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The comedian will be performing at the Roanoke Performing Arts Theatre Saturday night.
Bill Cosby likes a simple set — shown here at Queens College in New York — that allows him to connect with his audience.
Thursday, July 25, 2013
When Bill Cosby was a younger man, he aimed to walk onstage and destroy a room with his stand-up comedy. Then he found himself dissatisfied with comedic destruction, and with standing up, too.
Nowadays it’s about sharing comfort with an audience, building a relationship and bringing smiles. Laughs are good, too, but for Cosby, who returns to Roanoke Performing Arts Theatre on Saturday night, smiles are even better.
“In 52 years” of comedy, “the last 20 has been the appreciation of a smile, and what the smile can do to the condition of the listener,” Cosby, 76, said in a phone conversation last week.
His name has been synonymous with laughter for decades — on television, on records and in culture.
“The Cosby Show” and “Fat Albert and The Cosby Kids” are iconic, the former in prime time and the latter on Saturday mornings, and he has nine Emmy Awards, including four for the drama “I Spy.” He has eight Grammy Awards, six for his stand-up (or sit-down) recordings and two for Best Recording for Children.
Other honors include the Mark Twain Prize, the Kennedy Center Honors Lifetime Achievement Award and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Yet he remains interested in writing strong comedy. Those smiles he enjoys let him know that he is relating to his audiences over shared foibles.
He remembered a random meeting after a show in Portsmouth, N.H. Leaving the hall, he saw a man standing about 6 feet away, holding his head in his hands, shaking his head from side to side. He looked to Cosby as he continued walking and said, “I’m not alone.”
As the car Cosby was riding approached a stoplight, the man was standing there waiting for the signal to change, laughing, again looking at Cosby to say “I’m not alone.”
“And I go to the airport, and I’m smiling,” Cosby said.
Next time he was in town, he told that story to staff at the venue, who found the same guy.
“I wasn’t looking for him,” Cosby said. “I just told the story. But they found the guy and they brought his wife. And we sat in my dressing room. She didn’t accompany him the time before. And he was just saying, ‘Everything you said happens to me.’
“And his wife said, ‘It’s true, because that’s the way he is.’
“And we both looked at each other and started laughing. Because it’s about the relationship.”
Cosby is no stranger to Southwest Virginia, having performed in Roanoke in November 2010 and Virginia Tech in 2011.
He is not just the guy getting in and out of his car and working the stage. For decades, he has been his own tour manager. He said it’s simpler that way. He makes sure his rider — a very modest list of requirements for the show — gets to the venues.
One of the requirements: No spotlights.
“When I had spotlights, whoever was working them, sometimes wherever that is when they walk, you’d see the spotlight jiggling (Cosby, who did Jell-O commercials, let go a happy chuckle at that one), or I’d get up to walk and whoever was up there had fallen asleep or gone somewhere, and the light was still on the chair and I was over in the dark,” he said. “And I would say something like, you’re now looking at the definition of ‘re-dumb-dent’ — a black man talking in the dark.
“So no more worrying about who is way up there smoking cannabis, or whoever is watching it and laughing and the thing is jiggling.”
All he wants onstage is a bottle of water and a box of tissues on the table by his chair. And sometimes, the venue staff forgets one or more of those items from the rider.
“They say, you need a road manager. Yeah, I’m going to have a guy have his own dressing room, a round-trip ticket, a hotel room, so he can remember to tell the people there’s a rider.
“I blame myself, and I have fun.”
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