Bill Cosby is one of the comedy greats. His name is mentioned along with the likes of Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Bill Hicks, and the rest, and deservedly so. The man has forgotten more about comedy than you or I will likely ever know. His latest stand-up special, Bill Cosby…Far From Finished, also happens to be his first in 30 years and one thing is clear: he’s still got it, for the most part. It might not be as uproarious, sharp, on-point as he used to be, but then again, it’s a very different comedy special than what he did in the past, at least in tone. Maybe it has something to do with how he remains sitting the entire time (a decision that itself works as the special’s opening joke) instead of moving about here and there, or maybe it’s the change in pace of his delivery as he’s gotten older, but whatever the case, the rate-of-fire for Cosby’s punchlines have not only slowed but they’ve changed in their attitude.
His comedy is still very self-deprecating when need be, but there’s also far more self-reflection, a trait that used to be much more common in his comedy books than his live routines. Instead of focusing on observations about parenting or marriage in general, the stories he tells are much more personal. I suppose the fact that they’re stories and not basic set-up and knock-em-down jokes, which for a long time were his bread and butter, is a change unto itself as well. That’s just something you have to accept and move on from in the first minutes of Cosby’s new special: his approach this time around isn’t better or worse, just different. And still quite funny.
Basically Far From Finished plays out as something of a personal journal of his thoughts on marriage from the last 30 years, pieces of which seem familiar as they likely fueled some of the stories on The Cosby Show but only get funnier when told from Cosby’s first-person perspective. A majority of the jokes involve his frequent comical disagreements or butting of heads with his evidently very strong-willed wife, like when he set off the house’s alarm or tried, unsuccessfully, to sneak a few cookies (or 12) during a meal at a restaurant. His children find their way into a few of his jokes, like when they resented having a famous and rich father, but for the most part the jokes tend to focus mostly on marriage.
And while such a focus could easily alienate the unmarried in the audience, his jokes are broad enough for just about anyone who’s ever known any married couple ever can easily grasp but they also benefit from having Bill Cosby, well-known comedy personality and TV husband, as the proxy through which we imagine them. It’s as if his years as a TV character make it easier to imagine him having verbal sparring matches with his wife (who I couldn’t help but imagine as Phylicia Rashad no matter how many times I reminded myself) or rebuking his children in funny ways.
At the same time, the special doesn’t quite capture the full brunt of what a Bill Cosby stand-up special used to. That subdued energy and slower pace affects the level of the comedy. It’s very fortunate then that Cosby is as great a comedian as he is and that he’s had such a large exposure to his audience through TV such that his slower and involved stories still draw us in. It might not be the same high-energy Bill Cosby you remember from his older stand-up specials, but it’s still funny, and that’s what Cosby does best.
If you really want to get a better feel of modern Cosby, or see him be a little sharper (even funnier), check out the featurettes where he discusses the making of the new special.