MIAMI -- Bill Cosby returned to the concert stage last night. Before long, the audience laughed. It's a wonderful gift, laughter. It embraces everyone it touches.
Saluted by waves of applause, consoled by a few tears, warmed by the spotlight, Cosby shone in full public view for the first time since his son was fatally shot two weeks ago.
"He was a man, but I'm a father and he was my son," Cosby told a sold-out crowd at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach, Fla. "We are living it. We are a wonderful family, and we are living it."
Anguish sometimes bowed his shoulders, but wry smiles often illuminated his face. And the humor he managed to generate brightened a theater filled with fans.
"Pardon me if I sound arrogant, but somebody has to give people a release," he told the audience. "I have to have a release, because this is what I do for a living. I don't sing."
Then, he paused.
"I do sell pudding."
The audience laughed. And that made Cosby smile.
Long ago engaged to appear in two shows yesterday, Cosby honored his contract despite the death Jan. 16 of his son, Ennis.
Though tradition requires that the show must go on, no one would have blamed Cosby, 59, if he had canceled these one-man comedy concerts.
Over the years, Cosby's humanistic brand of humor, his family-oriented television series, his dignity have transformed him into a national father figure. In response, the nation shared a measure of his loss.
"I remember being a small kid and listening to his albums," said John Burkett, 35, of West Palm Beach, who attended the show. "His humor has always been based on the family. If you're married or have kids, you can identify with him."
Soon after the slaying came news that Cosby might be the father of a 22-year-old woman charged with trying to extort $40 million from him. He admitted having a brief affair but said he doubted he was the woman's father. His wife said they long ago resolved the problems between them.
Cosby encountered his first live audience Friday, a small group of people in New York who watched the taping of his TV program.
Last night, in a concert hall jammed with 2,200 fans for each show, the house lights dimmed right on schedule. Unannounced, Cosby emerged, stage left.
The audience rose and applauded, and a few people started crying.
Cosby stepped to center stage and picked up the microphone. He waited a few seconds and quieted the crowd. "Oh," he said waving his hand dismissively, "sit down."
Then, as the audience settled, Cosby addressed the issue head-on because he knew what was on everyone's mind.
"This is not difficult for me," he said, "because a part of my life has been with you all and you have been a part of me."
Then, he segued into his routine, that distinctive blend of gentle, observant humor that has served him and his audience so well for 35 years.
The crowd loved it. Loud laughs rocked the concert hall and Cosby seemed energized, accelerating his speech, mugging as he told his stories.
"I think this is good for him," said Rhoda Freedman of Boynton Beach, Fla. "He's obviously a well-loved individual. I bet this is just what he needs.
"People say you should go back to work. It just so happens his work is making people laugh."
Pub Date: 2/02/97