You learn quickly that you don't interview Bill Cosby -- you have a conversation with him. When asked a question, the comedy legend answers with a story, digressing onto tangents, asking questions of his own and drawing out his signature long, pre-punchline pauses for effect. You just have to keep up.
Cosby is appearing at the Chautauqua Institution's Amphitheater on Saturday as part of his 2011 summer tour. In a recent phone interview, he said the tour is going well so far.
"We're doing beautifully. The material is being laughed at hard and smiled at," Cosby said. "It's a tough time, so if people can find entertainment that can make them feel good ... and go home laughing and talking to each other, I think I will have served my purpose as an entertainer."
Cosby turned 74 in July, but it's hard to tell -- his tour has him on the road far more often than your average septuagenarian. For instance, in mid-August, Cosby emceed a Jazz Foundation benefit in Newport, R.I., flew to California to perform at the Orange County Fair in Costa Mesa and then flew back to Massachusetts -- all within three days. One thing he did make time for this summer was his own birthday party. With his signature tone of good-natured, tongue-in-cheek annoyance, he said the party was going to happen whether he wanted it or not.
"On my birthday, I'm not in charge of anything," he said (I swear I sensed a wink through the phone line). "People walk around telling me where I can't go, because somewhere in their minds they think I'm going to peek and open my presents too early."
Cosby, known for his profanity-free material about American life, marriage and family, also talked about the differences between contemporary comedians and the ones of his youth. Today's stand-up comedians aren't allowed on stage unless they have a provocative set of jokes, he says, which entices those who may have a clean act to "dirty it up." Cosby said clubs feature whatever sells -- and right now, profanity is in.
"The humor of all this is, way back, they wouldn't let anybody on if they were going to use profanity and sexual subject matter," Cosby said. "So they fought to have people be able to express themselves using 'freedom of speech,' but now they're barring the comics who deliberately do not swear."
Everybody knows Cosby as a comedy king, whether as himself in his stand-up, Dr. Huxtable on "The Cosby Show" or even the spokesman for Jell-O. But he's deadly serious regarding some things, especially education. He earned a doctorate of education from the University of Massachusetts in 1976, but he wasn't always so passionate about learning and teaching.
Cosby dropped out of high school at 19 after failing 11th grade and joined the Navy. He said his experiences at boot camp convinced him his attitude had to change.
"Here were things like getting up at 0430, walking around in the dark with a rifle, and a man yelling at you. And all of these things began to say to me, 'If you had studied, you wouldn't have been in this position,'" Cosby said. "I saw myself scrubbing floors, busing tables, pushing big carts of trash across the street in the winter ... And that's when I said I have to get these credentials, I have to get this diploma."
Another point of passion is the worsening problems for black communities, like teenage pregnancy, single-parent households and, most alarming to Cosby, the number of murders of young males. His blunt comments about the need for black parents to teach their children better morals have generated controversy in recent years, but Cosby stands by his opinion.
"I don't see any controversy except for those who will not stop yelling about what is being said and look at the number of murders and say that they agree. Because they do agree!" Cosby said. "So many of them say, 'I agree with what he said, I just don't like how he said it.' Well, what does that mean? How many times have you been told very nicely?"
Despite the criticism he's drawn from some, an overwhelming majority of people still see Cosby as a leader in comedy, a force whose jokes and stories can elicit laughter now just as well as they did when he began in the business back in the 1960s. He said he'll know exactly when it's time to hang up his microphone -- but the alert won't come in the form of audience reaction or ticket sales.
"My wife will pull me out when she knows I'm not making sense anymore," he said wryly.
Bill Cosby performs two shows at Chautauqua Institution Saturday, at 5 and 8:15 p.m.
Tickets are $39 at www.tickets.ciweb.org or 357-6250.