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WORKING WITH A GENIUS

Bill Cosby is a Genius. He is also a very funny fellow! That is usually my response when asked what it was like working with Bill. There really is no other way to put it: Working on the show was terrific fun. Working with fun people makes work enjoyable.  Most important, I think, is working with people who know how to make work fun. That was Bill.

Working on The Cosby Show, we were spoiled. I love when people say to me, “I know you guys worked so hard.” If by working hard you mean long hours, we didn’t work hard at all.  We only worked three weeks out of every month and only three days out of every week. Mondays we arrived in the morning for the table read. We all sat around the table, read the script out loud and then went home.  Tuesday we worked from nine to five. Wednesday, we arrived after lunch for a run through with the cameras and left at five o-clock. Thursday, we arrived in the morning, cleaned up the blocking, did a live dress-rehearsal in the afternoon, ate dinner, and then shot the live show in the evening. Most weeks, we were finished by 10 PM and then headed into a three-day weekend.

At that time, most half-hour programs worked all day four or five days a week and not one of them was as funny as the Cosby Show.

A few years after The Cosby Show, while I was on General Hospital, made a guest-star appearance on The Steve Harvey Show. We began rehearsals on a Monday and rehearsed, rehearsed some more, and then rehearsed again. Throughout the week the script was rewritten, re-rewritten, and re-re-rewritten again and again. Amazingly enough, it never got any funnier than it was the first read-through. The evening of the taping, the director shot, re-shot, and shot some more. The taping continued on long after the audience had left the studio, with the director doing six hundred pick-up shots. At the end of the night there was one person sitting in the stands: my wife. As funny as Steve Harvey is, there wasn’t much he could do with the train wreck that program had become. The network was apparently threatening to pull the plug. The morale was horribly low. Everyone working on the show, from the director on down to the make-up artist, had a frown on their face. No one wanted to be there. It was a long week.

A week on The Cosby Show was the exact opposite of my experience on The Steve Harvey Show: It was a short week and everyone wanted to be there; everyone was smiling. 

The Cosby Show employed fine writers, but the show was funny because Bill Cosby is simply one of the best comics of this era.

One afternoon, Geoff Owens and I were watching rehearsal. The Huxtables were preparing for a ski trip and Cliff was charged with loading the skis in the car. Geoff and I watched as Bill proceeded to create an entire comedic bit, struggling to get the long skis through the narrow door. After a bit of a struggle, in frustration he called out, “Theo!”

Theo sticks his head through the kitchen door. “Yeah, Dad?”

You see me!” (Essentially blaming Theo for his predicament.)

None of that had been written into the script, it was just Bill improvising, and it was hysterical. Geoff turned to me and whispered, “He’s a genius!  We are so lucky to be working here.” I nodded in agreement. Geoff was absolutely right. Bill is a comic genius, and working with him each week was like going to comedy school. It wasn’t as if I needed convincing of his brilliance, but if I had, the proof for me was in what he did during the Thanksgiving episode of my first season.

The Huxtables were having a huge family Thanksgiving. Denise is back home with her handsome navy husband and precocious new step-daughter, Cliff’s parents are coming over as are Sondra and Elvin with the twins. Then, at the last minute, Denise invites Martin’s ex-wife to dinner. There were so many people, so many characters to juggle and yet Bill got the biggest laughs and barely opened his mouth. And all of it was Bill. The writers gave him the set-up and Bill just took it and ran. During the read through, Bill simply said to the director, “Cut to me and I will do something.”

Those of you who were fans of the show will remember that Claire continued to send Cliff out to the store for food. Every time Cliff opened the door to venture out into the Thanksgiving madness, the lightening would go off and wet leaves would fly into Cliff’s face. Each time Cliff returned, his fedora was just a bit more tattered. The audience howled! The actors on the set howled! That was Bill’s genius.  

Next…My big day with Bill


About Author

Joseph C. Phillips

Joseph C. Phillips was born on January 17, 1962 in Denver, Colorado, USA as Joseph Connor Phillips. He is an actor, known for General Hospital (1994), The Cosby Show (1984) and Strictly Business (1991). He has been married to Nicole since 1994. They have three children.

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