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Review: Comedy specials from Bill Cosby and Sarah Silverman

November 23, 2013|By Robert Lloyd, Los Angeles Times Television Critic
  • Bill Cosby's Comedy Central special "Far From Finished" premieres Saturday.
Bill Cosby's Comedy Central special "Far From Finished"… (Victoria Will / Invision )

Bill Cosby, 76, has a concert special Saturday -- his first such TV show in 30 years, though he hasn't been exactly out of sight in the meantime. There were a couple of sitcoms, and a mystery series, and lately, he has become a favored guest on Jimmy Fallon's "Late Night." That he is effecting this return via Comedy Central, home of "Workaholics," "Drunk History" and "Inside Amy Schumer" and many stand-up hours featuring comedians less polite than himself is something he has a little comic sport with at the top.

It is a sit-down, rather than a stand-up, performance. One regards him warily at first, for signs of exhaustion or rambling, old-guy grumpiness -- and Cosby is certainly capable of that. He begins talking about his wife, and about men and women and what the latter demand from the former, and analogizes them as chess pieces, the Queen who goes wherever she wants, knocking off this piece and that, while the King advances step by fearful step.

This is, of course, the stuff of many younger comics' routines, as well (if not so much the marriage part), which doesn't make it any better. But he turns it around; we eventually see that he's the fool here, much as he often was on his TV shows. (He was married to Phylicia Rashad in both, and she left no doubt which mate was the smarter.) He's the boy-man who just wants to sneak some cookies -- the subject of one masterfully structured and beautifully performed story set in a fancy restaurant.

In a climactic piece, driving his kids to school, he melts before your eyes into the younger father he was. (If you close your eyes, he is still very much the Cosby of "Wonderfulness" and "Why Is There Air?" There are also familiar dialogues between the brain and the body (golden) and a bit of hand-in-the-Jello-bowl mugging (not so golden), but all in all, the special lives up to its name. Neither finished, nor diminished.

At 42, with many notches in her comedy gun, Sarah Silverman, who has her own Saturday-night special, will also be regarded, by freshmen comics, as an elder stateswoman, an inspiration, a role model or possibly a person to be gotten out of the way so one's own career might flourish. "We Are Miracles," on HBO, was filmed at the small bar at Largo, and begins with Silverman out on the street, waiting to go on. She engages with some savvy cholos who pull up in a customized blue convertible.

"Largo," one says, "that's like barely 300 seats."

"Well, actually I'm doing it in the littler room."

"The little room -- that's like 50 seats."

"Thirty-nine with the fire marshal -- whatever!"

"You need to call your agent."

There has been some discussion of this show in the blogosphere, regarding what female comics should/shouldn't do, what constitutes success and whether Silverman should be aiming, essentially, for Bill Cosby's career. Well, different strokes for different folks. I find her both serious and funny here, in a sort of late Lenny Bruce, college-concert-era mode. You play around with ideas long enough, some people will want to set you on fire.

There is plenty of irony in Silverman's presentations, but her title is sincere: "I believe in miracles, though, I really do. They're obviously science-based, but they’re beyond my comprehension, so to me they're miracles … and we are miracles.... Every single person in this room tonight... there was a time in history, a blip ago in the scope of history, when we were all microscopic specks -- that was far out, right? Everybody got deep."

At the kicker to an opening riff on pornography, she says, "You find humanity in the oddest of places." And I believe she means it.

Clearly, most of what she says is worked out in advance. And yet one feels she is also in the moment, discovering things as she goes along. Stepping back and considering one disturbing shared thought, she notes, "I built a frame around it that forced you to not be able to blame me for saying it." And of another: "It went in my head and then I couldn't be alone with it." Comedy tonight.

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