Over the phone, Bill Cosby is that rare phenomenon: a comedian who’s just as likable and funny in person as he is on stage.
And when he gives a show Sunday at the University of Puget Sound as part of the college’s 125th anniversary, he intends to carry that personable conversation on with the audience too — in between plenty of punch lines.
Because at 75, Cosby’s still going strong. The last decade has seen tour after tour, two books — including the best-selling 2011 “I Didn’t Ask To Be Born (But I’m Glad I Was)” — and even his own celebrity app, in between three grandchildren and a marriage that just hit 49 years.
The man who has won seven Grammys and four Emmys, who was the pioneer in how black Americans were portrayed on TV in shows like “I Spy” and “The Cosby Show,” is still getting audiences from Houston to Kalamazoo rolling with laughter at anecdotes from his project-upbringing in Philadelphia, still timing the jokes with that wait-for-it Cosby deadpan.
But he’s learned a few things over the years, too, from how to tell a story to how to become more responsible. Over the phone from Cleveland, Cosby talked with The News Tribune about everything from Fat Albert to education.
Question: What will you be talking about in your Tacoma show?
Answer: Here it is: Go get my book. It’s in there, but different. There’s a way to write for someone to read, and there’s a way to write for someone to hear. Someone like Garrison Keillor, it sounds like they’re doing the book verbatim.
Mine is not like that. I take some stories in the book and add things to it. I’m having a conversation with the audience. The aim is to induce big long smiles and moments of prolonged laughter, and that good feeling that a friend is sitting there.
Q: How big a part did your childhood play in shaping your career?
A: Huge. I had four albums in the late 1960s, and all of them were aimed at my thoughts, things of my childhood. (The cartoon show) “Fat Albert” – those things were written from my childhood, the whole gang: how different each kid is, but how they all come together and work as good people.
Q: What’s one of the big lessons you’ve learned in life?
A: If you’re asking me to give something from this 75-year-old mind, it would be that your present thoughts of what is good may very well change as you get older. The acceptance of responsibility that leads to strengthening oneself, based on the information and experience of others, can be acted upon and made better. And if you are better — just you alone — you make the whole world better.
Q: Is there anything from your own life that you’d do differently, if you could?
A: Start your life early. You can’t control when you’re born, but things that come upon you and change you — start early.
Q: You caused a lot of uproar in 2004 with your criticism of low-income African American parents of failing to boost their kids’ education and success.
A: Well, I explained my views in my book (“Come on People: On the Path from Victims to Victors.”)
Q: Are things any better now?
A: I’m still looking at numbers of murders in various communities. I’m still looking at areas of U.S. cities at the complaints from teachers and principals about parents who do not respond to the call to talk to them about their child.
For people who are having these problems it needs to be an effort to see that we can improve conditions, and work with children to make them believe more in education, and (with) parents who (would) rather not make sure their child is in bad company.
Q: When you speak on these issues, is it better to be political or funny?
A: I don’t go into these situations and be funny. I’ve seen it on TV, they start to talk about race and people are laughing. And the laughter tends to keep it in a position that things are all right.
Whereas asking others to help and do and relieve — if I say it and don’t put a punch line on it, then I get negative reactions. But that’s OK. Angry people shout at the truth. As my good friend Sammy Davis Jr. once told me, saying it loud don’t make it right.
Q: You’ve been the funny guy for five decades now, making us laugh. What makes Bill Cosby laugh?
A: A lot of things. I was talking to some boys lately, about 9 years old, and all of them played the trumpet. They were wonderful kids. I said, “I want you to play a scale, so what key are you going to play it in?” Musicians always want to know what the key is. And one of them said, “Key? Whaddya mean, what key?” That exploded me. I laughed my real laugh, wet around the bottom of my eyelashes.
Q: So, little things?
A: Very much so.
Q: Tell us one thing about Bill Cosby that people don’t know.
A: That I am very happy about what I am going to do in the next three years. I’ve been given one green light, and I need three others, to put on a TV show, get some things working that will make the world better but won’t stop them laughing.
I just need some help from the people that own the channels.
IF YOU GO
What: Bill Cosby
When: 7:30 p.m. Sunday
Where: Memorial Fieldhouse, University of Puget Sound, North 11th and Lawrence streets, Tacoma
Cost: $25 general/$50 prime/$15 UPS students, staff and faculty
Information: 253-879-6013, pugetsound.edu
Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568