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The Boston Globe

Theater & art

At 76, Bill Cosby’s still in command

Bill Cosby, 76, arrives in Boston for four shows at the Wilbur Theatre a week after Comedy Central premiered “Far From Finished,” his first TV special in 30 years.

Erinn Chalene Cosby

Bill Cosby, 76, arrives in Boston for four shows at the Wilbur Theatre a week after Comedy Central premiered “Far From Finished,” his first TV special in 30 years.

Ask stand-up comedians about Bill Cosby’s influence, and something funny happens. They’ll stutter a bit, pausing to contemplate the enormity of the question. Then they’ll mention Cosby in the same breath as Mark Twain, Richard Pryor, Lenny Bruce, and George Carlin.

“He’s otherworldly. He’s a super-legend,” says local headliner Lamont Price, who is in his 30s and first heard Cosby when he was about 12 years old. “He’s from an era that doesn’t exist anymore.”

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Now 76, Cosby is arriving at the Wilbur Theatre for four shows Saturday and Sunday, a week after Comedy Central premiered “Far From Finished.” It is Cosby’s first television special since 1983’s “Himself” (not counting the straight-to-video release “Bill Cosby: 49” in 1987), and it shows him in fine form. He is masterful in leading the Los Angeles area audience in a call-and-response routine, and takes them through a 95-minute set that contemplates courtship, friendship, and especially marriage. It’s an addition to a legacy that already includes dozens of comedy albums, books, movie work, and, of course, his 1984-1992 TV series, “The Cosby Show.”

BILL COSBY

The Wilbur Theatre, 866-448-7849. http://www.thewilburtheatre.com

Date of concert:
Saturday, 6 p.m. and 9 p.m.; Sunday, 5 p.m. and 8 p.m.
Ticket price:
$49.50-$97

Comedy Central declined the Globe’s request to interview Cosby. But other comics didn’t hesitate to speak up about him.

There is admiration in comedian and author Jim Gaffigan’s voice when he speaks of Cosby’s talent and endurance. Gaffigan, 47, remembers listening to Cosby’s albums at a friend’s house when he was young. “Just the change that America has gone through and he’s still been able to communicate with people throughout, and has strong opinions,” he says. “It’s pretty amazing.”

Cosby’s ability to weave an engaging tale from his experiences growing up impressed a young Ken Reid, 33, host of Ken Reid’s Secret Menu at the Comedy Studio in Cambridge. Cosby’s form “is long, it’s stays with you, it’s like watching a great movie.”

Like Cosby, veteran Boston headliner Bill Campbell, 60, performs family-oriented observational material. He goes onstage with a few ideas and observations and tries to shape them into a story. If he gets a two- or three-minute bit out of that, he’s happy. Cosby is on a different level, he says. “Cosby takes ideas and turns them into stories” that go on for 20 minutes, he says, “and it all fits together. And it’s all him. It’s not derivative of anybody. It’s all his style and his way.”

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Campbell says he was once introduced as “the poor man’s Bill Cosby,” which he considers a compliment. “That’s fine. Are you kidding? I could work every day of my life and never come close to being as good as Bill Cosby. He’s just too good.”

Price was drawn more to the brash comedy of Pryor, Carlin, and Eddie Murphy as a youngster, but Cosby was there, too. Now as a more experienced comic, Price finds himself going back and learning from the master. “He’s one of the people I watch constantly, probably more than anyone, when it comes to just seeing how he weaves a tale,” he says. “And it’s calm. He never rushes it. He has a tremendous trust in his audience. He doesn’t disrespect his audience. There’s a lot of silence, sometimes, when he’s weaving these tales because people are listening, because everyone’s so engrossed in what he’s saying. I really do think he might be the best storyteller who ever lived.”

Much has been made about Cosby’s clean comedy — he once called Murphy to ask him to stop using so much profanity, a conversation Murphy lampooned in his special “Raw.” Gaffigan says seeing Cosby and Brian Regan, who can also be described as a “clean comic,” inspired him to keep working at the kind of comedy he’s most comfortable with. He wrote his book “Dad Is Fat” after reading Cosby’s “Fatherhood.”

“There is nothing super fancy about it,” says Gaffigan of Cosby’s storytelling style. “It’s just sheer substance. There’s no, ‘Ooh! He’s dealing with a taboo!’ ”

Gaffigan got a close look at Cosby when he performed on the same bill with him in September at the New York Comedy Festival. “He had the goods,” says Gaffigan. “It wasn’t, ‘Let’s be respectful to this legend.’ He was making these people laugh. And there’s a level of honesty and a point of view that is truly universal.”

Cosby’s style has generally been impervious to fads, even if he has occasionally tried on different hats with projects like his 1971 “For Adults Only” album. But even that didn’t stray far from Cosby’s voice. Fans of his classic 1960s routines like “Noah” will instantly recognize that Cosby in “Far From Finished.”

“It worked when he was 30, and it will work until the day he dies,” says Gaffigan. “And there are very few people who can pull that off.”

Nick A. Zaino III can be reached at nick@nickzaino.com.

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