Bill Cosby calls Portland “my stomping ground.”

The grandfather of American comedy has always appreciated the city’s art scene and other cultural amenities. But Cosby grew fonder of our fair city the last time he performed his comedy routine here, in 2006.

The comedian had finished the second of his two shows at Merrill Auditorium and was leaving the side door and walking toward his waiting car, which would take him to the airport for a flight home to Massachusetts.

Cosby, who performs two shows at Merrill on Saturday, is famous for his quick stage exits. He says goodbye, and leaves. No encores, no hanging around to chat. So when he walked out into the dark of a late night, the sidewalks outside Merrill were all but empty, except for one lone figure walking toward him.

The man had been to the show, and made a quick exit himself.

“The guy is holding his right hand to his forehead, and he is laughing. He doesn’t see me. He’s just walking, holding his head and laughing,” Cosby recalls.

And then he recognizes Cosby.

“He shakes his head, looks at me and says to me, ‘I’m not alone.’ “

To Cosby, the implication of that statement was obvious — the rest of the audience is following closely behind, and they’re all laughing.

“So I closed the door to my car, and we take off. At the corner, the guy is still laughing. He looks at the car, looks at me, and I smile at him and he shakes his head and says again, ‘I’m not alone’ and laughs some more.”

Cosby called the gentleman’s reaction one of the best tributes he’s ever received. The standing ovations are nice and appreciated, as are the lifetime of accolades that he has piled up. But the unfiltered reaction of a fan, full of laughter and still glowing from an evening of fun, is hard to beat.

“It was a personal review that I think any writer, any performer, any painter, any poet in the arts can ever wish for. It’s that personal connection with the patron that we all strive for,” Cosby says.

Cosby is the dean of the comedy circuit. Among his generation — he is 73 — he’s one of the few comedians still touring regularly. His genius is his ability to make people laugh without really telling jokes. Cosby’s talent lies in his timing, his facial expressions and his interaction with the audience.

He’s expressive, and full of energy and joy. Cosby can walk out on stage, bask in the applause of the fans, and generate more laughs simply by looking at people in a certain way, with those big eyes of his and his wide, beaming smile. He talks to the audience, meandering around various subjects and themes, which usually involve children, marriage and domestic life, and reacts to things people say to him from the crowd.

Cosby has been performing for a half-century. He’s succeeded across all media and formats — TV, film, print, recording and stand-up. “The Cosby Show,” on the air for eight years in the 1980s, was the biggest TV hit of that decade, and many industry insiders credit the success of the show for saving, or at least reviving, the sitcom format.

He still goes out around the country because he loves performing, he says. The reaction of the fan in Portland four years ago affirms his decision, he added.

“I love what I do. It seems the connective behavior among entertainers is that we all love what we do, and as long as we can, we will do it because you can’t do it at home,” he says.

Cosby is sensitive to the current economic state in America, and says he does not take his stature for granted. He’s noticed a decline in audience numbers himself, as have others across the entertainment industry. People simply are not buying tickets with the same level of enthusiasm they did before the recession.

For those who do pony up the money and come out to the show, he promises to do his best to make their investment worthwhile.

“I am just hoping that an hour-and-a-half of good, solid laughter will be the thing that they want. But for those of us in the business, it’s really not a fun time to look out at our patrons and know they are struggling.”

Laughter may not cure all, he says. But it sure helps.

“It makes your gall bladder get rid of foam,” he says.

 

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

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