Slow ticket sales are prompting legendary comedian Bill Cosby to do a media blitz promoting his 2 p.m. May 6 Orpheum Theater concert. It just wouldn’t do for the 74-year-old icon to play to empty seats.
Cosby’s handler has me call the artist’s home directly. The unmistakable voice answering on the other end hastily greets me before excusing himself with, “Hang on a minute.” It seems his wife Camille is heading out with the grandkids and he wants to confirm dinner plans before she goes.
“Hey, listen! Is anybody paying attention to what I’m saying? Camille, are you paying attention to what I’m saying?”
He’s channeling the exasperated Cliff Huxtable from The Cosby Show.
He holds the floor a moment before fumbling for a name that eludes him. His family assures him they’ve got it covered. As they exit, he says, “OK,” and returns to the phone.
“Hello, alright, what you got?”
I suggest the overheard exchange is like a scene from his show.
“Well, um, yeah, with grandchildren now who come by and visit and then things show up in their hands and you say, ‘Well, where’d you get that?” ‘I don’t know.’ ‘Go put that back.’ And you have to define to grandchildren what is not a toy.
“Before they’re broken we would rather you not pick them up and then put them on the floor and pretend they’re something, and then forget you put them down there, which is what I call dementia. While people are picking on old people, kids have dementia too , They put stuff down and then they walk away and leave it.”
The riff over, Cosby refocuses to ask. “So where am I going?” I reply, “You’re coming to Omaha.” “Oh, yeah, listen man, we need help there. Played Lincoln (October 7), did well, did very well. We’re sitting there (Omaha) anemically at 30 percent. I think we need to tell the people I’m coming and they will probably have close to an hour and 45 minutes of good old, gee whiz I-forgot-I-could-laugh-that hard-and-that-good fun.”
Later, when he repeats his plea for help, citing the 30 percent number, I express surprise he even knows a detail like that.
“Really?” he asks incredulously. “Well, you better erase that. I do know. Look, this is a business. I just want the people to know I am here and they need to go on and get these tickets and quit fooling around.”
A personal appeal to his fan base is potentially huge. His audience is sure to include folks “when I used to play Ak-Sar-Ben, when that was a big to-do then,” he says, referring to sold-out Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben concerts he performed at the old coliseum, once memorably with Sammy Davis Jr..
I ask if he considers himself a storyteller or monologist and he interrupts with, “Don’t bother with all that stuff. I walk out, there’s a chair, a table, a box of Kleenex, a bottle of water and a waste paper basket. Draped over the chair is ‘Hello, friend,’ which is our late son’s favorite saying in greeting people.”
Then, in the warm, reflective intonations familiar from his stand-up act and film-TV roles, he launches into, what else?, a story about how it all started for him at school. It’s the reason he’s taken education as his cause, both as advocate and critic.
He says growing up in a Philadelphia public housing project he was a bright but indifferent student, devoting more time to sports and hanging out than studying. He recalls only two teachers showing real interest in him.
“I wasn’t truant, I just didn’t care about doing anything. I was just there, man. I was still in the 11th grade at age 19.”
He calls what happens next “divine intervention.” The high school drop-out joined the U.S. Navy. He hated it. “That was a very rude epiphany.” He stuck it out though and obtained his GED. “I spent four years revamping myself.”
He marveled a GED could get him into college. Despite awful test scores Temple University accepted him on an athletic scholarship in 1960.
“I was the happiest 23-year-old in the world. They put me in remedial everything and I knew I deserved it and I knew I was ready to work for it. I knew what I wanted to be and do. I wanted to become a school teacher. I wanted to jump those 7th and 8th grade boys who had this same idea I had of just sitting there in class.
“Being in remedial English, with the goal set, that’s the thing that began to make who I am now.”
I score points when I share I tested into remedial English myself, prompting this, “Hey, we’re remedial, man.”
Fully engaged in his work, he threw himself into creative writing assignments. He wrote about pulling his own tooth as a kid and the elusive perfect point in sharpening a pencil. He recalls the impact it made when the professor held up his papers as shining examples and read them aloud in class to appreciate laughter.
“That was the kickoff. That’s when my mind started to go into another area of, Yes you can do, and I began to think, Gee whiz, I could write for comedians. And all my life from age 23 on, I was born again…in terms of what education and the value is. To study, to do something and be proud of it – an assignment.”
Cosby found his voice and passion: humanist storyteller of universal themes.
“That’s the whole idea of the writing – everybody identifying with it. I write about the human experience.”
From the start he wrote what he knew. “Who told me to do it? Nobody, I just wrote it. Was I trying to be funny? No. Was I reading any authors who inspired me? No.”
It wasn’t long after enteringTemple he penned famous bits like “Superman” and “Toss of the Coin.” Hundreds more followed, mostly about family, fatherhood and growing up.
“I write all and have written everything I have ever performed on stage. So, when you look at a movie, when you look at a TV show when you hear an LP, I am that writer-performer. Everything comes from that. But when you look at the body of the work you will see that school teacher still working it, still talking about the value of education.”
His stand-up career exploded so fast, setting the stage for many firsts, that he left college.
“I would imagine it was something brand new for an awful lot of people – to see this black person talking and making a connection and laughing because, ‘Yeah, that happened to me.'”
He’s well aware his life could have been quite different.
“Had it not been for the positive influence of this professor, without him reading that out loud and my hearing the class laugh, who knows, I may be at this age a retired gym teacher, well loved by some of his students.”
Years later he did finish college and added advanced degrees. He’s the author of several best-selling books.
Going on 50 years as a comic, he’s a familiar “friend” to audiences. “We already have a relationship that’s wonderful because they know I’m funny, so there’s no guessing there.” He walks out with an idea of what he wants to do but, he says, “I keep it wide open.” Once he feels out the crowd, he goes where “they are.”
“It’s very complex,” he says, “but because I’m a master at it I think you want me in that driver’s seat to turn you on.”
Tickets start at $49.50. To order, call 402-345-0606 or visit www.ticketomaha.com.
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.