Arts and Humanities
2:30 pm
Fri May 11, 2012

Bill Cosby Knows What's Funny

Bill Cosby has spent half a century learning how to write the perfect joke, first with iconic stand-up albums like “Bill Cosby Is a Very Funny Fellow” and later while breaking racial barriers on prime time in “The Cosby Show.” The secret, he says, is in making a connection with his audience.

He’s also the author of twelve books. His latest, “I Didn’t Ask to Be Born (But I’m Glad I Was)” is a collection of essays and humorous observations on the human condition, was published last year.

Cosby will perform at the Kentucky Center on Saturday. He talks with WFPL’s Erin Keane about his unique approach to making people laugh.

“When I’m performing, I make a connection because of my observations.”

On finding his voice

“It started at Temple University in 1960, when I was asked along with the rest of the class to write a composition about the first time I ever did something. I was in remedial English, because I had scored 500 total in the SAT exam. And I loved being there because I was ready to now put what people judged as an intelligent young man who wasn’t really using or taking advantage of what was available to extend his life past a job of sweeping floors.”

“I wrote the paper on the first time I pulled my own tooth. When I finished the piece, I turned it in. Two weeks later the professor gave the papers back. I didn’t get one. The professor read my paper instead. My grade was A/C-. The C- was because of mistakes in grammar and syntax. And he read it to the class, saying “this is what I’m looking for.” And then that encouraged me, because it was really the first time I had jumped in to do something. I wasn’t even thinking about being challenged, I just jumped in to write from my inside out.”

Why he doesn’t try out new material at comedy clubs

What I say at the time that I’m talking to you, as an audience (and I’ve always felt this way), if I feel it is funny it is my job to make you see it, to make you understand where I’m going with it. Then, you will begin to laugh.

“If I feel it’s funny, I’m going to do it and find a place for it, and you’re not going to know whether it’s something I had just written or thought of two seconds ago.”

“Richard Pryor used to do that. My understanding is he’d go to a club and say, listen, I’m trying out some new material. I don’t have the courage to do that.”

On what he won’t say in his act

“There used to be a popular saying — that’s too much information. I think an awful lot of comedians today give you more than enough information and along with a language, with words that would be called in the old days obscenities or profanity. I don’t use those words.”

“I also don’t spend time arguing about Republican or Democrat, unless it really gets to the point where it’s necessary in my imagination and judgment to say, okay, I really want to make a statement about what so-and-so said and did. I don’t cover, for example, whatever you news people have on the front burner. Trayvon Martin, I’m not going to bring that out and put it on the stage. This is about the frailties, and there’s still a judgment coming, law enforcement and so on.”

“I deal with my observations from a father viewpoint, from a young man not married yet viewpoint, from childhood on up to today. But I’m dealing with the experiences of the people who’ve touched me and I’ve touched them.”