Writing about Bill Cosby after interviewing him is like putting together a puzzle. You know what it should look like, but the trick is finding the bits and pieces to make it fit. After sitting down for a conversation with the comedy legend, there’s plenty of workable material—that is if you can find it buried among the rest of his loosely connected thoughts, stories and opinions.
I was able to speak with Cosby recently before he performed a two-hour set for a sold-out audience in Great Falls, MT. He was on the road in support of his first stand-up special in 30 years, Far From Finished, which will air on Comedy Central Nov. 23. Cosby also recently divulged that he’s working on developing a new sitcom with Tom Werner, as well as a reboot of his classic “Fat Albert” animated series.
In our interview, Cosby touched on a number of subjects, but mostly how comedy today has become more reliant on profanity and, as he calls them, “party” words. Below are some excerpts from our conversation.
On profanity in comedy:
“Profanity, the bad words, those things are party words…When people [go to a comedy club] and you go there and the comedian is expected to come out with these things about the parts of the body, parts of the mouth, sex and party, party…In my day you didn’t come home to speak that, and you could speak it on the corner. It was a street language, and you never had to pay to see somebody say these things. So now it’s come to be party and it has morphed. It’s not Lenny Bruce, it’s not Richard Pryor. It’s still more of an Eddie Murphy and it’s that feeling which belongs to people [who are] 23 and 24.”
On appealing to the younger generation:
“So [not too long ago] a guy said to me, he was 28 years old, and he’s a bellman. I tip him and he said, ‘Mr. Cosby,’ he said, ‘I saw you the last time you were here,’ and he said it in a tone that you have to hear, he said, ‘and you were funny’ ... And I said to him, ‘Was that surprising?’ He said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘Because I was 24 at time,’ he said, ‘I bought tickets to take my father, and I love my father and my father loves you … I took my father and I watched,’ he said. ‘And my father and I were laughing and we were jabbing each other, saying, ‘That’s mom,’ and dad said, ‘No that’s you now.’ We laughed, Mr. Cosby, and when we got in the car the two of us,’ he said, ‘In my life there was a comfort zone being with my father,’ he said. ‘Understand there’s love, [but] my father is the leader, he’s the lecturer, he’s the prophet, you know what I mean? He’s all of the love and greatness, but now, in the car, we go over that material and we were two friends.’
”...But to hear a 50-year-old guy say to me, ‘Yeah, I grew up with you,’ and to hear them tell me how much they respect me, how much they appreciate me, it’s something. Over one’s career I would imagine many entertainers hear that from their fans, and I’m still working.
”...And then to have a 30-year-old woman say to me, [who saw] the taping, she said, ‘I laughed because I looked at you and that’s my grandfather, and that’s my grandmother, and my girlfriends, the two I came with, they were laughing and they were talking while they were laughing and identifying.’ ...This is what I want.”
On entertainment’s reliance on shock value:
“When you come to a city and do a show, people laugh. But if you come back two years later, will they be there then? Because it isn’t like you have a hit record, so what is the draw now? The party. The party, so I’m not naming names but I’m just saying in order to draw the kind of people you draw, to fill up this house and maybe do two shows, you gotta have something that’s like a hit something or other.
”...So what is it that they have besides party, party, party? [So now] they get more daring. You are in a time, and it has been like this for about a decade, of people being more outrageous. You’ve got a woman kissing another woman, someone lighting up what looks like a joint, going out with one, these people smoking bongs, grabbing,you know. They call it very calmly pushing the envelope. I push the envelope in a different way…But that envelope they’re pushing is a party envelope, so people will like that. Look at the music, how music has morphed from the Beatles from Elvis from Frank Sinatra doing all [of this], and it keeps coming [but with] comedy, how long can you talk about whatever you talking about?
”...It’s gotta be something unique, where people say, ‘Hey man did you see an accident lately?’ What is the thing on ESPN? Sports guys get on a skateboard, up and down and upside and out. [It’s] death defying. That’s what they do now. Death defying. It really is death defying and they keep pushing the envelope. Somebody one of these days is going to come out on an awards show and shoot up because they won’t get attention any other way. Or they’ll say, ‘I want to see what it looks like if I punch you in the face.’”
On the type of family dynamic he wants to portray in his new sitcom:
“I was explaining this to my partner Tom Werner. I said, ‘Tom, we when we did the Huxtables, I came in because I had something to say, because wanted to take the house back. I know that you don’t have to light up a joint, you don’t have to be nasty in order to have people feel that they’re looking at something special. I’m not putting it down, but when you look at today and you tell me you watch a TV series..You got Parenthood [and] Modern Family. Are these people not married in these shows? When do you see them kiss? When do you see them hug each other? It’s not like when Cliff sent up something for [Claire] and ‘Whoa.’ And then he did something he wasn’t supposed to do and people are laughing because that’s the way they are at home…So I’m looking at grandchildren and there are things that are lost because the punchlines, whether it’s movies or sitcoms, the punchlines go right to the party.”