It has been about 50 years since Bill Cosby's first comedy album arrived in stores, almost 49 since he became a TV star via "I Spy," more than 30 years since his last concert special, "Bill Cosby: Himself," and 22 years since his landmark sitcom "The Cosby Show" ended.
It has not gone unnoticed then, by Cosby himself, that younger people in particular think of him not as an active performer but as a comedy ancient, an inspiration to subsequent generations of comedians but still someone who, as Cosby described it, "is for old people, or before my time."
And those people are so wrong. Last November, Cosby presented a Comedy Central special bluntly titled "Far From Finished." Although it acknowledged that for some audiences comedy has changed -- Cosby joked that people assumed his being on Comedy Central also meant he would be cursing -- the special was a powerful reminder of what a great comedian Cosby still is.
He is a master storyteller and performer, someone for whom not only words but also pauses and smiles are key. All his moves are in service of domestic insights so universal, he proudly notes that people often wonder, how did he get in their house? (That, Cosby said, is "the joy.")
Told he still makes me laugh, Cosby said, "I still have to." Indeed, while Cosby has also been active as an educator and philanthropist, it's clear that he sees comedy as a useful, even noble profession.
He recalled giving a commencement address and telling the students planning careers in entertainment to remember that the future doctors and lawyers around them "have to do something on the weekend. And that's you."
After all, Cosby is an artist. The only real flaw in the Comedy Central show was that it was interrupted by commercials, breaking up Cosby's carefully constructed cadences. He will remedy that with his next special, which will be for commercial-free Netflix. "No breaking of the ebb," Cosby said. And that will get viewers closer to what is seen by live audiences.
Don't expect a greatest-hits show. Cosby, who will be 77 in July, continues to work on new material, constructing monologues that have been compared to jazz pieces -- and also resemble short plays. After all, when he is constructing the pieces, Cosby told me he is writer, director and performer, and in the last case the performer of many roles. "I'm really not sure how many characters I can do. But I'm able to do them with the same face," he said, chuckling.
But it was the writing that set all those other wheels in motion. Cosby explained how the writing came to be.
"My whole writing career started at Temple University," he said. Following service in the Navy, he was a freshman at Temple in 1960, taking remedial English. He said he did funny things -- "part of the personality of wanting to be liked” -- and loved comedy masters like Buster Keaton and Laurel & Hardy. He had no ambitions to be in entertainment. Instead, he planned to be a teacher — although, he added, "there's nothing wrong with being a jovial schoolteacher."
Remedial English, he said, brought "the first time I had ever finished an assignment giving all, going back over something, not stopping and saying, well, that's good enough and if I get a C that'll be fine. Or even if I did worse, to ask for an inflated D. I don't know where that professor is, but man, I owe an awful lot to him. ... I finished that composition and he read it to the class! It was not meant to be funny, and no one laughed. What it was, was something I remembered and I wanted to get involved in telling the feelings." Cosby got an A — "no inflated grade, either."
"I wrote a second composition," Cosby said, and this one he recalls even more vividly. "The title was, 'The Perfect Point, or Procrastination.' It was about sharpening my pencil, not wanting to get started (writing), so I'm looking for the perfect point. I keep sharpening. Next thing, there's no pencil." The professor loved it, Cosby recalled. "Now I'm beginning to write down things that I'm thinking. I hear things. There's nothing different about me, except now because of those two A's I have a feeling that there is some value in the thoughts that I have.
"And that's when the style developed of thinking about something, and writing it, and then piling on the humor," he said. Sometimes the humor is already there, as with "The Perfect Point." Sometimes it is layered into the story as he revises it. Told that sounds like kind of the way he still works, Cosby said, "Not kind of." Exactly? "Yeaaah."
Right now he is working on a piece about comedians who claim, "We were poor and didn't know it." "How could you not know?" Cosby said. "How could you walk out and say that? ...
"I'm putting things down so that people once again say, either 'How did you get in my house?' or 'I'm not alone.' It's just, absolutely wonderful. And what happens there, with that particular kind of humor is, you're not just getting them to laugh. They also have a sense of being alive and feeling it.”