Our new series, “A Comic’s Life” focuses on life on the road, performing stand-up. Dan Perlman is a young writer and comic, who has been performing comedy full time for two years. He performs nightly in New York City, and tours around the country at festivals, clubs and colleges. Dan is writing a series of articles for “A Comic’s Life”, which chronicles some of his thoughts and stories about being a young comedian just getting started in his career. This week, he writes about his his first inspiration to start doing stand-up.
Bill Cosby, donning a custom-knitted sweater with his hands clasped together, sat alone, ten feet from me. I’d just emerged from the bathroom, upstairs at the Blue Note, a jazz club in the West Village.
I’d seen Cosby on-stage before — twenty minutes earlier that night. He was emcee of the club’s show that evening, a musical tribute to Elvin Jones, legendary jazz drummer from John Coltrane’s Quartet, who’d died a month earlier, in May 2004. My family sought tickets to this tribute because they love jazz. I wanted to see Cosby. At 13, I’d already decided I’d be a comedian.
I kept one hand on the bathroom door and stood frozen for a moment, staring, before I slowly walked over to the man who served as my introduction to stand-up comedy.
“Noah,” a voice echoed. “It’s the Lord, Noah.”
“Right…” Noah said. “What do you want? I been good.”
“I want you to build an ark.”
“Right… What’s an ‘ark’?”
— “Noah” – Bill Cosby Is A Very Funny Fellow…Right!
I was 8 years old. I’d never heard stand-up comedy before this bit, nor had I ever heard something so funny. Staring at the CD player in my room, I listened and laughed through Cosby’s set. Immediately, I was hooked. He was my first inspiration.
Were it vinyl and not CD, I would’ve worn out that album over the next few years. It got to the point where I wouldn’t even laugh at the bit after so many listens. It was almost like a constantly-replayed song; I just wanted to hear the rhythm. To this day, I could probably re-cite the whole “Noah” routine verbatim, as I listened endlessly to this voice, these hilarious words sewn together, coming out of my speakers.
Ten feet. The distance between myself and Cosby, himself.
Despite my shyness, in that moment I felt pulled to Cosby, like a magnet. He wasn’t a stranger to me – I’d probably heard Wonderfulness and Why Is There Air? more times than I’d spoken with any middle-school friend.
I’d stayed up late to watch The Cosby Show on “Nick at Nite” and watched Himself long before I could fully appreciate that special’s greatness – where he takes an anecdote as simple as feeding his kids chocolate cake and morphs this line into a beautiful, ten-minute piece, with each character, each plot development, rich, engaging, funny.
Approaching Cosby, while muted jazz played downstairs from the ongoing show, thoughts raced through my head. What was I going to say? Could I talk to him?
I wanted to tell Cosby that he was one of the best; to thank him for all his albums that helped inspire me to write my own dumb jokes in journals that I kept hidden in my closet; to thank him for sending me a signed photo in reply to a letter I’d written him as an eleven-year-old, asking how to become a comedian.
All that came out: “Um. Hi, Mr. Cosby,”
“Hello,” Cosby said to me, smiling. He reached out to shake my hand.
“Boy, what is wrong with your hand?” Cosby said to me.
At that moment, I realized I’d washed my hands in the bathroom, but I hadn’t dried them, leaving them soaked.
“Oh, I, um, I was just in the bathroom,” I stammered out. In hindsight, I could’ve specified a little more. A wet handshake opens the door for some grosser alternatives than simply water from a faucet. Embarrassed, I watched Cosby nod through my explanation, wiping his now-wet hand off on his pants. I’m such an idiot, I thought, I couldn’t have just dried my hands?!
Cosby said nice to meet you, asked my name, and I fumbled out a reply. All the things I wanted to say had long escaped my brain. At that point, I was just a nervous kid breathing.
Suddenly, I felt a tap on my shoulder. An older man, 40s, pushed me to the side, holding a Jell-O box and a black Sharpie for Cosby to sign. “Cos!” the man exclaimed. Appreciate those moments — rare, lovely moments — when you’re set to drown in embarrassment, on-ly to be saved by a way-bigger moron standing right behind you.
I’m sure I would’ve discovered stand-up without “Noah”. Though, I don’t know who else could’ve drawn me to the medium at 8 years old. Cosby continues to influence me, and countless comedians, as he continues to tell new stories, beautifully paced, insightful, and funny.
He’s also influenced me in life. Now, I always dry my hands.
Dan Perlman is a stand-up comedian from New York. Follow him on Twitter @danjperlman.