Saturday, April 16, 2011

Bill Cosby: Himself (1983)

I'll just start off by saying I love Bill Cosby. I think he's one of the greatest comedians that ever lived. Despite what was said about him later in his life (the infidelity, his acting like a blow hard about certain subjects, etc.), I still think he's one of the greats. Despite what he does or what happens to him, no one will ever be able to take his amazing comedy career away from him. I think The Cosby Show is one of America's best sitcoms. This comedy special, made the year before he began making his famous sitcom, is a great showcase of his talent. In my late teens, I really began to appreciate The Cosby Show but I didn't see this all the way through until I was almost twenty-one. When I finally sat down and watched it, I was laughing like crazy. Along with Eddie Murphy's comedy specials Raw and Delirious, this has to be one of the best stand-up films ever.

There are many reasons why this film (and Cosby's comedy overall) works. First of all, even though this was filmed in the early 80's, none of the stuff Cosby talks about are dated. Instead of discussing issues of the time, he talks about timeless topics like dealing with dentists, raising children, and so forth. Because of that, people who weren't even alive when this was made, one of which I am, can laugh at it. Second, it's relatable. Each segment of this has something the average person can identify with. I identify the most with the section about dentists because I have a dentist who means well but he often gets on my nerves and puts me through most of the crap Cosby talks about here. (He wants to talk to you when he's got his tools jammed in your mouth and actually has the gall to get irritated when you won't answer.) Anybody who's had to raise kids can understand the stuff Cosby describes about children seeming to be brain-damaged and the stuff they put you through. And don't even pretend like you haven't done some of the stuff he talks about happening between you and an annoying child.

I also like how Cosby is very observant about certain things that most people would probably overlook and he discusses them. As I said before, the stuff you have to put with at the dentist is a good example but I think the best is the very first section where he ponders how somebody can be having a good time when they're either taking drugs that make them act nuts or getting so drunk that they make themselves sick. I love the part where he's acting like he's drunk and leaning against a toilet, moaning in agony. He sums it up at the beginning by saying he has people who work for him and even though he works them hard during the week, it's the weekend when they almost kill themselves and they come back to work on Monday feeling worse than they did at the end of Friday. And, although he only talks about it briefly, he understands if it's a young person who has never experienced it before but adults constantly do it even though they know what's coming. In the same section, I like Cosby's descriptions of the various walks of different types of drunken people: winos, gin and vodka drinkers, your typical beer drinkers, etc. It's funny stuff.

And that leads to another thing about Cosby. Even though he sits down through a good chunk of the film, he uses his body language to get his points across. His facial expressions are the best. His facial examples of a person who's stoned and is now paranoid, the differences between the faces of mothers and fathers, the look on a child's face, they're all funny as crap. I already talked about the funny walks he uses to illustrate the various ways different drunks move. Besides that, he moves legs and arms all over the place; standing in his chair at one to get across how his wife literally stood up when she was in labor, showing how his baby daughter reacted when he did baby talk to her, imitating his wife wielding a yardstick to whip their naughty children. He uses every part of his body. He's also real adept at making various sounds. The guy from those Police Academy movies may be the best at it but Cosby is a close runner-up. He gets so into it at some points during this film that he nearly sticks the entire microphone in his mouth (it's a miracle he didn't get shocked!). His imitations of people (nobody famous, just the people in his stories) are also really well done. Even the background in this film helps to illustrate some things. It's constantly changing colors from deep blue to red to orange. At one point when he's describing when the first real labor pains hit his wife, he makes a loud sound and the background suddenly turns bright orange, as if whoever is doing that did it to help Cosby emphasize what he's talking about. I don't think I've ever seen anything like that before or since.
As many have noted, Bill Cosby is not only a great comedian but also a great story-teller. And that's what most of his comedy acts are: him sitting down and telling funny anecdotes (although, whether they're real or true are anyone's guess). I've heard that when he first started doing stand-up, it was unique and I think I understand why. When you watch his stuff, you don't feel like you're watching a comedian but more like you're visiting your funny uncle or grandpa and asking, "Tell me a funny story," and he does it. This is just me but I think that, coupled with his relatable and timeless subjects of discussion, is what enables you to become closer to Cosby than most other comedians.

Which leads me to my next point: this is a pretty family friendly comedy special. Cosby does swear here and there (the strongest thing he said was "asshole") but for the most part, it's his usual clean, family fun style. Honestly, the part about drugs and childbirth would probably go over most kids' heads so I don't there would be any harm in having children watch this with you. Also, this (along with a good portion of Cosby's comedy) never once touches on race. If you've watched a lot of The Cosby Show, you'll notice that show hardly ever makes any mention of race. Anybody (black, white, Asian, etc.) can watch this and identify with what's being said. Cosby has been criticized for this in the past but hey, if the guy doesn't care about making an issue of it, why force him to? I think it's a smart move because it even further ensures a broad audience.

I don't have many complaints about this special. If I was going to come up with some, the main one would be that I kind of wish Cosby didn't stand the vast majority of it talking about the trials and tribulations of parenthood. Don't get me wrong, just about everything he talks about is out of the park funny (I have a little niece who acts "brain-damaged" like some of the kids he describes) but I wish he would have broadened the scope a little bit. I would have liked to hear him comment on other typical stuff like an annoying experience at a restaurant, trouble at the grocery store, irritating people you run into on the road, stuff like that. That's not a knock against the special as just some things I personally wish Cosby would have included in this but whatever. One real criticism I do have is that some parts of the act don't feel that well structured. At some points, Cosby is about to tell one story but he goes off on a tangent about something and it takes him a little while to get back to that. Then again, the guy's brain seems to be going at breakneck speed here so it's probably just that. Also, it seemed like he was running out of things to say at the end and was just trying to fill up time. His final stuff about his parents' relationship with his children and their relationship with him when he was a kid seemed disjointed and didn't feel as uniform as everything that came before. But this is just nitpicking.

I have to admit that certain parts of this movie that make me cringe in retrospect are the instances when Cosby mentions his only son Ennis, who was murdered in 1997. At one point, Cosby says that he doesn't think his son is going to live much longer because his sisters are conspiring to kill him. It's a joke, of course, but you can't help but wince a bit at that nowadays. Also, Cosby describes how his son often left his fly open and says something along the lines that it can make one seem unintelligent. Again, that may have been just a joke, but if I'm not mistaken, Ennis was diagnosed with dyslexia at one point. I wonder if Cosby ever watched this back and kind of wished he hadn't made that comment. Now, I am in no way saying that Cosby did this to insult his son. I know he really loved his son and was devastated when he was killed. I don't think he's been the same since and that's why you don't see Cosby much nowadays because it may have killed some life in him. Still, it is sad to see of that stuff today, knowing what would happen years later.

This ended up being me raving about Bill Cosby himself instead of about, well... Bill Cosby, Himself. It's kind of hard for me to talk about just one of a comedian's acts without talking about them as a performer as a whole. But, in any case, I stick with what I said at the beginning about this being an awesome special and just a great example of Bill Cosby's humor, warm-hearted feelings, and talent. It's too bad he's getting up there in age and probably doesn't have many more performances like this left in him. But we'll always have his legacy to remember. If you're a Bill Cosby fan and haven't seen this, I would highly advise checking it out. It's just sheer comedy brilliance from top to bottom.

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