Just 16 days after his only son was murdered, Bill Cosby returned to the stage to face two sold-out audiences of fans who didn’t know if they were there to laugh or cry. But if there were any tears shed here Saturday night, they were tears of joy.
“Sit down!” Cosby barked as the audience leaped to its feet to give the performer a standing ovation when he took the stage of the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts for the first of his two shows. And as obedient children might for one of America’s best-loved father figures, the audience obeyed.
Wearing a sweatshirt emblazoned with the words “Hello, friend"--his son Ennis’ favorite greeting--Cosby was indeed among friends, albeit friends who seemed to radiate a collective anxiety over just what tone the 59-year-old performer would set.
“This is not difficult for me, because this is a part of life,” he told the house of 2,200, mostly white and middle-aged or older. “My lifeline has been you all. And I have been a part of your life. That’s reality.”
Cosby explained that he decided to go on with the two performances here, scheduled well before his 27-year-old son was gunned down Jan. 16 near a Los Angeles freeway, in part because he remembered the terrible void he felt after the assassinations of civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and President John F. Kennedy. “There was nothing on TV, nothing entertaining,” he recalled. “I wanted to find something to take my mind off it.”
After burying his son on the family compound in Shelburne, Mass., Cosby said, he realized from seeing the faces of his fans that the public was grieving over his loss. “Somebody’s got to give ‘em a release,” he said. “And being as this is what I do for a living. . . .”
So there he was, on stage with just a straight chair, a microphone and a familiar assortment of goofy expressions and real-life anecdotes that rang true with almost everyone. And within 10 minutes of Cosby’s entrance--without introduction, in sweatshirt, corduroy pants, running shoes--audience members sensed they were in for fun, not sadness.
Cosby had his listeners roaring with laughter as he recounted his days as a poor elementary-school student in his native Philadelphia, his hapless struggles with geometry, his three years and 11 months of futility in the Navy and his 33 years of marriage to the same woman. “It’s not difficult to stay married for 33 years,” he said. “You just keep coming home.”
Some of his longtime fans said they thought that Cosby, however hilarious and animated at times, was a little more subdued than usual. “A little reserved, perhaps,” said Barry Lotman, an orthopedist. “But a wonderful, courageous performer.”
Clearly missing from his routine were stories of his five children. Early in the evening Cosby did refer to the interview he gave last week to CBS newsman Dan Rather in which he admitted having an extramarital affair 23 years ago.
He said he had called Rather and offered the interview to ease the minds of the public. “This is why I called Dan Rather, not to confess,” he said. CBS’s “60 Minutes” has decided not to air a segment on Cosby it had planned for tonight.
J.J. Shelke, 28, said he and his wife, Cheri, wondered about coming to the performance. “I felt almost guilty,” said Shelke. “Here he was suffering this loss, and he was entertaining me. I was choked up. You feel for him.”
But there was little pathos in Cosby’s performance. He was, as ever, Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable, Dad, Everyman.
And a professional entertainer. “This has got to be the greatest show I ever saw,” said Saul Boyman, a retiree from Boca Raton, who said he has seen Cosby several times over the years. “The average person would not have been here under the same circumstances.”
After an hour and 45 minutes, Cosby left the stage saying, “This is the first day of the beginning, and I want to thank all of you on behalf of everyone in the Cosby family. Your spirit, trust and kindness has been felt. Let us hope and pray that we never have to meet again under circumstances like this for any of us.”