For Bill Cosby, success in comedy boils down to three stories: a Chinese restaurant, making Jack Benny laugh, and Santa Claus.
The 76-year-old comic great — who is so cool he sits during his standup act — plays the Westchester County Center in White Plains on Saturday.
Cosby has been making people laugh for generations, while blazing trails on TV.
In 1965’s “I Spy,” he was the first African-American leading actor in a drama; in “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids” (1972-85), he mixed cartoons and live action on Saturday mornings; on “The Cosby Show” (1984-92), he mined marriage and parenthood for big laughs, while playing a man who happened to be a black professional at the head of a upper-middle-class black family.
It was not work that paraded around with a look-at-me exclamation point. It was straightforward and honest. On “The Cosby Show,” he took his life and put it out there for viewers to find the universal truth that we are more similar that not. And his standup act was clean enough that parents and children could, and still can, watch it together.
It still is.
And Cosby shows no sign of slowing down.
There is a Bill Cosby app, with classic routines, photos, videos, news and links to his audiobooks, including the best-selling “Fatherhood” and his most recent, “I Didn’t Ask to Be Born (But I’m Glad I Was).”
He has 3.4 million Twitter followers and is on Facebook.
Cosby’s concert schedule has him crisscrossing the country: Washington and Alaska last week, White Plains this week, Colorado next week, then 34 other dates before Thanksgiving.
Hasn’t he earned a rest?
“Take a look at show business,” he says, bristling at the suggestion. “I’m not a painter. I can slow down if I want to, but the way I came into this business was not thinking about what I am. There never was a dream. I had no knowledge of what it would take to walk out and stand in front of thousands of people and be funny. It wasn’t there.”
The fact that he’s there now — that he is a comedy icon — is immaterial. There are people to talk to, stories to tell.
Stories like one set in a Chinese restaurant in Philadelphia more than 50 years ago.
“My actual style goes back to what I saw in a Chinese restaurant when I was in college at Temple University,” he says. “I was eating alone and I saw this fellow talking to nine of his friends. Everybody at the table knows him and they all like him. And they’re all laughing hard. Women are holding napkins up to their faces. Some of them may very well have experienced the whole thing with him, the whole story he’s telling. But he’s not a professional comedian. And I said ‘That’s it. That’s the style I want. To nail it so that everyone knows what you’re talking about.’”
And the story of what it felt like to make his idol, Jack Benny, laugh uncontrollably on “The Dick Cavett Show” in 1973.
On Cavett, Cosby spun a wild story about being a teen sitting in on the drums at a jazz club where some bona fide players, including drummer Max Roach, played. Before long, the untrained Cosby discovers that he is clearly out of his depth, only to be saved by Roach. (Watch it at here.)
The story reduced Cavett and Benny to tears, a moment the comedian — who grew up in the projects of North Philadelphia — will never forget.
“That Dick Cavett piece, young man,” he says. “I don’t know if you ever will achieve something like that. My life as a child listening to radio and Jack Benny and laughing so hard at Jack Benny and knowing that Jack Benny is one of the funniest people, who has built everything and now you know who he is and he can do whatever he wants within that character that he has built and you’re going to laugh.
“And to fall off the sofa laughing listening at him. To be in Las Vegas and to see him and hear him talk. And to continue to laugh at something he had said 20 minutes ago because of the picture (in your mind). And to sit on that sofa with Dick Cavett and to watch him fall on the floor and to hear Jack Benny say about me ‘I have no idea what he said, but it was funny.’”
That affirmation was Everest for Cosby, who has gone on to inspire dozens of comedians in the same way that Benny inspired him. His 1983 concert, “Himself,” is a master class in standup.
Another thumbs up came from an entirely different cultural icon.
“Three years ago, I played a place in Oklahoma, two shows,” Cosby recalls. “And at some place nearby, Santa Claus was greeting children. I said ‘I’d like to take a picture with Santa Claus.’ After the show, Santa came over and the photographer was there and I reached out and I said ‘How are you, Santa Claus?’ and Santa Claus said to me, at 73 years old: ‘Bill, you’ve given me a lot of laughs.’
“I’m throwing it down as a challenge, young man. Match that.”
Match Jack Benny and Santa Claus?
Photo by AP: Bill Cosby at Hard Rock Live in Hollywood, Fla., in May.