SXSW Comedy headliner Bill Cosby shares his worst gigs ever
By Raoul Hernandez,
10:30AM, Wed. Mar. 5, 2014
If Bill Cosby has an interview agenda, it’s you. He counts on you for material, so he’s just as likely to turn the queries back on you.
And he’ll remember you from previous encounters, be sure of that. The 76-year-old Philadelphian remains a people person, which of course underlies all his humor. South by Southwest Comedy, meet Bill Cosby.
Austin Chronicle: So… South by Southwest. Do you even know what that is?
Bill Cosby: No.
BC: I do know that the comedians working this are the younger and newer ones, okay? I know that if they were gunfighters, they would enter town shooting already, right? [Chuckles]
AC: Alright, so how’s your pistol game? How’s your draw? How are you in the gunfighter arena today?
BC: Well, first of all… I’ve never really had a problem with youth addressing, I don’t care what it is. You bring me in to an elementary school and give me three, four second graders, I’m gonna find a way to talk to them and have them laughing about something. My joke is always relating to that question: Are these human beings, or are they cows or rabbits? The answer is human beings. Okay, here we go.
I’m a storyteller. Now, when a person buys a ticket, and they’re gonna take time out to sit down, it isn’t like the 12 o’clock show in Atlantic City: three-drink minimum and you got the girlfriend of your choice. And she becomes jealous of the fact that he’s paying attention to the guy onstage and she starts to talk to get the attention drawn back on her. No. I have no… It’s too smooth. It’s too wonderful.
AC: I’m wondering –
BC: No! You gotta clear that up for me. You have the tape recorder, you have the power of the writing: What is it that you thought? It excited me when you said, “Do you know what you’re getting into?”
AC: [Laughs] Right, okay, so it’s this conference that has three heads: music, film, and interactive. They run one right after the other, with overlap: starts with interactive – all the computer geeks – then film – the big films and the stars – and finally music. Musically, it’s over 2,000 bands playing in 100 clubs, five sets a night. Your band goes on at 8pm, the next goes on at 9, and so on until 2am. There are literally people from all over the world here. We get acts from the Philippines, the Congo, everywhere in Europe, Russia – you name it. They come from all over the world, and maybe Austin isn’t a little town anymore, in terms of its metropolitan population, but our downtown is tiny, and suddenly you’ve got tens of thousands of people everywhere – in every restaurant, theatre, everywhere you can imagine. It’s the circus –
BC: Yes, yes!
AC: It’s Fellini-esque.
BC: Okay, now put me onstage. “And now, ladies and gentlemen…” What stage am I on?
AC: You’re playing a venue of 300 people!
AC: Three hundred people. You’re used to playing Atlantic City and Vegas and the Bass Concert Hall!
BC: No, no! I’m also… I also, Raoul, I’ve also played the Gaslight Coffee House at 3am with seven people. And only two of them were together. Three hundred? I think you’re gonna love what you see. Tell me something else you’re thinking about, go ahead.
AC: Well, I’m wondering: These festivals, there’s a pull between the known and the unknown. Some say, “These festivals are for people you’ve never heard of – the up-and-comers, the talent of tomorrow – for discovery.” Others say, “No, we need the headliners, the big names to pull people in.” “Yes, but every Bill Cosby that plays means I don’t discover the up-and-coming Bill Cosby.” There’s a tension. Any thoughts on that?
BC: Well, give me some more help. Because, okay, here comes Bill Cosby. He’s not going to be worried about anything except… Not even worried. He sits, he does, he makes his adjustments. If you took a Bill Cosby, age 25, and put him on a stage where nobody knows him. Well, you can’t say nobody. Would they put a nobody out there?
BC: Okay, so how many people would look and see the nobody, or is the nobody with a bunch of others: “And now, our second nobody!” You know what I mean? So, for me, as a 23-and-a-half-year-old nobody, I’m thinking, “I got my stuff together, and I couldn’t care less about the person in front of me, or the person behind me. I’m going out to make them r-e-m-e-m-b-e-r my name for all the right reasons [low, hearty chuckle]. That’s the way I worked! I, I, I opened – I don’t know why I’m getting loud. It’s your fault.
I opened in Houston, Texas, for [singer] Nancy Wilson. Nooo-body that I know of yet knew who I was. And some guy yells from the balcony – something, I don’t know what he said, but he didn’t sound happy about me. I said back to him, “I don’t know what you just yelled.” And the guy says, “I said for you to bring Nancy on!” I said, “Well sir, obviously you don’t get out that much.” People started laughing. I said, “Because I’m out here first, and I have some time while Nancy… It takes a long time for her to do her hair and get ready for you. So if you’ll just be patient, I will just do this. Or you can just take a nap!” And that was it.
So, it doesn’t sound like a real horror show. You didn’t frighten me. And I know you, don’t worry about me. When you see me, you’re going to be like a proud brother-in-law.
AC: That’s always the case! So let me ask you this: Is this something your booking agent said, “Do you want to play this festival?” or did it just show up on your itinerary?
BC: No, no, no, no – I make the choices! The people who run South by Southwest, they went to my agent and asked, because I think they they’re looking for someone of my stature to give it something special other than "rowdy, rowdy, pot-smoking, drunk, lotta noise, lotta foolishness, don’t know what, and gone." So that Bill Cosby comes out and for his 300 people, he delivers what he delivers. Then they can say, “We had Bill Cosby last year, next year we’ll get Seinfeld.”
AC: So then I guess the incongruity for me is the venue. Not only is it tiny, while it’s not exactly on the other side of the tracks, it’s close enough. It’s a funky little shack. A hip shack, don’t get me wrong, but not only is it going to be packed for you, they’ll be all the people trying to get in that can’t, so it’s going to be like –
BC: Okay, stop – stop. Raoul, I’m gonna run a range of difficulty. Let’s go on a cruise ship. I’m gonna do 55 minutes, and the ship is starting to roll. [Chuckles] And… it’s not a good feeling.
Okay, let’s go to a place that booked me and the sound system sounds like I’m in a stainless steel and tin Quonset hut, and I can’t get rid of the bouncing echoes or hear the laughter, and people are having a tough time understanding what I’m saying. Okay? I’ve done that.
I’ve been in places where to my right they’re serving drinks, which I said they could do, but I think I gave permission because they didn’t have a mojito on those days. [Laughs] So I’m talking and doing my stories and they’re like BAM, BAM, BAM, BAM. And it happened twice. I said to myself, “Wait a minute, he’s making a mojito.” “Well, can’t they do the thing with the mint earlier?” “No, it has to be fresh!” “I see, but let me ask you a question: Whose name is up on the marquee?” “Gonna be yours.” “Is it Benny the bartender, or is it Bill the comedian? So I think he’s gonna have to go someplace, man, and back off – just back off about 20 feet or so. And get an assistant to hammer it out for him. Or else get a paint brush.”
I’ve been in situations. I’ve done weddings, where everybody…
Oh, okay. Here it is. It just came in: New Year's Eve. Ask me how long ago was the last time I did New Year's Eve. Forty-nine years ago. Why? Because therein lies the worst concentration blocker I have ever played. And it was Harrah’s. And they had a huge clock, Raoul, that was six feet in diameter. Now we’re going to count off to midnight. People paid pretty good money in those days, maybe $50 a head, and that’s “Wow,” ‘cause it’s Reno. So I come out and I’m gonna make them laugh. You know me, I sit down, and these people have started to medicate themselves early. It’s 9 o’clock. They’ve already set out the party things. I come out and sit down, and I’m like, “Fat Albert!”
[Makes noise like a News Year’s party favor, which sounds like a turkey being strangled.] You know, somebody in the back with one of those things you shake. [Makes noise again.] And I look down, and one of the early medicated people has one of those paper things, which you blow and the paper unrolls, then comes back. And he’s doing that to the front of my shoe. And I’m looking at this. These people [laughs], these people in the audience are waiting for me to talk about Fat Albert or something. Maybe at the onset, it’s 60 percent of them. The others are just there, “Let’s go see Bill Cosby.”
So the guy’s hitting the tip of my shoe with the blower. Then I hear: [Makes the noise again]. At five after nine, a man’s voice says, “What time is it?” [Laughs] I said, “Sir, just for you, we’ve placed a clock here.” So I guess it’s his wife who says, “It’s five after nine.” He says, “Oh.” So I fought with stomach-muscle tightening all the way. I just kept thinking, “I don’t ever want to put myself in this position again.” I didn’t know what to do. I really did not know what to do. I knew there were people who came to see me, but every time I made a move: [Makes the noise]. “What time is it?” I think I came off at 11 o’clock and the band played. Oh my goodness. I went downstairs, and that room, which is the comedy room of life, had turned into a stomach-muscle-cramping-tightening [horror], and I said the entertainment directors, “That’s it for me and New Year's. I don’t know how to do it. I don’t have an act for this.”
I think that’s the greatest example of adversity. I canceled all New Year's after that.
AC: You mentioned something before that I wanted to come back to – about playing a room for seven people. Can you tell me about your very first paid stand-up gig?
BC: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I think it’s called Town Hall or something. Don’t forget, I’m born and raised in Philadelphia. I’m at Temple University, playing football. Going to class. Gonna be a gym teacher. I had played different things around town, $16 a night. Guy came to me and he said, “How would you like to open for Peter, Paul & Mary?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “I’ll give you $250.”
AC: This is when?
BC: I entered Temple in 1960, and I left in 1963 – or the end of ‘62. So I had a discussion with the football coach. We had a game on Saturday. And he said, “No, you have to ride with the team.” I said, “Well, I’ll tell you something right now. I’m gonna do this show, Coach, and I’m sorry.” So they said okay. I’m 23, 24 years old. I know how to get to Gettysburg. So I get dressed, and I have my clothes, I have my books. I’m there three hours before the show. The show’s sold out. I’m not on the billboard. The guy that paid me welcomed me, put me in a dressing room. Everything’s nice and clean, and I’m sitting there, time is going by. I’ve got my books open, and I’m working on anatomy or something. It’s a half hour before they go on, and the guy comes in and says, “I’ve got bad news for you.” I say, “What’s the matter?” He said, “I just talked to Peter, Paul & Mary and they say they have never done this before. They have never had an act go on before them. They go out themselves and they come off themselves. So, you won’t be needed.” I said, “Okay.” He said, “But you keep the $250.” I said, “Thank you” – being a man of few words.
So I start to pack my stuff, and I’m in the mode now of, “I have to get the bus. How do I get to Gettysburg? I’ll give my mother the money first. She’ll be so happy.” And he comes back and says, “Peter, Paul & Mary would like to talk to you.” I said, “Okay.” I know who they are, and the three of them were there. What they said to me was they had never really done anything like that before and they didn’t know how the approval had come through or whatever, but they didn’t want me to feel that there was anything other than the fact that they don’t do that and it was news to them and they’re not going to break their tradition.
I said, “Well, that’s okay. That’s alright.” “But,” they said. “I tell you what we’re going to do. We’re going to leave, and when we finish, if you want to, you can go out there and do as much time as you want.” I said, “Great.” And so I waited – waited until their show was over. They bowed, and the promoter said, “Ladies and gentlemen, those of you who’d like to stay, we have a young Philadelphian who plays football for Temple and is a comedian, won’t you welcome please, Bill Cosby.” So I went out and I did all the material that I had written while sitting in the classroom at Temple.
AC: Did they stay?
BC: Yeah. And that’s the truth.
AC: Did the material come off?
BC: It did very, very well. I mean, I didn’t get a standing ovation. [Laughs] I said that to Redd Foxx. He was asking me about a performance, and I told him about that. I was so new that I said, “The only thing is, I didn’t get a standing ovation.” Redd said, “That’s good, ‘cause many times you get a standing ovation because people are glad you’re finished."
AC: Thank you so much for your time this morning.
BC: Okay, now don’t forget, man. First of all, don’t worry. Don’t worry. I got Bill covered. I’m happy that you gave me this 411, because to be perfectly frank, my agent did not sound… like this. [Laughs] Then when you said, “Listen! Do you know what you’re getting into?” “Oh yes.” I thought you were talking about me having to follow some comedians who were out there using profanity. I don’t know. As long as those bands playing out there don’t bleed into my room, I’ll be fine.
AC: Well, let me just say, there’s something about South by Southwest that’s like the last days of Saigon.
BC: Okay. Well listen, you come and we will sit. The other one is sometimes you play a fair. And the showground is better for the bands than a talking person, because the Ferris wheel and things like that. The noises spread and bleed in, but I want you to see it and enjoy.
I’ll see you later! Who are you bringing?
AC: I’m bringing my pregnant wife!
BC: Oh no! Whose baby is it?
AC: Hopefully mine, but we both really love Asian babies.
BC: [Pause] I have no joke for that. [Laughs] Bye bye.
Bill Cosby performs Monday, March 10, 8pm, at Lustre Pearl, 97 Rainey. For more information, visit www.sxsw.com/comedy.