In my ongoing project of listing jokes I enjoy and why, today I’ve decided to tackle Bill Cosby’s Noah.
Bill Cosby is rare among comedic talents of the 20th century, because he has managed through almost his entire career to entertain audiences young and old without “going blue.” In that I mean using profanity. He has used profanity in his comedy routines but only sparingly, preferring instead to take the high ground and find more intelligent ways to entertain audiences, rather than resorting to shock and awe. Now I’m a big fan of George Carlin’s Seven Dirty Words, but it takes a real master to do what Bill Cosby has done. I’ve never met the man personally and only seen him perform live once, but while for most comedians refusing to use profanity would be a limitation, with Bill Cosby it’s one of his many strengths. Bill Cosby is also of course a god fearing family man, yet only in recent years has he been less funny and more preachy.
“Who is it?”
“It’s the Lord, Noah.”
Most of his career he managed to avoid hitting the audience over the head with the morals to his stories. However, those morals have always been there. Almost all of his comedic routines could be used to teach life lessons in the right hands. More than merely a stand up comedian with one liners, Bill Cosby is a consummate storyteller, who just happens to know how to find the funny in any situation. Also his physical presentation of his stories help make the funny come alive for the audience. He has one of the most expressive faces in 20th century cinema.
One of his routines which has been with me since my childhood is his version of the story of Noah, found in the book of Genesis in the Old Testament. As a child I accepted the story as taught to me in Sunday School with little argument, although I do recall some of the details being a little strange. Why would an omnipotent being go to so much trouble to destroy his creation, but keep Noah’s family out of harm’s way? And obviously someone in Noah’s family was not perfect and pure because mankind still contains evil. My skepticism at the age of five however didn’t prepare me for my first experience with Bill Cosby’s take. After listening to his version, I remember being much more skeptical of the Noah story and indeed all the other Bible Stories. Would Solomon have really threatened to cut a baby in half? Why would a god turn Lot’s wife into salt for just turning around? How could Jonah survive in a whale for three days without choking on his own vomit from the stench and grossness of his situation? And don’t even get me started on David & Goliath. Bill Cosby helped me in a way realize skepticism at a very early age.
Yet because he’s a god fearing man, Bill Cosby’s approach to Noah is not in any way shape or form that of a skeptic. It is an attempt by someone who believes the tale to come to terms with the parts of the story that don’t make any sense to a skeptical mind. He was not insensitive to his lord or offensive to his church, but he was addressing realistic and understandable questions that the bible story raises, if one is to assume it’s in fact historical fact and not a metaphorical morality tale.
The Noah piece as written by Bill Cosby is actually a monologue play in three acts. I’m unable to find a YouTube link as of this writing for part two. The first embedded link at the top of this page is to part one, and below is part three.
The best way to experience this piece though is by finding a copy of his LP release “Bill Cosby is a very funny fellow… RIGHT!” which you can hopefully still find in print somewhere or maybe ebay or amazon might have used copies. Or check itunes, maybe? Bill Cosby performed many versions of this during his career, but the album version has that cute ding sound just before God says anything, which is absent most of the time when Cosby performed live on stage. Also when performed live, Cosby would always perform Noah looking up at God, while God was always looking down on Noah. Consequently as God he was always closer to his mike, so could make a more booming voice than Noah’s comparatively mousy & suspicious tone.
Act one of the piece has the prologue or premise which introduces the audience to who Noah is and that it’s a biblical story, and if focuses on the first time God talks to Noah. Cosby doesn’t bother trying to set up why a god would ask this of Noah. He just goes right into it, and naturally Noah’s shocked and skeptical, even going to far as to ask if he’s on Candid Camera. This got a much bigger laugh back then, then it would today. Some younger people probably don’t even remember Allen Funt and the Candid Camera tv series. Comparable references today might be The Jamie Kennedy Experience, Ashton Kutcher’s Punked, or Howie Mandel’s Mobbed.
Act two is more of an interlude, and dealt with how one of Noah’s neighbors might have reacted to walking by one day and seeing Noah building a very large boat in his front yard. Sometimes Cosby skipped this part of his routine depending on time restraints, but it introduced an important punchline which gets strategically repeated towards the end of Act Three.
Listen, what’s this thing for anyway?”
“I can’t tell you! Hahahahaha!”
“Can’t you give me a little hint?”
“You wanna a hint?”
“How long can you tread water? Hahahah!
The phrase “how long can you tread water” is a snarky comeback that the God character says to Noah in act three, when Noah gets uppity. One of many things I like about part two is that when Cosby’s performing this, Noah is up at the top of the boat building it and the neighbor is down on the street. So when he’s performing this part of the routine, he portrays Noah looking down on the neighbor who is looking up. This is the reverse to Noah’s position in relation to the God character in parts one and three, thus elevating Noah as more important visually than the guy who is about to drown.
The visuals in act three are very stirring. Noah goes into a massive diatribe about how difficult this has been for Noah, and how in the dark he is because God only gives him directions and orders him around. Noah’s not in on the reasons why or the management decisions of this enterprise. He’s just a lowly grunt, and he voices his displeasure at this, which is when God decides to start making it rain in order to shut Noah up. I like the description of the elephant delivering a baby, and how Bill Cosby alludes to the ship being full of crap without actually referring to it directly. These are all valid concerns that one should contemplate when trying to fathom whether or not the Noah story could have ever been even remotely historical in nature.
In recent years a group of people have taken it upon themselves to build a replica of Noah’s Ark as described in the Bible, and they’ve turned it into a cross between a religious museum and a tourist trap. If Bill Cosby has ever gotten wind of this, I like to think he takes pride in having probably had some small hand in planting that seed in those deluded ark makers’ minds.
Act one of Cosby’s Noah deals with skepticism. Whether we should trust our own senses when we hear voices coming from the sky, and how any of us might react if the Abrahamic God were to out of the blue call us up and tell us to do something crazy. It’s kinda universal, in that anyone who believes is going to understand Noah’s predicament, and anyone who doesn’t believe will enjoy the absurdity of acting out this strange turn of events.
you bring in a pregnant elephant you give me no manual for delivery or nuthin never told me the thing was pregnant there’s good old Naoh waitin’ underneath the elephant there brrrrrooooooaaaamm!
Act Two perhaps could have been extended. Cosby didn’t really need to but there are potentially many more scenarios no doubt where Noah would have had to stand up to the people of his community, to allow him to do this crazy thing w/o understanding why. Cosby doesn’t dwell on this very long. Why can only be conjecture at this point. My primary hypothesis is that parts one and three are already sufficiently long. The majority of the humor in this piece is born from a deity communicating with his creation.
Act three’s moral is more complex. On the surface it reminds the adult me of office politics. How a superior will tell his team to do something but may not be clear on all the reasons why. Just that he needs such and such done so he can accomplish whatever he was setting out to do. Naturally coworkers get upset with this attitude, cuz no one likes being told what to do without just cause and perhaps input on the decision making process along the way. The younger me just saw it as a way to show how a human being can talk to his deity in a comfortable way without fear of reprisal or chastisement. The kid in me experienced this in a very comical way. The idea that a god was about to kill millions wasn’t in my mind. I was witnessing a grown man doing stupid things cuz his god told him to, and then his god was playfully scaring him with threats of flooding before he could get his work done. Looking at this as an adult though, and now an atheist, Bill Cosby’s Noah has taken on a rather dark undertone: the god in this story is treating Noah with no respect and no freedom, but is placing upon Noah’s shoulders a great responsibility, and his only compensation by his employer is that he won’t kill him.
There’s still a lot of meat on this bible story bone that Bill Cosby didn’t chew on. He just nibbled at it, cuz he didn’t need to dig too deep to get what he wanted from the piece. That’s a powerful lesson from the perspective of someone who has tried to write comedy and failed repeatedly: don’t try so hard. keep it simple. don’t dig too deep. The audience is not gonna wanna think too hard. The object is to make them laugh first. If you can make them think too without putting them to sleep, so much the better.