“I’m ready!” It’s the first thing he says when you answer the phone. No name is needed – there’s no doubt that it’s Bill Cosby.
The voice is so familiar that you almost forget he’s not speaking to Clair Huxtable on “The Cosby Show” or to the kids who say the darndest things.
He’s speaking to you, and you haven’t even said hello yet. You scramble to collect your thoughts, to get pleasantries out the way and ask the first question, which is about his “Far From Finished” tour. It will make a stop Sunday at Embassy Theatre.
Premiering last fall on Comedy Central, “Far from Finished” was Cosby’s first television special since he released “Bill Cosby: Himself” 30 years ago. The aptly titled show is no comeback. Cosby has never stopped touring, never stopped sharing stories about his family and his wife of 50 years, Camille.
Cosby says what inspires him has remained the same since his remedial English class as a 23-year-old freshmen at Temple University in Philadelphia.
“A teacher wrote about me in the sixth grade that ‘William’ – this was before I became famous – ‘William has a quiet way of not listening.’ Now (as a college student), I have found value in education. Value in starting from the bottom, aiming to only work one’s way up,” Cosby, now 76, says from New York during a phone interview.
“So I wrote this composition about the first time I’ve ever done anything. I wrote about pulling my tooth. Age 6. I wasn’t aiming at humor because I didn’t know enough about humor to write about it. I loved comedy, but I never thought it would be funny. I just thought it would be an interesting idea. I got an A and C-minus (C-minus was for the grammatical errors). Inspired by the A and the fact that I want to learn, because I’m feeling good about myself, I wrote a piece called ‘Procrastination (The Perfect Point).’ Everything had to be perfect in the place where I’m going to work on the paper, so I put the pencil in the manual sharpener and I kept looking at the point, and it wasn’t perfect. I kept sharpening it and looking at it until there was no pencil left, just the metal and the rubber. I got an A and B-plus.
“I had no intention to be who you were talking to on the phone. I just knew there were certain things that I enjoyed, and the A and the B-plus led me to enjoy an idea, feel good about the idea and then work on the idea.”
Cosby treats crowds with a series of observational, sometimes tangential, stories about relationships, marriage and children, which he weaves together with seemingly casual insight. The opening sets the tone for the show: The lights dim; he walks onstage, sits in a comfortable chair, greets the audience, “and then it starts to happen, and that’s it,” Cosby says.
“I sit in that chair, and I talk to them. I am able to be my wife, able to be me, I am able to be the lady who’s getting me the chocolate chip cookie. I have all these characters. It’s the entertainment, the clarity, the enjoyment of the story, what the characters are saying,” he says.
“I’m on that stage for two hours. I don’t have any films to show, I don’t have any other comedians on in front of me, I don’t have a singer there, it’s just me. Bill Cosby.”
The Philadelphia native’s most recognized contribution to entertainment and culture is the “The Cosby Show.” The television show introduced the tight-knit, black Huxtable family that brought a fresh perspective to family life on TV. However, his legacy in television stretches back to 1965 when he was the first black actor to co-star on a TV series with his Emmy Award-winning role as Alexander Scott during the three-season run of “I Spy.”
He has created and produced Emmy Award-winning animated shows, “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids” and “Little Bill,” which were designed to educate as much as entertain.
He has written several best-selling books, including “Fatherhood,” and his most recent release, “I Didn’t Ask to Be Born: (But I’m Glad I Was).” The Kennedy Center honoree also received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor and the Marian Anderson Award.
Cosby says that as a freshman at Temple, his plan was to become a teacher.
“There’s two things I know I must have: I must have education, and I must have credentials,” he says as he reflects back to that time. “I’m receiving a Bachelor of Science to take the exam and then receive the papers that say, ‘You are a teacher,’ and now I’m qualified to go to a junior high school. I’m going to teach and turn young boys around who think the world is what I used to see when I was mismanaging my life. I’m not a drug dealer and never was, never stole, never did anything – I just did nothing,” he says.
However, when he did turn to comedy, he embraced a style that focused on the story and character, where the idea, the writing and the performance of the material is equally important.
And with plenty of ideas to share, Cosby is far from finished.
“The philosophy before I started was if you didn’t get (the audience) in the first 30 seconds, you’re going to lose them. So that would represent the one-liners – ‘I’ll never forget the day I was born, I cried like a baby.’ That’s not me.
“After listening to Jonathan Winters, after listening to (Mel Brooks as) the 2,000-year-old man, after listening to Lenny Bruce, after listening to Bob Newhart, I felt like I can take my time explaining to them what I’m talking about, and when it’s time to deliver what I have to deliver, they’re going to laugh about it.
“As long as the timing is there, as long as they can see and feel it, they’re going to laugh.”