Those who market Las Vegas can decide whether it’s family friendly or Sin City. None of it changes what Bill Cosby has done on the Strip since 1963.
"Whenever I performed, I always kept it family and clean," says the iconic 72-year-old comedian, who performs two shows Saturday at Treasure Island.
"I just enjoyed it. I enjoyed doing that because I didn’t like people making false statements about what Las Vegas was representing in terms of talent that was headlining.
"People were always putting it down, and yet they were coming."
Cosby says he was first co-billed with Trini Lopez at the Flamingo in 1963. "People still put that big water bag on the front of the car to protect the radiator." And he remembers chatting with a pit boss who said, "You keep drawing ’em in, and we’ll keep robbing ’em."
That was the year the comedian recorded his debut album, "Bill Cosby Is A Very Funny Fellow … Right!" Las Vegas would stay in the picture throughout his career, from shooting an "I Spy" episode at the Sands in 1966 to headlining Caesars Palace in the 1980s.
The latter came at the peak of his earning power for "The Cosby Show." But Cosby often split the bill with Sammy Davis Jr. and would walk through the front door of Caesars to check himself in.
Other headliners of the era might have poisoned the well, he suggests, sending Las Vegas down the path of production shows. "The entertainer became the person who was demanding tons of rooms, free food, free wine, all the stuff that they used to get in the early days because of, ‘You draw ’em in, we’ll rob ’em. And then all these changes started."
And so he’s been absent a while. When Cosby is told young people consider Las Vegas cool now, and have for years, his reply sounds like the capper to one of his well-timed routines:
The comedian played The Mirage in 1998, but then stayed on the sidelines as the Strip became more about room volume and Cirque du Soleil. "I don’t think the business happened that I was supposed to draw."
But he has been performing all this year, for at least a few days each month. "Your mind will still be working at 60, or whatever (age). What are you going to do with those thoughts? My joke of course is, ‘I go out on the road because nobody would listen to me in my house. So I pick out 6,000 of my closest friends and sit down and talk.’ "
He really does sit. Even when he was performing at the Las Vegas Hilton in the early ’90s, Cosby held court in a big leather easy chair. He started doing that because "we used to have these dinner shows, and I (would) just feel like a guy who is looming over these people.
"Of course, being a storyteller, it helps," matching the leisurely pace of one of his sets. Most fans have learned not to expect the classic routines about Noah or his childhood friends — Fat Albert, Weird Harold and the like — that defined Cosby’s early career.
However, people "will come to me with a kid who’s 9 or something and the kid has memorized the routine," he says.
"But the thing that I love is when I’m doing today’s material about the family, and people are still coming to me saying, ‘How did you get into my house?’
"Men look at me and say, ‘I heard you, and I’m not alone.’ That makes a wonderful feeling."
In the past few years, Cosby has been in the news more for his social stances. His book "Come On People" and his public speaking engagements promote education and parental responsibility in the black community, to polarizing response.
On the day of this interview, Cosby had been invited by Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell to speak at a rally in the state capital, protesting cuts to education.
"I just remain confused, because of all the promises that are always made about public education. … And then as soon as the people get in office, that’s the first thing they start to cut.
"A person who is uneducated, if they don’t want to work, they can show why they should receive state aid. Well, here we go again."
But he always keeps his comedy separate from his activism. "No lapping over. No lapping.
"If I come to your city (to speak to an organization), that’s free. If we’re gonna sit down and have good ol’ laughing, you pays your price."
Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at mweatherford@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0288.Preview
7:30 and 10 p.m. Saturday
Treasure Island, 3300 Las Vegas Blvd. South