The Old Fort: A musing from the Oil Sands
Spending time with…
We were the last in to the private audience and photo shoot with Bill Cosby. We hadn’t planned to be but the combination of arranging a babysitter and crosstown traffic meant we had cut things a bit fine. We shook hands then sat down, one on either side of him, waiting for the photographer to snap away. And I started to babble.
I couldn’t help it. I was all prepared with everything I wanted to say to him and most of it flew right out the window when we were up close and personal. I believe I started by saying something like it must get boring doing all these glad-handing functions and he immediately turned it back on me and, looking at my wife, said, “He’s right you know. What’s it like living with such a boring person?” She started laughing. I was laughing by the next comment and by the time the photographer was clicking away Mister Cosby was holding my hand, hugging Brooke and waiting patiently for us to get our breath back. And then he taught her the zerbert.
Tastes, obsessions, and interests change. Twenty years ago I would have stood in line all night to see Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Ritchie Blackmore, or David Gilmour. Now I’d probably not take a bus to MacDonald Island if they were in town, but I would willingly walk there in the middle of February if the likes of Stephen King or Michael Connelly came to visit instead.
Gladwell stirred me to great excitement, KISS not at all. I am less and less impressed by famous actors or musicians, and can enumerate on one hand the stars I’d actually bother to get on the 99 to see.
Bill Cosby, however, is the exception. Not only would I get on the bus or wade through swathes of snow to get there, if more were asked I would trade several family members for the opportunity to be in the audience–unimportant ones, granted–but you could have had some or all of my brothers if you’d had spare tickets and I was in need.
I had tried to describe how big he loomed in the entertainment world in my formative years to a friend who wasn’t as much of a fan. Chaplin plus Groucho Marx together would be the only comparison of others who were as good for as long.
To compare him to today’s talent would take at least six of them; there is now no one around who has had anything like the career that Cosby had. Seinfeld, Robin Williams, and Louis CK, with Mitch Hedburg, George Carlin, and Steven Wright - maybe they would be an apt comparison. None except Carlin had as long a career; none save Seinfeld made as much money; and none of them came close to his sense of timing. He was and is unique and I have been waiting geek-like to see him since I first heard the Glazed Donut Monster when I was eleven.
And we Cosby geeks are pretty geeky. How geeky? Let me try and explain by way of jocular metaphor. A Trappist monastery, renowned for their beer making, was mostly a happy bunch of monks. Limited, however, by a near total vow of silence they were unable to express their joie de vivre.
“What we have done,” said the Abbott to the apprentice, “is compiled a list of every joke known to mankind. We then enumerated and memorised them. During the great silence at dinner, one among us calls out the number of a joke. Watch.”
“287,” he said, and all the monks laughed.
“May I try,” asked the apprentice?
“43.” Nothing happened.
“Ah,” said the Abbott, “that’s an old one. Try again.”
“1062.” Still nothing. “What’s wrong?” said the Apprentice.
“I don’t know,” said the Abbott. “I think it’s the way you tell them.”
In similar manner there is a code for Cosby Lovers. Before Cosby the Icon, before Cos, before the Huxtables and Dr. William Cosby, there was Bill Cosby, stand-up comedian and future legend.
You can sit with other Cosby fans and talk, in like manner to my metaphorical monks, about his stand-up; not quite by mentioning a number but by naming a skit. Just say ‘Mothers enunciate’ to a room full of Cosbyphiles and they’ll all nod their heads sagely and start to smile. ‘My Father confused me’ always gets a laugh, while ‘NOAH’ announced authoritatively will elicit the automatic response of ‘R-i-g-h-t’ from anyone who knows their stuff.
Nowadays he ad-libs more. I think age may make it harder for him to write and learn new skits. He doesn’t need to. He has a lifetime of responses in his DNA by now and if he displayed his age a little bit at the Q&A session after his show (he’s nearing 80 and nearly blind in one eye and deaf in one ear), he’s entitled to. The stand-up itself, or rather sit-down, was all you could wish for and more.
He is so good at what he does that several times I had to look away and try to stop listening because I thought the laughter paroxysms were going to turn into convulsions.
And I can’t remember a word he said. He riffed on everyday stuff and meandered through the mundane, except in his hands mundanity does not exist. Though I forgot everything he said, I know I’ll never forget the occasion. And then there was the raspberry.
Except in the Cosby show it was called a zerbert. It’s the thing you do to little kids on their neck or cheek, sometimes even the tummy. It starts as a kiss that turns into a blowing, farting sound that children find delightful. When I mentioned to him that we wanted to thank him on behalf of our tax deduction for inventing it, he then proceeded to teach Brooke the intimate secrets of zerberting someone by doing one on her cheek. The combination of looks on her face–mortification and alarm mixed with a large dose of humour and beetroot-blush–will stay with me for the rest of my life. And I know that because I started the conversation. I will someday, one day, pay dearly for being the reason why Bill Cosby zerberted Brooke Bennett.
And it’ll be worth it.