What made Bill Cosby a legend by 1983 was his ability to cross over and be embraced by white audiences as well as black audiences. The way he succeeded was his material was largely universal – anecdotes and stories that transcended race and touched on relatable themes like childhood, parenthood, education, friendship, work. He took this act and expanded on it, creating the classic hit sitcom The Cosby Show that ran on NBC for 8 years. Right before the show premiered in 1984, Cosby foreshadowed the show’s cozy humor with his concert film Bill Cosby: Himself, which has since become a minor classic.
Watching Bill Cosby: Himself one sees the seeds of The Cosby Show as well as its lead character Dr. Cliff Huxtable. It’s interesting to see Cosby performing in this show because at this point, he was already a legend, but he wasn’t yet the cultural institution that he’d later become. There is no palpable hunger in his performance or his material and he acts in a smooth, debonair way, and his act is a tight and polished affair. The Bill Cosby of Bill Cosby: Himself is a self-assured pro, already secure in his position as a stand-up pioneer.
In BCH, the comedian takes on just a few topics: drugs and drinking, dentists, marriage, and fatherhood. The drugs material may be the most surprising for audiences used to the cuddly Cliff Huxtable (Cosby even drops a curse, saying the word “asshole”). He mimes smoking pot and getting high, employing his expert skill in mugging. It’s a funny sequence (though slightly dated) that has Cosby being dismissive of those who drink and do drugs, but does so in a way that avoids being too preachy (I say “too” because during the bit, I felt like I was listening to a really funny high school health teacher – which makes sense because Cosby’s got a degree in PE).
When he moves over to the other topics, then audiences see the kernels of The Cosby Show, and some of the anecdotes find their way into his sitcom. During the dentist skit, he talks with a slack lip as if his face was shot full of Novocaine, a joke he’d repeat in an episode of The Cosby Show in which Rudy and her friend Peter go to the dentist (played by Danny Kaye).
Camille Cosby, the comedian’s real-life wife, factors heavily into Cosby’s brand of comedy, and it’s clear that Phylicia Rashad’s Claire Huxtable is based on Mrs. Cosby. Even though she’s physically absent from the show, her presence is felt in the stories in which she acts as the perplexed and sometimes-annoyed straight man to Cosby’s hapless husband. Interestingly, his hilarious tale of his wife’s labor will also fit into The Cosby Show, as Cliff’s an OB/GYN.
The centerpiece of the show, and its most famous story is, of course, the chocolate cake for breakfast bit. In this fondly-remembered bit Cosby tells the story of how easily hoodwinked he is by his children. They convince him to serve chocolate cake for breakfast, and he rationalizes the questionable decision by reading off the ingredients and reasoning with himself that most of them (eggs, milk, butter) would be served at breakfast, anyways.
Unlike most comics, Cosby sits in a chair. He doesn’t pace a stage back and forth, and instead he simply sits, cross-legged, telling his tales as if he was just chatting with friends. And while getting the Motown soundtrack of the concert is great, to get the full Cosby experience, one must see his facial expressions and their contribution to his charm and likability cannot be underestimated. When he’s speaking as one of his children, he gets into the character, being able to mimic the scattered, whining diction of a child and the distracted squirming kids do when they talk to you. These great moments would be lost if one listens to Bill Cosby: Himself on CD instead of watching it.
How much you’ll enjoy Bill Cosby: Himself will depend on how much you enjoy Bill Cosby. Fans will embrace the raconteur who proves to be a genius storyteller. The concert film is not only a great film in itself, but it’s a great precursor into the comedic and TV giant Cosby would become only a year later.