In good times you should laugh. In bad times, you must.
Bill Cosby learned the lesson when Martin Luther King was gunned down in 1968. He remembered it in 1997 when his son was murdered in Los Angeles and he shared it with members of his first Orpheum Theatre audience in 2001, just days after the World Trade Center was attacked.
“Laughter is a wonderful elixer,” Cosby says by phone. “It gets rid of gloom. It lifts you up.”
When King, the civil rights leader, was killed, Cosby was performing at the University of Kansas. “I talked to Harry Belafonte and he told me Dr. King was pronounced dead. I had a second show and I took it personally – it’s my job to make these people laugh and take them away from that reality, that sadness. I went out for the second show and the place was jam-packed. When I started to perform, my own picture of the horror and the loss came to mind and I did not last 15 minutes. I raised my arm with the palm open and said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, I cannot finish this.’ I couldn’t get it out.”
A month after son Ennis’ death, a car pulled up next to Cosby’s. “It had children – a family – and they were black. They looked at me and, in a fraction of a second, they started to smile. I could see it register who I was and then their faces dropped, they looked away and they slowly drove away. I said to the driver, ‘I gotta go back to work. I have to bring them back.’ I realized people had to laugh again.”
Cosby’s big epiphany came at the cemetery when they lowered Ennis’ coffin in the ground. “I said, ‘Look, everybody. You want to say something to Ennis, let’s all say it.’ I think it was our last born, who was about 15, who started it off. ‘Ennis,’ she said, ‘I’m sorry I stole your’...and I don’t know what it was...and we all broke up and the air was lifted. Of course we had tears but everybody said something – ‘I’m sorry I hit you in the back of the head’ – and everything changed. It took a child – and laughter – to change the tide.”
Performing after Sept. 11, he says, was essential because “people wanted to laugh...we were looking for it.”
Now – at a time when the world is rocked by unrest, a weakened economy and natural disasters – Cosby’s in demand. In addition to the concert tour that will bring him back to the Orpheum, he’s putting the finishing touches on a book and considering ways to reach new audiences.
His latest outlet – Twitter.
“It’s the new fan mail,” Cosby says. “We don’t live by the Encyclopaedia Britannica anymore.”
In Cosby’s day, the encyclopedia was the source for everything. “I remember somebody borrowing the letter ‘L’ from my mother and she called and called them. After five months, she got in her car with my brother Russell and drove over and made those people look for that book. It was up under somebody’s bed and to the day she died, she said, ‘Do you know how much that book cost?’”
Even worse? The encyclopedia’s yearbook was a must in its owners’ homes. In the ‘50s and ‘60s, it was more addicting than Facebook. The yearbooks’ editors, Cosby says, “tagged you like a dope dealer. Now you’ve got the computer. Touch it and, boom! It lights up and you can find anything.”
The 73-year-old Cosby says when he forgets something, he can just Google it and get the information. Simple, right?
“I’ve got a 7-year-old granddaughter who can program my television set. She’ll take the remote and start pressing buttons. Then she starts talking to the TV. Have you noticed? People don’t talk to each other. They talk to machines.”
While Cosby hasn’t stopped a concert – yet – to warn someone about texting, he has commented on candy wrappers. The person who made the cellophane? “I want that person in my office right now. ‘Why can’t you do something about that?’ It’s darn near as bad as chalk screeching across a blackboard.”
Manners have disappeared to a good extent, too, Cosby says. “A lot of people don’t know better behavior. They’re not teaching the appreciation of respect for a stranger. It is very proudly supposed to be about me and I.”
And Cosby? He knows his place. Even though he has a humidor in his house, he doesn’t smoke anymore. “I can still appreciate a good cigar and give one to a friend but I knew 28 years ago I had to quit.”
And how did he do it? “I stopped. That’s it.”
Cold turkey? “That’s the way you do it,” he says. “You just tell yourself you need willpower. And the willpower comes from knowing you may not live if you keep it up.”
Retiring? That’s not in his vocabulary.
Besides, audiences need Cosby. Now, more than ever.