As I settled into my seat at the Winspear on Saturday night, I found myself in conversation with a young woman next to me. She mentioned that her parents had bought a block of tickets but couldn't find anyone to use them. Strange, I said: Cosby's a legend.
Then again, I said, there seems to be some misunderstanding about what he does on stage nowadays. I don't think people know he's still doing pure comedy.
"I think they think he's transition into being ..."
She cut me off: "Dead?"
Cosby would have appreciated the timing, if not the idea. He is getting old, 74 now, a fact that plays a central role in his act. His age earns him respect few other performers might get, and on Saturday night it earned him a standing ovation before he even arrived at his first punchline.
What followed was a two-hour clinic in oral storytelling. After some banter and a video promoting his online brand, Cosby launched into his first bit, about a visit with some terminally ill children. He was heading back to the hotel between shows, the story went, when a PR guy guilted him into meeting with the kids. He didn't want to -- "You don't have to be funny in 45 minutes," he told the flack -- but he did, and the strange and sad encounter revealed nuggets of dark humor.
The bit had me thinking about Louis CK, who had this exchange with the New York Times not long ago:
CK: The best comedian I've ever seen live is Bill Cosby, and this was only about a year and a half ago.
NYT: Cosby? Really. I thought he'd become a crank in his old age.
CK: No. Go see him. Two-hour-long show, 400 ways to get a laugh. It's like being a brawler and going to see somebody do jujitsu like a master.
It was the darkness of Cosby's opener that had me thinking about CK. I've heard CK talk about getting rawer with each hour-long special he does, and I've wondered how he'll keep that up. On his most recent two specials, his opening bit -- his opener! -- is about death, plain and simple, the sort of stuff that should have people curled up under their seats but somehow has them howling.
And here Cosby was, opening with almost-dead kids, and his desire to blow them off in favor of a nap. No wonder CK admires him. (The bit, by the way, killed.)
From there Cosby hit on mostly familiar subjects: marital stress, the strangeness of women, the power of moms, the nostalgia of corporal punishment, a near mishap with a laxative before a colonoscopy. (If you don't think poop jokes are funny, you haven't seen a pro do them lately.) Watching him work, I was reminded in a way YouTube clips can't of how masterfully he uses quiet, as both set up and punchline. He had the 2,200-seat Winspear fully silent on multiple occasions, as he built the tension in his bits. And when he released that tension, the punchline was often nothing more than a strategic shift of the facial muscles, accompanied by one noise or the other.
He even handled the night's only heckler that way. A guy, obviously hammered, kept crying out from the balcony, slurring "Thug Life" for some reason. When it became too much to ignore, Cosby politely engaged the man briefly, and then mouthed dramatically to the front row something like, "I have no idea what he's saying." It brought the house down, and brought the heckler down with it.