"Look out! Yes, sir! There's a stranger on the phone!" is what Bill Cosby says to me when he answers the phone.

Bang! Total instant Cosby.

"What school did you come out of?" He begins interviewing me. He brings up college right off the mark. The man is all college. He's obsessed with college. Obsessed!

He got his doctorate in education in 1976 with his quite wordy dissertation "An Integration of the Visual Media via Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids into the Elementary School Curriculum as a Teaching Aid and Vehicle to Achieve Increased Learning." (Dang.) He speaks constantly at universities across the country. He donated $20 million to a college once! His university jerseys outnumber his sweaters. I rest my case.

Mr. Cosby has developed quite a reputation for his rambling codgerisms as he's always railing, they say, against the evils of the hiphops and the swearwords. (You kids get off my lawn!) I wondered exactly what he'd say if I answered, "College? Why, I dropped out of junior high to suck pecker for money, Mr. Coz-bay!"

But no. Heaven help the poor fool who says "pecker" to Mr. Coz-bay.

And that's another thing. His agent (who is also Tom Brokaw's agent, weirdly) told me, "He prefers to be called 'Mr. Cosby.' Please don't call him 'Bill.'" I guess my plan to call him "Aunt Betty" was out of the question. One must respect The Cosby!

"The University of Montana, Mr. Cosby!" I say. He is satisfied. We talk about college for a while. It is boring. I change the subject. I ask him where he is right this second and what he's doing there.

"Philadelphia, Pennsylvania! Not to be confused with Mississippi! I was born here! Nineteenthirtyseven!"

I knew that. Wikipedia. "You have a birthday coming up, Mr. Cosby!" I say. Next month. July 12 or something.

"Yes, sir! Lookin' at SEVENTY-THREE! Please HOLD THE PHONE!"

Ha! "Hold the phone!" Codger.

As I, um, hold the phone, the weirdness sinks in: The man I am holding for was the lovable, goofy, rambling force who "Hey-hey-heyed!" his way into every crook and fiber of my childhood. Pudding Pops! The Electric Company! (I own the DVD set!) Fat Albert! (Every Saturday!) A relentless one-hour comedy screed that ran day and night on HBO for 20 schmazillion years that I watched until it burned Cosby-shaped holes into my eyeballs! (It was a standup routine about his family that eventually led to The Cosby Show, which eventually led to bellyaching Rudy with the soap in her eye.) The first black man to star as a lead in a television program! Jazz musician! Television doctor! Real-life PhD! Big-money philanthropist! LEONARD PART 6!

"So!" says Leonard Part 6 when he comes back on the line after a second or two. "This morning, we are going to, um, bury our basketball coach. He was 90 years old. A black man! We called him 'Sarge'! And we were ages 14, 15, 16, 17."

Yes, Bill Cosby was sitting at his kitchen table when I called, writing a eulogy for his boyhood mentor. This was off the chain. It was exactly like getting sucked face-first into the teevee and dropped smack into an episode of The Cosby Show. It was surrealer. Surrealist.

Fade in: Late morning. Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable (or, "Cliff") is sitting at the kitchen table, writing the eulogy for a beloved hero, his old basketball coach, whom he is burying within the hour. He is wearing an expensive sweater. (Occasionally, he distractedly sucks on a Pudding Pop—LOGO TO THE CAMERA!) Suddenly! He is interrupted by Vanessa, who bursts through the kitchen door with her impossible, physics-defying trapezoidal hair. She is followed by Rudy, who's belly- aching because she has soap in her eye (and rapidly evaporating cuteness and acting skills), then by Lisa Bonet, who's sassy and a slut, then comes Theo, who does whatever Theo does. (At the moment, Mrs. Clair Huxtable, bless her, is holed up in her downtown mahogany-and-leather-bound-book-rich office, being a smug, very educated, African-American female lawyer in the '80s and is far too busy to burst through the kitchen door just now. She will burst through the kitchen door later, when she has something smug, wise, and rather superior to say.) Mr. Cosby reacts politely, hilariously, annoyed. As expected. Then, the phone rings...

But not really. He was just interrupted by Adrian Ryan, with whom he had a 7:00 a.m. (PDT) interview scheduled. We were supposed to talk about his show at Benaroya Hall on the 20th. There would be no trapezoidal hair in this episode.

"And I am busy here writing because they want me to say something at the service, and what's interesting about this... and not just because I'm... well... you know, this legend in show business... but it's because 'the guys,' our guys, will be there, to carry him out, and put him into the hearse, for his final ride..."

And then I realize something. The "they" that Mr. Coz-bay is talking about, these "the guys," had to be, in fact, the old Cosby gang (if you will). The characters who populated Cosby's Fat Albert universe were culled from his boyhood friends. In short: The Cosby Kids were off to bury their old coach. Do-do-do-do.

"And what's interesting about this..."

And here we go! The Cosby monologues. He thinks out loud, like an old professor. Some things he says are very funny; some are very sad. He's emotional. He seems to choke up a little at moments. (So do I.) He talks about Sarge, the plan to bury him out of Corinthian Baptist Church, how the church is just seven doors down from his mother's old house—the church where his grandfather sang as a choirboy. He says that Sarge was a good man who gave back to these boys, his "guys," when he could have been doing something else. He talks about Fat Albert and duplicitous wars, and he quotes directly from his dissertation! He gives me advice on raising my niece. He asks me if I smoke.

Cosby does much to cultivate his codger image. He tells me a hilarious story about recently scolding his very adult daughter when his excited grandson almost said "shit" to him on the phone. (And you thought Jesus had strict folks.) The Cosby song hasn't really changed: Children and education and his family and the integrity of all three—these are the basis of his humor and his outlook and his life. And no smut talk!

But Bill (I mean "Mr. Cosby!") keeps coming back to the moment "when they close the coffin." Because that coffin doesn't close just on a man, but on a whole type of man, he's trying to tell me. It was very Angels in America. I wonder if he knew that. I didn't ask.

At last, a brief break. "Please HOLD THE PHONE!"

"Well, Mr. Adrian Ryan! I have to go now! Thank you very much for calling. I'll see you in Seattle on the 20th! The show is going to be hilarious. Good-bye!"


Mr. Coz-bay will be playing Benaroya Hall on June 20, Father's Day, brought to you by the Seattle Symphony. The show has been playing in major cities everywhere, to rave reviews and sold-out crowds. It is called, um, An Evening with Bill Cosby. What else?

Now get off my lawn! recommended