Musings from the ever-changing, ever-amazing and occasionally ever-baffling Fort McMurray, Alberta.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

"I Coulda Been a Contender" - Thoughts on Bill Cosby in Fort McMurray

It might seem odd to you, but I wasn’t really all that excited at the prospect. I’ve met a lot of people, and while this one ranked as likely the biggest “celebrity” of any I have met I still wasn’t all that enthused. I was happy to have the opportunity, of course, but I was less than excited. After all, this celebrity is a performer, and not all performers are great intellects, or even all that pleasant. As often happens though I am not only happy to say I was proved wrong...but delighted to be so very, very wrong.

The celebrity in question? International star Bill Cosby, who was brought to Fort McMurray through Northern Insights, the speaker program from the Fort McMurray Public Library. This program has already brought intellect and author Malcolm Gladwell to town, and in the future will bring Arlene Dickinson – but last night on the stage was entertainer, superstar, comedic genius – and intellect – Bill Cosby.

I’d seen The Cosby Show, of course, and heard many of his comedy routines. I’d even read a few things he had written, but none of that prepared me to meet the man behind the superstar. I was part of the media meet and greet, and those who had met him just prior to my meeting told me stories of his charm.

We were ushered right into his dressing room, other members of the media and myself. There he sat, in a large leather chair, and as the bench was full of other media the library staff suggested I sit on the leather sofa next to him. I sat down, just one person between the man and myself, and when I sat the skirt I had been wearing that day slid up slightly, revealing a bit of thigh through the side slit. I caught his eye when he dryly said to me “flashing me is unfair”. I believe I almost swallowed my tongue, as his wit was obviously just as crisp as ever, and his eye for detail untarnished by age. We went through a few questions with him, and his ability to handle (and direct) a media scrum was immediately apparent as he deftly fielded questions (although always, always providing an answer with a twist). He answered queries about his career, and his comedy, and he did so with grace, and dignity – and humour.

What I observed while in that room for a brief twenty minutes was a man who may have aged but who has not dimmed in any regard. I was anxious to see him on stage, because I suspected his quiet dressing room demeanour would explode into onstage hilarity – and I was correct.

I left his dressing room in awe of this man, and joined the Intrepid Junior Blogger who already had seats for us. I was delighted when I discovered Phil Meagher was introducing him, because Phil is one of our resident comedians, a local smarty-pants who always has a quick quip at the ready, and I was eager to see the banter between them. I was not disappointed as Phil was quickly “schooled” by the master of comedy, a wit and genius that cannot easily be matched. And then, when Phil left the stage and Cosby sat there at a table, the fun really began.

Cosby spoke for an hour, and it was a fairly wide range of topics addressed. He spoke of family, and his wife. He told stories of the past, and one of the funniest for me was when he spoke of an incident with his then ten year old daughter and his wife. The daughter was being a typical preteen girl, and he riffed into a bit about teenagers that rang very true for me, how they can never find anything and instead scream for mom (being a mom I am quite familiar with this phenomenon,  and recall one frantic phone call asking me to come home from an event because someone’s mascara had gone missing).
He covered a lot of ground, and reacted to the audience who would occasionally shout things out. One of those moments was when he spoke about what he would tell others about his experience here, and someone shouted out the words “big spirit”. It was delightful to see him quickly grasp the impact of these words, and to see him incorporate it into his routine. And while I enjoyed his talk I think it was the following question and answer session I enjoyed the most.

You see while Cosby shines during a monologue it is perhaps his interaction with others that is the most intriguing. What interested me most is that when he is asked a question the answer often doesn’t seem to fit the question. I’ve seen this before, though. My father, in his later years, would often provide answers that didn’t seem connected to the questions he was asked. And it wasn’t that he was senile, or that he wasn’t listening. It was because he had reached the point in his life where the answers he gave were the ones he felt needed to be given, regardless of the questions asked. He felt he had a finite amount of time left, and the time he needed to share what he had learned of life was running out. And so he would be asked a question, and the answer, while perhaps being related, was often not quite what was asked. Yet it all made sense if you just listened to the answer, because he was telling you not what you had asked for, but what he wanted and needed you to hear. And so too it was with Cosby, both when he answered questions during the media meet and greet and when he did the audience Q&A. Instead of looking for the answers to the questions asked one needed to listen to the words he said – because while it might have seemed to be disconnected he was sharing with us what he felt we need to know.

And some of his answers intrigued me. There was the man who, before he even asked his question, commented that we must finally be becoming something because we had guests of the kind of Bill Cosby – and Cosby stopped him immediately, telling him that we had to stop that, stop acting like we are nothing, because, of course, we are something, and we are something even without Bill Cosby or other performers or entertainers. Do we have a good mayor, he asked? Do we have good schools, he inquired? If we do then we already ARE something, and we are something good. I would go even further. Do we have a good community? Do we have strength in our social profit sector? Do we have citizens who are passionate about the place we call home? The answer to all this is, of course, yes.

Cosby shared a lot last night. He shared thoughts on crime and punishment (thoughts and beliefs I happen to share, as I think it is not nearly as black and white as we wish it was), and on his favourite scene from the movie “On The Waterfront” (a movie I too have seen more than once). He spoke about how we need to talk about our issues, admit them, and confront them – because silence is a crucifixion, just as a character in that favourite scene of his explains. And so too that rang true for me, because in this community with all the opportunities and potential we still have issues, and ones that we must continue to discuss.

I chose the title of this post for one reason. Cosby mentioned the line that is in the title, because it too comes from “On the Waterfront”. While he said it is not his favourite line it is one that is very popular, and it speaks to me for several reasons. One of the reasons is because Fort McMurray is not a “coulda been” contender. We are a contender, in every conceivable way. We are something because of the strength of our community, our economy, and our industry. We are a contender in our ability to attract the best and brightest, the most innovative and creative. We are a contender in the way we have organizations like the Fort McMurray Public Library, groups that bring people like Bill Cosby to our community to speak. We do not need to say “I coulda been somebody”. We ARE somebody, and last night an icon of American comedy and entertainment dropped in to remind us. And we should feel deeply grateful that he recognized something in us that sometimes we struggle to see. He saw we are somebody. He saw that we are, in the end, Fort McMurray - and we have every right to be proud to be.
My thanks to the
Fort McMurray Public Library
Northern Insights
for the chance to meet Bill Cosby -
and for giving our community the opportunity
to be reminded that we are somebody.


  1. I went to see Bill Cosby as well but had a much different take away experience. Although the stories during "his act" were funny and the material relevant,the presentation was disjointed and random. Initially I thought he would tie things together at the end of the presentation but that was when things got even more bizarre. I am sure you recall that Cosby stopped, mid-tale- when he found out that the time was 7:30 pm.
    This was a little jarring...and then the real show began.
    Weren't you uncomfortable with the banter between the MC and Cosby? Weren't you cringing when he got on all fours and addressed the Mayor via the side table? Couldn't you feel the discomfort and hear the frustration of the Mayor while she tried get through the first question?

    While I appreciate your positive interpretation of Mr. Cosby's actions I suspect another explanation is more likely. An explanation that, even our own social media darlings, would find challenging to write about.

  2. Thanks for your comment - but quite honestly I was not uncomfortable at any time. I think many forget that Mr. Cosby is now in his seventies, and apparently suffers from very poor vision. I didn't find it "bizarre" in any way but rather a very honest and frank presentation from someone who has been doing this for years and does things his own way (pretty common in my experience with senior citizens!). My "positive interpretation" is, in fact, exactly what I truly think and believe - just as it always has been. Thanks again,
    McMurray Musings