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Bill Cosby: Himself (1983)

| May 20, 1983 | 0 Comments

It never occurred to me until the other night watching Bill Cosby: Himself, just what a brilliant physical comedian Bill Cosby is. He has a creative gallery of facial expressions, body language, sideways-glances and different voices. That suited him for television, especially Fat Albert where he was able to use those voices to bring the gang to life, but on stage it is amazing to watch him transform himself. He possesses a rubber-faced quality that seems to elevate his comedy to more than just mere words; it become performance art.

Filmed in 1983 at The Hamilton Place Performing Arts Center in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Bill Cosby: Himself is a pure example of a comedian at the top of his form. It features 105 minutes of nothing more than Cosby center stage, with his most gifted instrument: himself. Symbolically he performs before a canvas that keeps changing colors, a representation of the multi-colored tempo of his comedy.

Cosby’s style seems in contradiction with most of other comedians who all seem hell-bent on material (often needlessly foul-mouthed) about the cosmic struggle with minor aggravations. Not once, does he ever fall into the familiar trap of “did you ever notice?”  That’s because Cosby’s style is not merely observational, but relies on the dead art of storytelling. For most of the film, he discusses the frustrating struggle of being a parent; from conception, to child birth, to raising infants, toddlers, and then older children, with a brief prelude about people who stupidly announce that they are going to drink to “have a good time” and then end up hugging the toilet.

He is able to take us on a journey. For example, he discusses childbirth from the discussion stage to delivery room. When they were young and childless, he and his wife jumped on the intellectual bandwagon to learn about childbirth and remained on the bandwagon until they got to the delivery room wherein the reality of childbirth hit them both like a ton of bricks. “My wife and I,” he observes, “have not been intellectuals since.”

He proudly announces that he and his wife have five children simply because “we do not want six!”  During the planning for childbirth, he had fantasized about having a son (he had one in the middle of four girls) and delves into the universal problem that his sisters have plotted to kill him because he won’t lift the lid on the toilet – “even the four-year old was hostile!”

Cosby doesn’t portray his children as unruly but merely as ordinary – doing nothing more than most children would do.  When he catches two children fighting over something that his youngest child pilfered from the bedroom of an older child, he settles the argument by ordering the older child to give the object up.  His reasoning: “Parents are not interested in justice, they want QUIET!”  However, while he doesn’t portray his children as unruly, he does often portray his wife as an angry, screaming shrew whose face and right hand have become scarred and deformed by constant frustration over her children – “my wife was a beautiful woman before we had children.”

The last act of the film is a turnabout. After pointing aggressively at how difficult his children are to deal with, he then turns to the act of being a child, and how difficult it was to be his mother’s son. Observing that parents often make as little sense as their children, he remembers that his mother walked into his bedroom and ordered “Look at this mess”, in spite of the fact that young Bill had been sitting in the room for several hours. Of his father he remembers that “because of my father between the ages 7 through 15, I thought my name was Jesus Christ”.

One thing that doesn’t work is a very un-Cosby-like bit that opens the show about people who use drugs.  It isn’t an anti-drug message but rather a silly number about people who use cocaine and smoke pot.  It isn’t funny, but it does segue into a longer and much better bit about the various types of drunks.

Much better is a bit about going to the dentist that best shows off Cosby’s talent as a physical comedian.  Here he uses his rubber-face to perfection.  In the dentist’s chair, he discusses being injected with novacane that causes his face to go numb.  Attempting to discuss a problem with the dentist, Cosby goes into Mushmouth voice, requesting a mirror: “Lebby thee my fabbiss!”

What’s great about the movie – which is also written and directed by Cosby – is its sparseness.  There is very little audience participation (the audience is never shown), and the camera remains solely focused on Cosby without any intrusions.  Plus, it fulfills the chief requirement of a comedy film – it’s actually very funny, from beginning to end.  It is a great comedian at the top of his class, doing what he does best.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(1983) View IMDB Filed in: Comedy