do. When you don’t see (the flexibility) any more, that means I don’t know anything else about this piece.”

* * *

Bill Cosby has a story, a good and long story, about why “I Spy” was so important.

“I’m performing,” he says. “I do ‘The Tonight Show.’ You can become a well-known person — you can move up to $750 a week — you get on ‘The Tonight Show’ and you go sit next to John. Alan Sherman had my first album; he produced it. ‘Bill Cosby Is a Very Funny Fellow: Right!’ That was it, and that was when I went on TV. I get a call from a man named Sheldon Leonard through my agent. There’s gonna be a TV show. Camille and I cannot believe it. Now I’m already established under colleges and selling out in 30 seconds.

“So I hear about this ‘I Spy’ thing, (and) I’m gonna be an actor — but I don’t know anything about acting. So I meet Frank Silvera, an actor, and he became my coach, and Luther James became my coach also, because Frank was busy. I did what I could in learning. But Bob Culp sends me a letter telling me that we are going to work together in this series, and he explains when they become friends … I’m reading this thing: I don’t know Bob Culp, I never watched him as Hoby in whatever (‘Trackdown’). When we met, I did the worst reading anybody could do. They went down the hall and had a meeting about whether they were going to be nice and let me go. Bob and Sheldon (say), ‘Well, we’ll keep him.’ Bob never told me, ‘No, say it like this.’ The only thing he ever did, he had the patience.

“We went to Hong Kong and filmed stuff. It was the damndest, most wonderful experience. We had four Jews, man. If you look at TV back then, you have maybe Harry Belafonte in a special. Nat King Cole was rejected, but still Chrysler still picked up the tab to run (him). These guys could stand beside a white woman, but you weren’t allowed to shake hands with her. There was foolishness going on TV. Frank Sinatra broke some barriers with Ella Fitzgerald and things like that, because Frank could do what he wanted to do.

“(So) with ‘I Spy,’ you had four Jews. One is Herb Schlosser, who is in charge of NBC entertainment, he’s a Jew. Sheldon Leonard’s a Jew. David Friedkin, Morton Fine is a Jew. Sheldon goes to Herb and says to Herb, ‘I want to do a TV series … but we’ve got a problem here.’ Herb asks, ‘What’s the problem?’ Sheldon says, ‘We want to go all around the world filming as two spies, and they work for the CIA and problems come up, blah blah blah. One of the guys is gonna be the tennis guy, and his partner speaks 12 languages with 37 dialects. He’s a Rhodes Scholar, and he works as the coach and the trainer of the tennis bum.’ Herb says, ‘OK, what’s the problem?’ Sheldon says, ‘I got Robert Culp here, and I want the second guy to be a Negro.’ And Herb asks, ‘What’s the problem?’

“And that’s fantastic for the time. That’s absolutely big, huge, fantastic. The only thing that ever happened, was they wrote something about the color of my skin, (but) these guys were absolutely terrific. And I went to them — because prior to that, I was on a show called ‘That Was The Week That Was.’ They had a racial piece, and I went to the writer — this was before the ‘I Spy’ thing — and I said to them, ‘I don’t want to do this piece. You’re making fun of the color of my skin. But I think I’m more intelligent (than this) — this punchline you have at the end is not what I want to say.’ … They said, ‘You don’t have to do it.’ The next day, I saw another black man, and he did that scene.

“So with ‘I Spy,’ they had written about something about the color of my skin, which is a joke — not a harmful thing, but it’s a joke. I went up to the office, and I said, ‘I don’t want this to happen to my character, because gentlemen, I’m the only black person walking around, and no matter where we go, there’s nothing here that balances. People don’t go up to Robert’s character and look at him in a strange way, (but) if I enter the room, everyone stops talking. I don’t want my color to be represented that way. That’s not my problem. Make it the problem of the people. If you make it their problem, then it is up to me and my character to straighten these people out. I’m not going to back down off of that. So it was easier to say nothing.

“ ‘I Spy’ represents the absence of the tension of the black man or black woman or anyone of that color walking in, so that the white racist person can become entertaining to a viewer. So what happens in movies, well, you’ve got the guys who will act in an insanity-driven way about the color, but at the end of the movie, when you look at the end of these movies, they say, ‘Who’s at fault here?’ The white writers, they begin to defend this horrible person, like they could live with this guy if the black person just had not shown up. It’s similar to Obama. You look at these idiots from D.W. Griffith. See, D.W. Griffith got it wrong. It wasn’t the black people in ‘Birth of a Nation,’ it’s those white senators. … These are the real idiots, and I hope that D.W. Griffith can see it, wherever he is. Because ‘Birth of a Nation’ is still right here, but it’s in whiteface.

“So with the two of us, with the blessings of Sheldon Leonard, Morton Fine, David Friedkin and Herb Schlosser — and by the way, our production manager (Fouad Said) was an Egyptian. They were doing things to his trucks — putting sugar in the gas tank, stupid, racist foolishness combined with greed, because he had a way of working this bus so that we could go anywhere, get permission from the city and plug in. You didn’t have to have 47 trucks blocking traffic. With the two of us, as you are watching you are released and relieved of, ‘Oh boy, here comes the tension.’ Bob and I are free to walk this world as two men in love with each other as brothers, unlike Cain and Abel, and to me, it means and gives a paradigm for behavior of people of difference. And we both meant it.

“They left (the joke) out. You’ve got to understand, they didn’t come back to me and say, ‘You’ve got to do this, it’s not going to work (otherwise).’ It rolled, and we went for three years on that. And don’t forget, at that time Martin Luther King is here, We’ve got marches on Washington and from the ’50s on through that time, there are things going on, racially in the South, Birmingham, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, people are lining up. And I want to clear it up. … White abolitionists. Asian abolitionists. Native-American abolitionists. Pakistani – whatever. This United States of America, they came out of colleges, they came out of homes, people who believed this was not justifiable. So when people say to me, ‘You know the Huxtables do an awful lot’ – I say, ‘You’ve got to go back deeper, man.’ And if you have any sense you go back also to George C. Scott and Cicely Tyson in ‘East Side/West Side.’”

* * *

Bill Cosby has a story about people not coming to see him.

In “Far From Finished,” Cosby is youthfully goofy, while maintaining a comical air of authority. In the conversation before the special, when talking about disappointments and challenges, about a humbling experience in far-off Pullman, Wash., Cosby drops the goofiness but arguably becomes genial.  “Usually in Pullman, I’m sold out, but this time, the promoter is not doing well,” Cosby says. “The promoter pays me and he’s gonna lose money. … The fellow running the venue, he’s talking like he can’t save this patient.

“I was fortunate to get with (a reporter) with the student paper. I sort of interviewed her to find out what was going on, and somewhere, somehow, at that school, there was no interest in seeing Bill Cosby, like the last 10 times I’ve played there, and so I began to ask her, what she read, what she looked at …

“I then decided OK, this is going to be very, very important, this special for Comedy Central, and it’s going to draw the people who love to watch comedy. And I believe that they will get a chance to see, not to sample, because this thing is 90 minutes, and I think that we’ll be able to go back there (to Pullman) next year sometime, because I’ll be hip again.

“So anyway this is a great opportunity for me to show my wares and have something also to put in front of ‘Himself’ himself, and get rid of that knot on the necktie.”

Jan. 17: Fayetteville, N.C. Jan. 18: Birmingham, Ala. Jan. 19: Knoxville, Tenn. …

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