Last Saturday, Illinois State University had the pleasure of welcoming Bill Cosby back to Braden Auditorium, where he performed as part of his 50th Anniversary Tour.
The show was completely sold out and the auditorium looked to have just as many members of the community as students in it.
The stage was set with nothing but a chair and a small end table that held a box of tissues and what appeared to be seltzer water in a green bottle. On the chair was a large white sweatshirt that read “Hello Friend” in multi-colored letters, reminding me that this is what Little Bill used to say to me most mornings while I ate my cereal as a kid. I had not thought about Cosby’s “Little Bill” in quite some time and it was nice to be reminded.
There was a bit of nervous energy in the auditorium as we waited for the show to begin and the moment Cosby was spotted entering the stage, sporting a red ISU sweatshirt, the entire auditorium was on its feet, clapping and cheering.
The performer sat in his chair and began the evening by thanking us for having him and then proceeded to have an amusing conversation with Braden’s soundboard operator, explaining the uselessness he sees in sound checks because they are performed before an auditorium fills with people.
Once the banter had ended and Cosby’s headset was appropriately adjusted he began to speak.
Although Cosby spent almost the entirety of the performance in his chair, there was never a moment in which the audience was not completely absorbed in what he had to say. This is part of what makes Cosby such an incredibly talented speaker and storyteller. All he needs are his voice and his facial expressions, the latter of which were visible to even those sitting farther back thanks to a large jumbotron situated above Cosby onstage.
I was having a difficult time deciding where to place my eyes. It seemed silly to be watching what was essentially a giant television when a legend was seated below it, but the intricacies in Cosby’s movements are essential to enjoying his comedy. Overall, it was mostly an amusing sight to see Cosby the man, and then a giant version of himself, several feet higher, making the exact same movements.
Cosby’s comedy was built — as it is known to be — off of stories from the life of his family. As an audience, we were introduced to several different generations of Cosbys. We heard about his parents, his grandparents and his experiences raising his own children and grandchildren.
Mr. Cosby spent the evening exploring how it is that children have come to fear their parents less and less since he was a child. He humorously blamed this on psychology, claiming that there were no psychiatrists that anybody believed when he was young.
Something I enjoyed very much from the performance was the fact that Cosby, being a little bit older now and having grandchildren himself, spent some time talking about grandparents and “old people.” A favorite moment I had was when he looked at the audience and said, “I have about fifteen good years left, and I don’t want to spend it … with idiots.”
This was a word he used affectionately and often in order to explain the actions of himself as a child and his own children, stating that part of the hardship of being a grandparent is watching your own child, “someone you have known to be an idiot, raising someone.” He then went on to state that he enjoys the hands-off wisdom he gets to impart in stepping back and allowing his daughters to raise their own children and recounted a tale of a moment in which his grandson did not heed his advice, and was knocked over by a small bookshelf.
One story in particular that struck me from the evening was one in which Cosby recounted a time when he was about five years old and had discovered how “amazing” matches were as a result of “having no toys.” He quickly learned how to ignite the stove and how much fun it was to let the gas run for a very long time before lighting the match.
He described how, one day, after letting the gas run for much too long, he was shot backwards over the table and into the wall, his eyebrows singed off and his clothes smoking. He remembered his mother running into the kitchen and hitting him with a broom, in both an effort to punish him and save his life. “And I couldn’t stop laughing,” Cosby recalled, “I was laughing … and on fire.”
To me, this sums up the evening the audience spent with Mr. Cosby. The man remained seated for all but two minutes in a two-hour performance, and we were glued to him the entire time, listening to his stories as if he were an old friend, laughing and sharing in his bright atmosphere.