A master storyteller

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First Posted: 4/1/2013

When asked if he considers himself a comedian or a storyteller, Bill Cosby’s answer is simple and clear.

“Yeah,” he responds dryly. “There is no ‘or.’”

Indeed, there is no separation between the two for the 75-year-old funnyman, as evidenced by his memorable and award-winning careers in both stand-up and television. Even when he is describing his routine before a performance, he can’t help but tell a story, which tends to lead into other stories.

After getting off the plane two hours before show time, Cosby said he heads straight to the venue, autographs three albums in his dressing room and anything else for the promoter, closes the door, and begins going over his material, which he refers to as “Yeah, right.”

“It’s called ‘Yeah, right’ because I’ve done this a number of times, but it’s never come out the way it was on paper… It keeps things very entertaining for me,” Cosby began in a phone interview with The Weekender last week.

“The other night, I appeared in Florida. I was in Sebring and I started a story, and then I would go into another story within that story. And then I did another one within that story, and then I decided, ‘Look, I’ve got to have some closure in these things,’ so I stopped in the middle of the third thing that was piled on top of the second and the first, and I went back to the first thing, which the people were very happy with because they wanted to know what happened.

“But then I cut that because I thought of something else and I made a run on that and finished it, and then I went back to the second story, which connected better to the ad-libs I was doing. Then I finished that up and I went back to the first one because I thought, ‘Order of the day is better,’ so I finished that and I went to the third one and I finished that up, and then I said to a person that I was pointing to, ‘What time is it?’ and sure enough, it was seven minutes before it would be an hour and a half.”

And like any good raconteur, the author, actor, producer, musician, and activist was prepared with a metaphor to explain his creative process.

“Storytelling, unlike a quick two lines and then the laugh, is making a great soup. You build on things. You prepare in a gourmet style or you prepare in a diner style so that your customers taste, and they’re not allowed to add salt or hot sauce; I do that. But I put in the flavors, the herbs. The only thing I can’t do is the odor of something. So the laughs come within the soup,” Cosby said.

“That is, in itself, one of the most wonderful things, and one of the most wonderful forms in art. For instance, if you go to a play, you see actors, and these actors transform themselves into the characters, so it’s an actor’s interpretation of something.

“When you see them, you see them in their costumes, so the visual is there. When I perform as a storyteller, you will hear, you will see this person – that’s Bill Cosby – transform himself in the same clothes, same face. At one instant, he’s a father, and the next instant he’s a teenage boy, and the next instant he’s a father, then he’s a teenager, so that you are able to look and see that the magic of all of this even with your eyes and even with this man using almost the same voice, but not necessarily the same inflections and emotions. You get from this one person a performance so that these people may very well, with your assistance, (find) meaning to go along with it.

“You may see yourself. You may see something…so when you hear what I’m doing, you might also respond… Here they are, people in their 80s, 40s, 20s…together understanding the story and going, ‘Oooooo.’ It’s wonderful.”

Family time

Born in Philadelphia and currently living in New England, William Henry Cosby Jr.’s clean, relatable humor not only comes from his unique perspective on life, but his love for his family, raising four daughters and one son with his wife, Camille, who he married in 1964 and still checks in with at least three times a day during his travels.

“Three times a day because I really very, very, very much love her and appreciate her,” Cosby emphasized.

“Mrs. Cosby and I talk about this often, and she believes the most important thing is integrity, respect, honesty. Love is there, you can love, but love needs work many times. This is what she believes – loves needs work, it needs a consistency to it, which is perpetuated by reinforcing the strengths: integrity, respect, honesty. You add that with love, it’s going to work.”

A grandparent as well, Cosby notes that as his children grow older, they have moved from a “confused stun” when he brings them up in his act to an experienced understanding.

“Our children who have children are no longer negative about what I’ve said. They’re more or less really looking for more information because they see the truth, but they see it with the children they’re raising,” he pointed out.

“The statement or quote (is), ‘Experience is the best teacher,’ and then you have to follow it up with, ‘Well, if it is, I can only make so many mistakes parenting,’ mistakes in the fact that you will openly contest to people that you have no idea why a child is behaving the way it’s behaving when, in fact, you used to be that.”

Abnormal publicity

It has been over two decades since the final episode of his groundbreaking NBC hit “The Cosby Show” aired after eight successful seasons, but Cosby’s popularity has yet to peak as he continues to write best-sellers, his latest being “I Didn’t Ask to Be Born (But I’m Glad I Was),” and pack theaters, as he did four previous times at the F.M. Kirby Center for the Performing Arts, including twice in 2009.

He makes his one-night-only return to the downtown Wilkes-Barre venue Friday, April 5. He remembers the area fondly, as Wilkes University made him “an honorary pharmacist” in 2004 during the school’s 57th Annual Spring Commencement, a title he says he wears proudly.

“Every day! Every day!” he enthused. “Now I must warn you, I’m homeopathic.”

This must have served him well, as Cosby continues to fly all over the country regularly and is booked through most of the year. Talking to The Weekender from Hawaii, he said that for the last 27 years, he flew in his own G4 to concerts, but when the plane became corrosive, he found a distinct advantage to traveling with his adoring public.

“I went back with the normal people because I’m abnormal. 27 years is interesting because of what they didn’t have 27 years ago. I don’t recall cell phones and the ability to take your picture and the ability to send a picture to about 100 to 150 relatives and friends, and I noticed that within the past two months, this is kind of great,” he acknowledged.

“If I have about 30 people as I’m sitting and waiting for the plane come up and take a picture with me – husband and wife, man by himself, woman by herself, high school kids, college kids, spring break people – and they send it to at least 100 people, that’s not bad, man.

“It’s good publicity because there I am with a normal person, an abnormal person with a normal person, and we’re smiling, and they send it and they comment on it. This is almost as good as having my own photo show.”