Friday, May 21, 2004

Cosby: Still the man

—Originally published 5.21.04

Bill Cosby ranked No. 8 on Comedy Central's recent list of the "100 Greatest Standups of All Time," but he'll always be top dog in my book.

I had the great fortune to see the legendary comic last weekend in Asheville, N.C., and he was worth the drive and the money twice over.

I don't have much experience with standup comedians -- matter of fact, last weekend was the first time I saw one in person -- but they fascinate me nonetheless.

I would encourage everyone to rent/buy "Comedian," a documentary about the genre released in 2002. Filmmaker Christian Charles went on a quest to discover "the story of a joke," because it's really hard to be funny -- there's a science and method to comics' madness, which I've grown to appreciate since watching this film.

"Comedian" focuses primarily on Jerry Seinfeld -- another of my favorites -- after he discarded the primary act that led to his superstardom. (His final performance of these jokes is captured on 1998's "I'm Telling You for the Last Time," also a must.) Charles follows Seinfeld through the rigors of constructing a new set, starting from a few minutes at New York comedy clubs on through to bigger venues and longer shows.

At the same time, Charles follows a younger little-known comic, Orny Adams, as he tries to build his own reputation in the unflinching business.

It's a great movie and a fascinating subject. I mention it here, though, because my man Cos makes a cameo, as he and Jerry discuss the business backstage before a show. Bill is referred to reverentially by not only Seinfeld (No. 12 on Comedy Central's list, by the way), but Chris Rock, as well (who snagged the fifth spot).

During one scene, you see Rock and Seinfeld chatting in a bar somewhere and Cosby comes up. Rock tells Seinfeld he went to see the legend recently and Cosby had all new material from the time before. It makes Rock feel like a fraud, the comic admits. The scene effectively displays Cosby's greatness, and he doesn't tell a single joke on-camera. Apparently, he can do in no time what it takes other comics a lifetime to build.

Cosby must obviously love doing standup, because at 66, I'm sure he is financially set for the rest of his life. He doesn't have to stay out on the road, much less write new material.

Sunday night he could have easily tread water on past successes. As a kid, I used to listen to his old comedy albums all the time (which I now I listen to them all the time on CD). If he had gone through "Buck, Buck," "Revenge" or "To Russell, My Brother, Whom I Slept With," I would have left the auditorium without a complaint.

I don't know if Cosby was doing brand-new material Sunday night or not, but it certainly wasn't from anything I'd heard before. He prefaced his set by saying he's been married 40 years, and no one told him anything he could use before his nuptials. He was there to help people like me -- young married men.

Only somebody who's been around as long as Cosby could get away with wearing a T-shirt, sweatpants and sandals (with socks, no less!) onstage. But within minutes of hitting the spotlight, Cosby's appearance was long forgotten.

What followed was an hour and a half of absolute hilarity. My sides were hurting a half-hour in and I had trouble using the binoculars because they shook too much with my laughter. My favorite thing about Cosby is he doesn't tell jokes -- there are few recognizable punch-lines in the traditional sense, just funny story after funny story. That's what separates him from so many others, and what keeps him fresh for every generation -- there were people older than my parents and younger than my youngest brother at the show Sunday night, and they were all laughing.

He ended the night, though, with an encore of sorts and a send-up to us lifelong fans. The last five minutes of his show were spent talking about the dentist, one of his all-time great bits from the album/video "Himself."

If your only exposure to Cosby is from his NBC sitcom (not that the show isn't funny), go buy a few of his CDs. Then judge for yourself if he's not deserving of No. 1.

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