It's hard to think of a comedian, living or dead, who casts a taller shadow than Bill Cosby. Since 1963, when his first comedy LP Bill Cosby Is a Very Funny Fellow ... Right! established him as a premier storyteller and master of the monologue, Cosby has been a groundbreaker — as a stand-up comedian, as the first black actor to star in a regular dramatic lead role (I Spy, from 1965-1968), and as the centerpiece of the acclaimed sitcom The Cosby Show (from 1984-1992), which topped the ratings for several seasons and disproved the notion that a program featuring a nuclear African-American family operating like any other could be successful. In addition, he's produced, hosted and recorded music albums with jazz greats such as Quincy Jones, Milt Jackson and Jimmy Smith, and starred or co-starred in several films (among them Uptown Saturday Night and Let's Do It Again, both with Sidney Poitier).
Still, Cosby's first love remains comedy, and in that vein he's earned nine Grammys (two of them for children's albums) as well as the 2009 Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize. He brings his stand-up to TPAC for two shows this Saturday, continuing to prove there's an audience for clean, hilarious routines based on personal experiences and family interaction.
In a recent phone interview with the Scene, Cosby discussed his early days, the state of TV, the recent death of jazz great James Moody, and his controversial remarks about the failings of black parents. He began by reflecting on his earliest TV success, the espionage thriller I Spy, for which he won three consecutive Emmys.
"The greatest thing about I Spy was that you had these two characters, one black and one white, and they were able to express their humanity on that screen, and their differences, and celebrate who they were and their cultural backgrounds — and that was something you didn't see back then," Cosby says. "Robert Culp was a wonderful, giving actor and man, but he didn't know or pretend to know anything about why John Coltrane was important to me. What he did was listen to me talk about it and talk about jazz and talk about black culture, and he responded to it. The producers also listened to what I had to say, and they made sure that the humanity of those characters was always right in front, and that's what drove the stories."
And though he thought he was helping to move television's portrayal of black characters forward, he feels things have regressed. "Now a lot of these producers want to have black characters on the screen yelling and cursing at each other, calling women out of their names and all these other types of things, and that's just something that I'm not remotely interested in seeing or supporting," he says. "When we did The Cosby Show, we made it clear that we were the parents and they were the children, and they were going to do what we said. We weren't concerned with whether they liked it or not, or whether they liked us or not. We were concerned with their future. We knew that they had no idea what was ahead, and it was our job to prepare them for that, not be their friends or their buddies.
"That show resonated because it showed the struggle parents everywhere have in trying to raise their children and keep their families together. It was no big secret. But you don't have a Brandon Tartikoff around now who will say that he stands behind that kind of show, and he doesn't care what the critics or the writers who claim it's not realistic might say."
A recipient of the 2002 Medal of Freedom and 2003 Bob Hope Humanitarian Award, in large part for his numerous TV triumphs, Cosby says he has an idea for his return to the medium — and that he could already have gotten it on the air if he were willing to make one adjustment to his concept. "I had a very influential Hollywood guy shopping my idea around and it's a good one," he says. "I want to get some of the up-and-coming talent, put them together and serve as the emcee for a show that will introduce them to audiences and let them get their start. The idea is to provide a forum, a place to launch their careers, because you just don't have that many places anymore where you can learn your craft.
"Well the guy came back to me and said they loved the idea, but that they wanted judges on the show, and they wanted prizes and conflict and something to be at stake. It wasn't enough that we were showcasing fresh and exciting talent, we had to have some kind of judgments being made. My feeling was let the audience be the judge. I wasn't interested in creating some kind of imitation American Idol, so for now it's kind of up in the air what will happen. But I think the concept is a good one."
Cosby is just as convinced his brand of comedy remains relevant in the age of cable and the general coarsening of America. "Just come to my show and you will laugh your head off," he says. "Storytelling and humor are things that don't depend on anything other than your ability to get that audience's attention and hold it. I talk about all the things that confound, amuse, puzzle and delight us as human beings. You don't have to do anything other than that to be funny. You do have to keep your eye on society, but if you do that, you can always find things that are funny, especially anyone who has children or grandchildren."
A longtime drummer and jazz aficionado — he's hosted the Playboy Jazz Festival for over 30 years and been a principal spokesman for the Jazz Foundation of America since 2004 — Cosby was moved by the death last month of jazz giant James Moody. "When I was 11 going on 12, that song 'Moody's Mood For Love' was already a national anthem for romance and a big hit. Now I've played it for my 13-year-old grandchildren and they love it. That's the greatness of jazz and the music that people like James Moody have made over my lifetime. He's passed on now, but that song and hundreds of others like it will live on forever."
In recent years, Cosby has become as famous for his activities on behalf of education and personal responsibility as he is for comedy. His controversial commentaries on the failings of black parents in regard to education and child rearing have sometimes put him in conflict with well-known black pundits like Michael Dyson. Still, Cosby — who earned a doctorate in education from the University of Massachusetts in 1976 and has co-authored books and articles on the subject with such major academic figures as Dr. Alvin Poussaint (a consultant on The Cosby Show) — considers it imperative that he continue speaking out on these issues.
"At this point in my life, sure, I could just sit back and enjoy what I've earned and done," Cosby says. "But education is too important to be ignored or taken for granted. Your parents and mine didn't take it for granted that we would learn, they insisted that we do it. I'm not naive about conditions in the schools or in communities where there's not a lot of money. But when I go in those communities and talk about responsibility, making sure your children are going to school and doing their homework, attending the PTA meetings, the first people who come up to me after the lectures and tell me how much they support what I'm doing are the parents in those neighborhoods. They're the ones who know better than anyone how important education is for their children, and they know that I'm speaking the truth and that I'm not just someone out here attacking and indicting them without good reason."
And Cosby has no plans to stop speaking his mind anytime soon. "I'm concerned about the future and I'm concerned about the welfare of our children," he says. "It's my duty and responsibility to speak out and use whatever platform I have to help. So, no, I'm not going to stop speaking out, because that would be a betrayal of everything that I stand for and have always believed."
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