November 3, 2003

Laughing With Bill Cosby

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Bill Cosby has been a pioneering entertainer since he first took the microphone at the Gaslight in Greenwich Village as a young comedian. He has crossed race barriers, bridged generation gaps and provided comedy that appeals across genders. “I was a ‘new negro comedian.’ None of the white ones were ‘new white comedians,'” Cosby recalled. The Cosby Show led the television ratings for most of its eight-year life span and Cosby’s 1986 book Fatherhood was a New York Times bestseller.

For two hours on Friday evening, Bill Cosby showed many examples of the comedy that made him a star when he entertained students and parents in Barton Hall. “An Evening with Bill Cosby” was the signature event for the 2003 First Year Family Weekend and was sponsored by the Cornell University Programming Board.

Marcy Patrick, chairperson of the CUPB, said, “There was a full house Friday night, meaning that 5000 people were in the audience. If I had to guess, I would think about one quarter of the audience was parents — about half the tickets went to family weekend and I figure half of those were parents and half were students.”

Cosby appeared on stage in a red Cornell University sweatshirt, matching sweatpants and hat, white athletic socks and sandals. He told stories about his formative years as a young performer, the intricacies of growing up and the complications relationships add to childhood, marriage, parenthood and dentists before concluding with some advice for college students who might not outwardly appreciate their parents.

Cosby commanded a great deal of esteem among members of the audience. “I like how he can stroll out in sweatpants and a sweatshirt and instantly be viewed with as much respect as anyone dressed in a business suit,” said Ian Wang ’04.

He began by recounting his entrance into show business. Since his first gig as a comedian, Cosby aspired to play a nightclub in Chicago called Mr. Kelly’s. He got that opportunity after playing several shows at a club across the street, but was intimidated by the high stature of entertainers that had played Mr. Kelly’s and lost all his confidence before taking the stage. “I did my 35 minute act in 18 minutes,” he recalled. He left the stage without any intention of returning for the later show that evening. However, after talking with the club’s owner, Mr. Marienthal, Cosby was able to reclaim his comic spirit. From that experience, he offered a piece of advice to the students in the audience.

“Your first year here — study. You gotta study. Those of you who are sophomores, juniors, seniors, you got it. And whatever interviews you’re going for, don’t be nervous! What the hell did you study for? You have to be you. Mr. Marienthal wanted to see Bill Cosby, the one that he knew was funny — not that guy that made himself so nervous and didn’t have any self-assurance. So that’s my message to you, and on top of that, pay your parents back.”

When Cosby mentioned his educational experience at Central High School, several audience members yelled and clapped. Cosby then invited any alumni of the magnet high school in Philadelphia to join him on stage and sing the school song.

One of the three that sang with Cosby was Elisa Salas grad. “I was terribly embarrassed to have to sing in front of all those people, but I was willing to do it because I’m a ham.”

A comedic highlight of the evening was a sequence of stories Cosby told about growing up with his friend Peter Whitehead. Cosby said “we called him the whole name because it was funny — because he was black!” When they were seven, they saw Peter Whitehead’s older brother kissing a girl, which terrified the young boys. Cosby recalled making a pact, “I said Peter Whitehead, if a girl ever put her tongue in my mouth, I would punch her in the face — real hard! And Peter Whitehead said, ‘me, too, because you could get polio from that!'”

“And I meant it, but I didn’t know puberty was coming,” Cosby said of his transition into adolescence. As a thirteen year-old at a birthday party where they played spin the bottle, Cosby had the opportunity to kiss a girl he admired very much. As Cosby and the girl came to center of the circle, he recalled, “Peter Whitehead fell backwards with his legs up in the air, laughing so hard, and he said, ‘Coz, punch her in the face! Real hard!'”

As he moved on to marriage and parenthood, Cosby joked with the male portion of the audience. “You’re a man, then you get married — I’m telling all you young guys this now — you lose your manhood. You become husband. Then she has a child, and you lose husband, you become father — one of the most pitiful positions. Father’s day? It’s a joke — they should get rid of it. It’s so bad that you don’t even know it’s father’s day. … I’m a multi-millionaire, and four of my daughters, that’s all I have, four daughters, chipped in, and got me a bottle of Aquavelvet!”

He continued with a warning about the power wives have in a marriage. “Young men listen carefully — deal with yourselves as men, but don’t take yourselves seriously as head of the house when you get married. Look at your father, that’s you — many strong men have turned into that. The President — a man who can order anything in the world — I bet he cannot eat any more pretzels in the white house.”

Many students in the audience thought his finest comedic performance came during his bit about visiting the dentist. “They tell you not to pick your teeth with any sharp metal object — then you sit in their chair and the first thing they pull out is an iron hook, followed by a huge needle.” Cosby also imitated a voice created when half of a patient’s face is numbed by Novocain.

Wang said, “His facial expressions were outstanding, and it was great how he could have a conversation with himself for that whole segment.”

“He had us laughing until we were practically crying — I almost fell off my seat,” said Jess Rounds ’04.

Cosby concluded his time with a message tailored for parents’ weekend, but that was intended for all college students.

“Your parents are with you this weekend — these are the only people who practice or understand unconditional love. They are there for you when nobody else is. This is a difficult time your life — all I’m asking you to do is throw away the practice and open up to them. They’ll be the only ones there at the worst time of degradation or whatever that may be. Come on in and embrace them, hug them. That’s making a real person of yourselves.”

The visit was a great success, according to Patrick. “Dr. Cosby only speaks at six colleges each year, so we were very lucky to have him speak at Cornell. He really enjoyed everything about the show — as was evident by staying on stage for a full 2 hours — and I think the audience left feeling as though they got their money’s worth.”

Archived article by Tony Apuzzo