Cosby’s brand of humor, performance ages well

jholleman@thestate.comNovember 17, 2013 

After delivering his commencement speech to University of South Carolina students in 1986, Bill Cosby opened his robe to reveal the sweatsuit underneath.

LEWIS ZEIGLER — USC Instructional Services

  • If you go

    What: Bill Cosby comedy show

    Where: Koger Center for the Performing Arts, 1051 Greene St., Columbia

    When: 8 p.m. Saturday

    Cost: Tickets are $69, $55 or $39,

Bill Cosby has some tough competition Saturday night — himself.

Cosby returns to television after a long delay with a special premiering on Comedy Central on Saturday. And he returns to Columbia with a show at the Koger Center for the Arts that same night, starting at the same time as the TV special, 8 p.m.

Fans attending the Koger Center performance shouldn’t be concerned. Cosby hasn’t resorted to the foul language and sex jokes so common on Comedy Central. His special begins with a bit on just that concern.

Cosby says when he told some people about his upcoming special, they asked: “Is this a new Comedy Central?”

“I said, ‘No, it’s the one you see all the time,’” Cosby said. “One of the guys started crying. I said ‘What’s wrong?’ And he said (anguish in his voice), ‘Mr. Cosby’s going to curse.’”

Relax. The only thing that’s changed is that Cosby’s deliberate pace of delivery has slowed even more with age, giving him more time to scrunch his face or roll his eyes to accentuate his clean bits on relationships and families.

Those situations are modernized by mentions of cellphones and computer technology, but the relationship humor is timeless. (Cosby’s website features a letter from a fan whose 97-year-old mother has dementia. The fan recently rediscovered an old Cosby comedy album, and his mother laughs at the jokes every time the album is played as if she was hearing them for the first time.)

The special is entitled “Bill Cosby: Far From Finished,” and his current tour offers evidence. Cosby, 76, is playing 14 shows from coast to coast in 24 nights in the November and December leg of the tour, which runs through May.

Nearly 50 years after the release his first comedy album and nearly 30 years after the debut of “The Cosby Show,” the comedy giant even is talking about returning to the weekly television scene with a new show based on, surprise, family relationships.

Cosby has performed in Columbia numerous times, and his most noteworthy stops in the Midlands came during a three-year period at the height of the popularity of “The Cosby Show.”

Cosby had planned a comedy tour stop at Carolina Coliseum May 17, 1986. That happened to be the same day as commencement ceremonies for the University of South Carolina. Then-USC president Jim Holderman used his Hollywood connections to convince Cosby to speak at the commencement.

For the first time, USC issued tickets for its graduation ceremony, limiting the crowd mostly to graduates and their parents. Cosby flew into Columbia at 5 a.m. and ate breakfast in the IHOP on Assembly Street, to the delight of the restaurant’s staff.

His speech had the crowd in stitches.

“All across this great nation, people are graduating and hearing they are going forth,” he said. “My concern is whether they know where ‘forth’ is. ‘Forth’ is not back home. Yes, we love you, and we are proud of you, and we are not tired of you. But you can make us tired. There’s nothing worse than a daughter or son with a college degree still at home.”

Later, he talked about the youngsters hurrying to take over for the current leaders. Then he turned to the others on the dias – including author Alex Haley, S.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Julius B. Hess and banking executive Hugh McColl – and wondered whether the kids really wanted to replace them. “You look at these old faces back there – leaders! But look what it’s done to the people.”

When he finished the speech, Cosby zipped open the front of his gown to reveal the grey sweatsuit he was wearing underneath had “CAROLINA” written in block garnet letters across the chest.

As Holderman handed out the degrees, Cosby jumped up occasionally to congratulate a student, including an especially animated embrace of a law graduate named William T. Causby.

Still an attorney in the Columbia area, Causby never will forget that day. “My dad loved that story,” Causby said. “He had me tell it to everyone we’d meet.”

Causby goes by his middle name of Thomas, so his clients don’t figure out the famous namesake. But his driver’s license has his full name, so when he shows it to store clerks, they often make Bill Cosby comments. The graduation-day fun “made all the jokes about the name worthwhile,” Causby said.

Cosby did his standard comedy show that night before a paid crowd at the Coliseum. He returned to the venue Dec. 1, 1989, for a sold-out Hurricane Hugo benefit event, which raised $140,000 in disaster relief funds.

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