On the Friday following Thanksgiving, a Bill Cosby stand-up comedy special aired on television. This was a moderately advertised, somewhat anticipated event for a comedy giant with little remaining cultural relevancy. Cosby had not performed a stand-up special in over 30 years. Comedy Central used that fun fact as its main draw, although it’s hard to identify with a sales pitch that predates my birth and is based on information no one seems to care about.
Was anyone clamoring for a Cosby special in 2013? Clearly he was: he went out in front of the cameras and called his set “Far from Finished.” But from the advertising, the special resembled an important moment more than it was actually momentous, like a museum exhibit on stand-up from a bygone age. The elderly crowd applauded appreciatively when the man of the hour walked onstage, but watching at home on the network that airs South Park and such, I was the target demographic.
Then Cosby sat down—oxymoronic as it was, the 76-year-old performed his entire set from a chair at center stage, never once actually standing up—and proceeded to do what he has done his entire career: make people of all ages laugh with the same material. That has been his niche in his stand-up, his writing, “The Cosby Show,” ever since he started performing in 1962. Over half a century later, he proved again that stand-up, a vulgarian’s game, can be funny for the whole family.
He started his set by addressing the fact that he, wholesome man that he is, was performing on such a blue network. “Is this a new Comedy Central?” he recounts some skeptical fans asking. When he informed them that no, this is the same Comedy Central they know, one of them began to cry, lamented “Mr. Cosby’s gonna curse,” and walked away. It’s an absurd story, but it plays because the storyteller is still at the top of his game. He doesn’t orate to the back rows, but speaks in measured tones that make the audience lean in to listen. After 50 years onstage, he trusts his gravitas to carry the narration, and he nails his vocal inflections, eyebrow raises, and head feints to punctuate each joke with impeccable technique.
In fact, the most impressive quality of the performance was Cosby’s physicality. His face is as expressive as ever, his smile and wide eyes like a Greek comedy mask come to life, but that has always been his strong suit. Cosby made a career being under control onstage, but he sold his best bit with his limbs in “Far from Finished.” Describing his golden-year bickering with his wife like a swordfight, Cosby described an argument over whether he had spoiled his dinner by eating cookies. The premise is infantile, but he surrounds his slow, severe, calculating dialogue with a cartoonish fencing pantomime. His arms make wild jabs and circles and slashes while his feet dance in front of him. You can’t help but stare at his feet as they fly; even in his spryest days, Cosby was never so balletic, but he can pretend to be from the chair. He strikes cavalier poses, and a trivial anecdote becomes necessary viewing.
Bill Cosby came to the University back in 2010. His daughter attended Wesleyan, so he’s officially Bill Cosby P’87. I didn’t get to see him then. The Homecoming performance in Crowell Concert Hall had sold out months in advance, back before I was a Wesleyan student. Some friends of mine were able to get tickets, and they tell me Cosby was seated then, too.
I’m trying to contextualize what “Far from Finished” means to me. I missed him at the University as a freshman, but I saw him back at home as a senior, enjoying my last Thanksgiving of college. What that means, I have no idea. Maybe I need to stop trying to think of everything that moves me as part of a grander narrative. Maybe I should just acknowledge that this hour of comedy made me laugh, and I don’t need to frame that experience in any way.
Besides, Cosby’s special didn’t need context to be funny. You don’t have to be a Cosby fan or even know about the 30-year gap to find “Far from Finished” hilarious. It also doesn’t matter how old he is. Cosby uses his age to his advantage because he’s a great comedian, not because he needs his age to be funny. He doesn’t need to curse or stand, either. He’s just going to go out and deliver a vintage Bill Cosby performance.
Two days after watching “Far from Finished,” I came back to campus. Six months from now, I will graduate. Bill Cosby is developing a new sitcom. I bet it will be great.
Cohen is a member of the class of 2014.