For Cosby, the audience makes the performance

Comedy veteran will put politics aside when he returns to Baltimore to perform at Pier Six

  • Bill Cosby speaks at The Film Society of Lincoln Center's presentation of the 38th Annual Chaplin Award at Alice Tully Hall in New York City. The comedic actor is set to perform in Baltimore at Pier Six.
Bill Cosby speaks at The Film Society of Lincoln Center's… (Andrew H. Walker, Getty…)
August 12, 2011|By Erik Maza, The Baltimore Sun

In Baltimore in recent months, Bill Cosby's name has been associated more with politics than with comedy, or even Jell-O.

In December, he was the marquee attraction at a $4,000-a-plate dinner to benefit Baltimore mayoral candidate Otis Rolley.

But this Saturday, Cosby will be back to covering more familiar ground in a performance at Pier Six Pavilion, his first local appearance since the political fundraiser.

Reluctant to discuss his endorsement, the comedic actor said there won't be politics at the show. "You buy a ticket, you sit down and laugh at my stories," he said.

By now, Cosby's legend is assured. He's received the Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and almost as many honorary doctorates as Henry Kissinger. He is one of the few remaining senior comedians who commands instant adulation.

As a television entertainer, his record includes the namesake "Cosby Show" and "Fat Albert."

At 74, he could simply to settle into retirement, lounging at his mansion writing childrens' books and only occasionally popping up on Letterman or a TV special.

But Cosby has no appetite for sitting still. His Rolley endorsement shows, among other things, that he values relevance. In fact, he'll be back in Baltimore sometime after the show to campaign for him, a Cosby spokeswoman said.

Cosby's still sharp, quick with a zinger.

"There's some comedians who dry up," he said. "I'm one of those people who doesn't dry up. I continue to see and continue to write, and I know how to make it funny."

Judging from reviews of his recent shows, fans at Pier Six can expect Cosby to revisit some beloved routines and introduce some of the characters featured in his new book, "I Didn't Ask to be Born (But I'm Glad I Was)."

"It's a potpourri," he said. "I have so much material that I really can't say what the new is anymore."

But though the tour is meant to coincide with the book's release, Cosby said the stand-up came first.

His process starts out with an observation about everyday life. "Is it funny? Can it be mined for laughs?" If it is, he writes it down, puts it in order and then performs it, and then revises it.

Over the years, enough material came together to create a book, the result of his meticulously written performances, which he sees as his greatest strength. To explain how important revision is, he referenced David Mamet, a playwright you normally would not associate with the avuncular Cosby.

"You can tell when the writing has been worked and well thought out. You can hear the crispness in the performance, and the logic of a response and the continuation of it, like David Mamet," he said. "When you watch and listen, the logic is very linear. He fleshes things out. As a writer, you want to flesh out as much as you can."

Cosby has sometimes been crititicized for doing the same routines — like "The Dentist" — at shows.

But he says revisiting popular bits is a strategic decision, one that also has its basis in the theater.

"Years and years ago, I used to wonder why, if a comedian performed and knocked it out of the park once, why people would not come back to his show even if they had laughed so hard that they hurt," he said. As he traveled he would see classic plays and musicals performed every night all over the country, and he realized it was not just about the words but also the performance.

Since then, some of the material remains the same, but the performance changes.

"I have this new material, and I am prepared to do that. However, I keep myself open to any changes I want," he said. "Fans might recognize the lines, but the performance will be entirely new."

What comes across loud and clear is his respect for the audience. That's one reason he's still writing new humor.

"Performing is what I enjoy doing, and I do it very well. I'm a better performer than ever because I'm just at that point where the comfort zone and the respect for the audience come together," he said.

"I dont know what else I will learn when I'm in my 80s, if I'm still without dementia. It's just a wonderful feeling to be able to perform and give and see people respond for two hours enjoying themselves."

If you go

Bill Cosby performs at 6:30 p.m. Aug. 20 at Pier Six Pavilion, 731 Eastern Ave. Tickets start at $20. Call 410-783-4189 or visit

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