The voice at the other end of the line was unmistakable; the delivery impeccable.
"Why are you stalking me?"
It was the kind of outlandish question that causes a giggle to rise up and erupt, even at a time when one is trying to be serious, such as during an interview with Bill Cosby -- which is what was happening on a recent morning in advance of his appearance at the Palace Theatre in Stamford on Saturday, March 16.
For the next hour, Cosby talked about his work, his early years in Philadelphia, his writing style, his influences and tragic moments in his life that shaped him as a person and brought him closer to his fans.
Before Cosby, 75, became a Navy serviceman, talented athlete, successful stand-up comedian, actor, author and television producer, earning multiple Grammy and Emmy awards and accolades such as the Kennedy Center Honors and Presidential Medal of Freedom, he lived with his family in a low-income housing project in Philadelphia. He recalled how his mother, Annie Pearl Hite Cosby, would read to him and his brother, James, as they settled down for bed.
"We slept in the same crib, because my parents were broke," he said.
Cosby's mother had attended the Philadelphia High School for Girls, a progressive institution that made sure students learned math and foreign languages and studied subjects such as political science. When it came time to read, his mother would often reach for Mark Twain.
"I had no idea what it was about, then" said Cosby, who would later win the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor in 2009.
As a youngster, Cosby would listen to the radio and study the shows and characters.
"When I heard people tell funny stories and jokes and do things ... I loved it and I would repeat those things," he said. "Then, I began to learn how to pick the correct time and do those things and then I'd do them."
He also didn't have too far to look within his own family. Cosby's paternal grandfather, Samuel Russell Cosby, was "one of those originals," who had an excellent sense of humor. Cosby recalled a visit when his grandfather was in his 90s, during which the comedian ribbed his elder about his outdated fashion.
"I asked him, what type of shirt do you have? It really looks terrible. And he said, `When you get past 80, they don't buy anything new for you.' "
For all the laughter Cosby has found, there have been tragic events, too, including the death of his brother James, at the age of 6, and his son, Ennis, who was killed in an attempted robbery in 1997.
After his son died, Cosby said he was compelled to get out on the road and perform. As he traveled, he received books and letters from others who had suffered the unexpected or violent loss of a child or loved one. "They wanted to know how I got through it."
In the end, he said he personally connected with about a dozen couples and talked about his experience as he learned about theirs.
Cosby's ability to empathize with others and his insightful observations about the common foibles, joys, sorrows and idiosyncrasies of the human condition have fueled his comic storytelling and prose contained within his bestselling books, including "Fatherhood."
"I'm still taking what people do and say and laying it up there," he said.
Two years ago, his humor hit the digital sphere with the release of his "Bill Cosby" app. His minute-and-a-half product introduction on YouTube is a comedic sketch in and of itself.
His is a rich comedy, full of details and characters. He has met other comedians, and they are certainly funny, he said, but it would be hard for them to duplicate his style, just as he would find it difficult to adopt theirs. For further explanation, he brought up the legendary jazz saxophonist John Coltrane.
"There never will be another John Coltrane," said Cosby, who has hosted the Playboy Jazz Festival for more than 30 years. "There are people who can play like Coltrane ... but they will play what they heard John play ... and that's that."
"My wife, Camille, will say `I'm telling you now, I will be in the room when you flatline ... and immediately, 30 seconds afterwards, when they are sure they can't raise the line, I will order them to crack your head open, because I want to see what's in there."
He paused. "She thinks it's quite funny."
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