Friday, July 13, 2007

The Feast of Saint Bill...Right

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,

Bertrand Russell, in his autobiography, writes that his life was changed when he found a book by John Stuart Mill in his father's library. I had a similar experience, only I found a copy of Bill Cosby's "I Started Out as a Child" among my father's albums. This week brought us Bill Cosby's 70th birthday.

Bill Cosby is the Willie Mays of comedy, perhaps the greatest complete comedian ever. He has the observational powers of Jerry Seinfeld, the story-telling ability of Alan King, the timing of Groucho, the ability to do the understated one-sided dialogues like Bob Newhart. There is nothing he can't do as well as any comedian ever.

He had a fine career as an actor in the 60s and 70s, starring in tv's I Spy and films like Mother, Jugs, and Speed and Uptown Saturday Night, but it was his stand-up that made him great. At a time where the trend was following the trajectory of Red Foxx and Lenny Bruce with acts like George Carlin and Richard Pryor, Cosby had a softer edge reflecting on the sorts of moments that were universal in everyone's experience. Those earlier albums contain absolutely classic bits like Noah (what's a cubit?), tv football (and to make it look good, they bandaged his head), and the Lone Ranger (Tonto no go to town).

But it was on the 1967 album Revenge that he tells of the neighborhood game "buck buck" in which kids from one block form a human horse while those from another block one by one jump on trying to break the horse. Horse who holds the most kids wins. Of course, Bill's neighborhood had a secret weapon, the biggest, baddest buck buck breaker of them all. And that's where he introduced...hey, hey, hey, it's Fat Albert.

Fat Albert would go on to become not only a great stand-up bit, but one of the defining characters for a generation of kids. Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids featured Russell, Rudy, Weird Harold, Mushmouth and other characters from Cosby's childhood and routines. Positive and funny, it was classic Cosby.

Then, just as you figured he was settled into a life selling Jell-O Pudding Pops, along comes his 1983 filmed routine Bill Cosby: Himself. It featured his trademark reflections on childhood:

It was because of my father that from the ages of seven to fifteen, I thought that my name was Jesus Christ and my brother, Russell, thought that his name was Dammit. "Dammit, will you stop all that noise?" And, "Jesus Christ, sit down!" One day, I'm out playing in the rain, and my father yelled, "Dammit, will you get back in here!" I said, "But, Dad, I'm Jesus Christ!"
But now, he was a father and much of the routine was about his kids.
So I looked at him. And I noticed that from here all the way around to here...there was no hair. I said, "Son?" Called him "son". "What happened to your hair?" He said, "I don't know." I said, "Son, take your hand and put it on top of your head and tell me what you feel." He said, "There's no hair." I said, "Right! Now, tell Dad what happened to your hair." He said, "I don't know." I said, "Son, was your head with you all day today?" He said, "Uh-huh." I said, "Was this the hair you wanted?" He said, "Uh-huh." I said, "A reverse Mohawk?!" He said, "Uh-huh!" I said, "Did you cut your hair off?!" He said, "Uh-huh!" I said, "Well, why didn't you tell me that in the beginning?!?" He said, "I DON'T KNOW!!"
From that routine came the Cosby show and another chance for the man to shape popular culture.

Truly the finest narrative comedian ever. You could listen to Cosby for an hour and swear only three minutes went by. What are your favorite Cosby bits?

Happy birthday Bill Cosby and thanks for all the laughs.

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve