Bill Cosby stormed his way onto Jimmy Fallon's show Monday night, and went straight into the audience before dropping on the stage motionless as he asked The Roots to audition as his funeral band (“Pitiful!” he snapped after the song).
He also wandered into the crowd last week on "The Tonight Show," though the bit proved longer, odder – and funnier – the second time around.
Even at age 76, Cosby's still honing his act as he hits Comedy Central Saturday for his first standup TV special since 1983, before there was a Comedy Central. The 2009 Mark Twain Prize for American Humor winner’s TV return comes a day before PBS airs the ceremony celebrating the latest Twain honoree: Carol Burnett. The shows offer a weekend double serving of comedy comfort food, just in time for the holidays.
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The specials, to differing extents, are less about nostalgia than enjoying some new laughs via a couple of old-school comedy contemporaries who, like Twain, cleverly mined humor from carefully studied observations of fellow humans.
Cosby’s a master storyteller, as he first showed in his 1960s standup days (most memorably in his imagined conversation between God and a skeptical Noah), in his 1970s cartoon series “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids” and, of course, in 1980s on “The Cosby Show.” His career has endured thanks to far more than his hardiness – Cosby taps into shared experiences, finding both gentle and pointed (if never profane) humor in the everyday.
Burnett also discovered different ways to tap into absurdity – and tug at her ear – starting as a young musical-comedy performer in the 1950s. She’s best known for “The Carol Burnett Show,” the last great network variety program, where she famously wore Scarlett O’Hara’s curtain dress with the curtain rod still in and made a then-nearly 40-year-old reference fresh. Burnett could seamlessly mix poignancy with the silly, no more so than with her Eunice character, a loser with dreams who could pack an “All-in-the-Family”-like episode into a laugh-out-loud skit.
Burnett’s show, which began in 1967, offered parody and music on Saturday night before there was a “Saturday Night Live,” which eventually eclipsed her program as an edgier alternative.
Still, her influence stretched to the late-night comedy crowd – guests on Sunday’s Twain special include former “SNL” players Tina Fey (the 2010 Twain winner), Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph and Martin Short, who may be the most Burnett-like performer working these days. The ceremony also offers a chance to see the 80-year-old comedy legend reunited with her former co-stars Vicki Lawrence and Tim Conway, who now is as old as his shuffling old man character, but far more mobile.
Cosby and Burnett are mobile enough for far more than mere victory laps. Burnett appeared on “Glee” as Sue Sylvester’s Nazi-hunting mother a couple seasons back, and guested on “Hot in Cleveland” in June. Cosby recently revealed plans for a sitcom comeback, and is touring with his new standup routine.
He might be cracking wise about death on Fallon’s show, but the only thing about his standup special that’s not a joke is the title: “Far From Finished.” Check out a clip below:
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.