The last time I saw Bill Cosby in the flesh was 13 years ago, when he took the stage at a West Palm Beach theater, trying to make a crowd laugh for the first time after his 27-year-old son, Ennis, was murdered as he changed a tire.
Ask about that moment today, and, in his trademark raspy voice, the iconic comedian goes on for a full 15 minutes about his relationship to dying. He even reaches back to the sudden death of his 5-year-old brother, James, in the mid 1940s.
Eventually, after admitting he never looked at his son's body in the casket, Cosby explained how he decided it was time to get back on stage.
"We're going down the street in New York and a car with a black family pulls up and they see it's Bill Cosby," he said. "And for a split second, man, their faces lit up. And then they remembered (Ennis) and their faces dropped … And I said 'No, no … this has got to stop.' "
One week after burying his son on the Massachusetts estate where he is now calling from, Cosby said he realized "my job is to take the people out of this feeling. I've got to tell the people they have to laugh. They can't keep this in."
Flash forward to 2010, and as the country struggles with record unemployment, a bruising recession, two wars on the other side of the globe and a political system paralyzed by partisanship, Cosby still brings that release from a concert stage.
"I just wish the people would know that laughter … it can do wonderful things to you," he said. "That's what we entertainers do … whether we're at the circus doing a one-and-a-half from the trapeze or sitting on top of an elephant who's making droppings. I'm out there and we're having a ball."
At age 72, Dr. William H. Cosby Jr. is a showbiz legend. In 1965, he became the first black man to co-star in a TV drama (I Spy), later creating a cartoon icon in Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids before rescuing NBC with his landmark 1984 comedy The Cosby Show.
But age has taken its toll. A persistent habit of wearing dark glasses in public a few years ago led to questions about eye problems (Cosby's spokesman denies any problem); one Canadian newspaper critic so hated his onstage digressions he wrote it was "like a visit to a beloved grandfather who's off his meds."
During our interview, it was obvious why he schedules sessions in hourlong blocks. A single question could produce long monologues, skittering from one topic to another until, like a spider crafting a sprawling web, he eventually traps his point in the strands of criss-crossing stories.
I note the irony of America's first black president sparking racial tension, after the success of Cosby's Cliff Huxtable seemed to help make Barack Obama's election possible in the first place. But he shrugs off the compliment to make a different point.
"Don't forget, there's a whole bunch of people out there who didn't vote for him," Cosby chuckled. "I think he may have even believed that he could bring everybody together. Well, if he reads the Bible … you know, the part where Jesus tried that . . . he will find that trying to please everybody is going to be a failure."
A one-man crusade
Indeed, that is one of many enduring ironies about Bill Cosby: He found almost universal acclaim by stubbornly following his own vision.
As black comics shook the world with brash, profanity-laced talk about race, Cosby gained fame in the 1960s by focusing on universal stories about family and marriage. And even as Eddie Murphy and Spike Lee challenged the world with their in-your-face vision of black culture in the mid '80s, Cosby was developing a sitcom about a wealthy black family that set examples without preaching or abandoning his roots.
"I did what I did carefully, putting myself in a position to teach with that TV set," said Cosby, who earned a master's and a doctorate in education back in the '70s, peppering Cosby Show scripts with references to historically black colleges.
But all that rose to a new level with the Pound Cake Speech.
Delivered during an NAACP event in 2004, it became a manifesto for Cosby's ongoing crusade against the apathy and self-destructive habits he insists have hobbled poor, black Americans. "People getting shot in the back of the head over (stealing) a piece of pound cake," he raged then. "Then we all run out and are outraged … (but) what the hell was he doing with the pound cake in his hand?"
Critics accused him of blaming the poorest victims of racism. Pundit and professor Michael Eric Dyson wrote a book titled Is Bill Cosby Right? (Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind?) that helped prompt Fox News Channel contributor Juan Williams to write his own book criticizing a "culture of failure" in black America called Enough.
For his part, Cosby insists his Pound Cake Speech has been widely misquoted and misunderstood.
"It's a very simple picture; if your child is untrained from home but feels he can reach in and grab a piece of something, knowing everybody thinks this brown, black kid is an animal … they're going to get shot," he said. "Yet people don't warn children."
These are the Cosby paradoxes: A relentless advocate of quality parenting who grew up with an absent father. A long-married global symbol of fatherhood who admitted having an affair with one woman in 1997 and settled a lawsuit with another in 2006 who claimed the comic drugged and sexually assaulted her.
A staunch advocate against profanity in comedy and music, he nevertheless befriended scorchingly explicit comic Richard Pryor, along with jazz stars such as Miles Davis, whose drug use led some critics to denounce bebop jazz the way Cosby now criticizes gangsta rap (he did release a rap record last year, Bill Cosby Presents the Cosnarati: State of Emergency, which set his upbeat social message to song).
But those who see Cosby in concert won't hear about that stuff. Instead, he promises fans "a master at work who will make you laugh without profanity, without going (to) any level of filth, but having a little edge to it . . . It's not just unsalted popcorn. It's a good time."