Bill Cosby delivers lighthearted enlightenment at Riverside Theater
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Legendary humorist Bill Cosby transcends stand-up comedy. For a half century, the wholesome funnyman has kept the world laughing with his seminal sitcom The Cosby Show, his timeless Jell-O pudding spots, and his oft-imitated (usually poorly) voice that’s delivered a lighthearted enlightenment to anyone willing to listen. Saturday night, a sold-out Riverside Theater audience—which included a cowboy hat-adorned Sheriff David Clarke among its aged ranks—sat blissfully captive for 90 minutes worth of side-splitting soliloquies from the world’s foremost comic genius.
Following a short video portraying both kids and adults saying the darndest things to the Cos, the 75-year-old comic, adorned in a “Hello Friend” sweatshirt appliquéd by Milwaukee’s own (and past A.V. Club contributor) Cortney Heimerl, shuffled out to a standing ovation and took a seat he’d occupy for almost the entirety of the performance. Referencing his commencement speech he was to give at Marquette on Sunday, Cosby spun his first long, expertly woven yarn on the topic of a relay race he had witnessed between religious schools, in which Holy Ghost—“of course!”—won, despite an official only seeing a baton cross the finish line. Using the biblical springboard, Cosby calmly lurched into another religion-based story about he (a Protestant) trying to “look Catholic” at a mass when he was in the military.
As slow as the setups were, the capacity crowd sat with bated breath through each turn of each of Cosby’s carefully constructed tales of his storied past, his youth, and his love. That is, almost everyone in the theater sat still. Not long into Cosby’s fourth anecdote, an attendee in the balcony forced a bastardized Fat Albert impersonation on the performer. “Get it out of your system,” Cosby said, peering into the upper level before answering the attempt with a flawless “Hey! Hey! Hey!” to uproarious cheers. As the unruly guest continued to take liberty, Cosby—in true Cosby cadence—implored, “Keep talking. They’re going to fiiiiiiind youuu!”
As the audience settled, so did Cosby’s material into a palatable pattern of matrimonial material, tales of parental hardship, and an overriding motif of modern applications of biblical stories. He related marriage to a game of chess (“The queen goes anywhere she wants. The king can only move one spot at a time,”) and recounted his clumsy entrance into puberty, saying, “I asked a girl to go steady. She said, ‘Why?’... I walked away.”
While offering some implicitly graphic details regarding “dreams” and “release,” Cosby kept things predictably classy throughout his performance. However, the squeaky clean nature of his stories did nothing to diminish his punch lines. He even managed to breathe humorous breath into one of mankind’s oldest and most-referenced story, the tale of Adam and Eve.
Cosby drew the evening’s entertainment to a close with a series of stories regarding his lame-duck post as “man of the house”—a shadow government post at best. While none of the legend’s material explored previously uncharted territory, Cosby, even rooted in his mid-seventies, showed the gracious witnesses he wasn’t just among the first to apply a humorous perspective to the commonplace; he was still one of the best, while remaining one of the cleanest. Following a one-liner about his wife plucking his nose hairs as he slept, Cosby abruptly bade his consistently laughing friends a fond farewell, hopefully to return soon.