I haven’t done one of these posts in awhile. Plus I’m totally ensconced in mixing my new “Super Dan” single, so feeling way more technical minded than funny today. 🙂 But what follows in the first experience I had with that vaunted format of the comedy album and special.
We use “ROFL” in a completely non-literal sense these days. But this special literally had me on the floor laughing until I couldn’t breathe. My stomach muscles hurt for days from the workout. I’d see bits of standup before, but this was my first experience with a longform comedy show.
I’d love to say in that in that moment I knew I wanted to be a standup. But that’s totally not true. There wasn’t even really a moment where I knew I wanted to be a professional musician. It all just sort of crept up on me until it became my life.
But I can say that “Bill Cosby Himself” made me a lifelong fan of comedy. I searched out Bill’s other albums and soaked up all that great Fat Albert material. I listened to old Abbot and Costello bits. I started watching comedy anytime it was on. Becoming a comedian was an accident. Becoming a comedy fan was all Bill Cosby’s fault.
The album is truncated vs the full special (which I believe was on HBO originally). I’ll put specific times for the bits when I can since I’m including a video of the whole special below.
He starts off in perfect Cosby fashion with a little goofiness followed by a very soft opening that naturally leads into his first bit about drugs (not on the album). A masterful way of pulling people into the first bit without sounding like he’s actually going into material.
While comedy material is difficult enough to write, it’s the connecting material that can prove really tough. The first seven minutes of this special are masterful.
Incidentally, this bit about drugs is the only time I’ve ever heard Cosby swear. “I said to a guy, ‘What is it about cocaine that makes it so wonderful?’ And he said, ‘It intensifies your personality.’ and I said, ‘Yes, but what if you’re an asshole?'”
That my friends, is the perfect use of a swear word in comedy. I was once doing a radio spot with Ron Shock at a gig in Indiana. The DJ interviewing us asked “So, are you guys going to be using a bunch of four letter words for no good reason?” I said, “No, we’ll be using a bunch of four letter words for very good reasons.”
There’s an adage in comedy that if the joke doesn’t work without the swear word, it’s not a good joke to begin with. In some sense that’s true. But I tend to think that if the joke kills with the swear word and doesn’t hit as hard without it, then the swear word is a perfectly good choice. It’s like cayenne pepper. Good in small doses. Had Bill said, “Yes, but what if you’re a jerk?”, it would have gotten a pretty good laugh. But probably not the lengthy laugh and applause break that it did.
The second bit on the special (first on the album) is “The Dentist” (18:00). Strangely, after the perfect soft intro, there’s absolutely no natural segue into “The Dentist”. He’s just boom, right into it. Both ways work. A lot of comics would have done, “So I was at the dentist the other day…” By the way, in standup comedy, “The other day…” could be last week or 7 years ago. 😉
What can I say about “The Dentist”? It’s one of the all-time classic comedy bits. This is the bit that made me a comedy fan. A perfect example of observational comedy. The actouts and sound effects are over the top. And a great example of actouts that become inside jokes with other people. The mumbled phrase “Sbmoke! Sbmoke! Sbmoke!” was repeated in my house from oldest to youngest incessantly.
There are so many quotables in the special, it’s incredible. The whole melting face bit was so much fun to try and do ourselves, we used to walk around the house just talking like that.
This bit is such a classic, that it’s Bill’s encore at his shows now. It’s his “Stairway To Heaven”.
After the observational material, Bill gets into the personal family stuff that he’s become known for over the years and was the basis for his sitcom. (26:00) Once again, the transition is a bit awkward and “The Dentist” doesn’t even really have a strong punch at the end. Ending a bit and transitioning is so hard to do. You want that big punch and applause break, but it’s a tough trick to pull off.
The beginning bit of the family stuff is very slow in rolling up. It shows the maturity of “don’t be afraid of the silence” mantra that comics have to learn. Comics are terrified of silence. But his delivery is so engaging that the audience is riveted. And that’s the trick for making the silences work. Be interesting.
“Natural Child Birth” is the first family bit. It’s all about he and his wife over-intellectualizing the act of child birth and “studying” natural childbirth because they’re “intellectuals” and how all that falls apart in the face of nature’s real processes. The breathing bits in here are what stick in my memory. Again with the memorable actouts. “zeep whop weep whop puuush puush!”
Watch for the comment about the “$17,000 Ferarri”. That’s what a Ferarri cost in 1983. Can you believe it?
Next up is “Brain Damage”. (39:30) Now the kids are born and Bill discovers that his son is a dope despite his big hopes for the boy’s greatness. One of the more amazing things to me is that this special is 1 hour 43 minutes long. For comparison, most specials now are 1 hour. I think that’s both a factor of the shorter attention span of audiences and the need to put out more material faster. It takes most comics 2-3 years to write an hour of material. The really top notch guys are writing an hour a year. So nearly two hours of material for a single special is really amazing to me.
“Brain Damage” is a great example of making personal material about his own family really recognizable to everyone else. The idea of being super excited about the kid’s first poop and then two months later being disgusted by it, resonates with everyone who’s ever had kids.
Ok, I’m going to a bit of a dick here and shortcut my way through the rest of this album and post. I have to get back into my studio to continue mixing “Super Dan”. 🙂
After “Brain Damage” comes “Kill The Boy”, “Chocolate Cake For Breakfast”, “The Same Thing Every Night”, and “The Grandparents”. All fantastic bits.
The idea of playing goalie particularly resonated with my mother who ran a day care center her entire career. And even to this day, the song “Dad is great! Make us the chocolate cake!” will pop into my head an random times.
So while I go back to work preparing (what I hope is) my next musical comedy masterpiece for you, I want you to watch “Bill Cosby – Himself” in the video below. It’s like watching Da Vinci paint or Olivier act. A master at work.