One of history’s best-loved comics comes to the Santa Cruz Civic. In this exclusive interview, Bill Cosby speaks his mind on humor, Barack Obama and the African-American condition.
There’s an outtake from the second season of The Cosby Show that speaks volumes about Bill Cosby’s role in American history. Seated on a couch, Cosby leans over a chessboard on the living room coffee table and asks the show’s director, “What are we doing?” A reply comes from off-camera: “Take the black pieces off the board, and we’ll start with you just putting ’em on.” Raising his eyebrows in mock indignation, Cosby shoots back, “Take the black pieces off?” To riotous crowd response, he decisively removes all the white pieces from the chessboard in a single swift swoop. Then, staring stone-facedly at the camera, he does one of his trademark head wiggles.
Seen today on YouTube (Google “Cosby Show bloopers”), the clip comes off as a definitive snapshot from a pivotal point in our culture’s evolution. The studio audience’s extended laughter and applause conveys the excitement of an era when the rules were changing: The nation’s favorite TV show was now a Father Knows Best-style program about a well-to-do black family, and African-Americans were demanding their proper place on the gameboard.
In the early ’90s, the final episode of The Cosby Show aired in the midst of the L.A. riots. Sirens and bullhorns sang a dissonant farewell to the Huxtables, and the oppressed inner city poor sent off the affluent black family of ’80s TV with the fireworks of flying glass and flickering flames.
The 21st century has seen the emergence of a more outspoken, outraged Bill Cosby. After spending most of his career sending implied messages about race issues by way of example, he has begun addressing such matters in a vocal, vehement and often blunt manner. His views have been met with both approbation and offense, but no one can accuse the man of being reticent on the subject of ethnicity.
That said, Cosby is still just as good-humored as ever, and Santa Cruzans who attend his Nov. 27 Civic Auditorium performance can expect an evening of the lively, congenial comedy for which he’s famous. In conversation with GT, he had plenty of lighthearted observations and entertaining tales to share. But he also offered candid comments on the African-American condition and his own efforts to change it for the better.
“Is this Bill Cosby?”
“Naww. He’s not here, man!”
The puckish fellow on the other end of the phone line isn’t fooling anyone. That voice is unmistakable: We’ve heard it rasping “Hey, hey, hey!”, giving props to pudding pops and warning Theo Huxtable, “I brought you into this world, and I can take you out.” Its owner’s endearingly playful gambit is just further proof that this is, as the movie title goes, Bill Cosby himself.
Warm, funny and grandfatherly, Cosby begins our conversation by interviewing the interviewer: “Santa what?” “How old are you?” “Where’d you go to school?” “So, now, think about it: What did you hope to become?”
You know, that’s a good question.
“Of course it is! You’re talkin’ to Bill Cosby.”
Either Cosby is well practiced in putting on his public face for the press, or his comic persona is not a persona whatsoever. Within the first few minutes of our discussion, it’s apparent that there’s no essential difference between the Bill Cosby on the telephone and the Bill Cosby on the television. And that’s his whole gig, really: He’s the real deal—an affable, genuine everyman who can relate to your plumbing problems and back pains.
Cosby, now 73, was in his early twenties when he hit upon his “come as you are” approach to entertainment. The turning point came when he was eating lunch in a Chinese restaurant. “This fellow is talking, but he’s not a professional; he’s a friend,” the comic recounts. “That’s a key word: friend. And he’s talking about something that [his companions] all know, because they were there. And he’s telling this table of eight people how he felt about whatever it is, and the women are laughing so hard they’re puttin’ their napkins over their faces; men are bangin’ on tables. I said, ‘There it is! That’s the style that I want. I want to be the friend. The friend. So I began to deliver [my comedy] as this college-educated, storytelling friend. That was my projection. And that’s what I’ve been all 48 years … only much better now!”
By addressing his audiences as a visiting friend would, Cosby comes off as the antithesis of a standup comic: Rather than standing onstage and spitting out reams of quick jokes, he sits eye-to-eye with his listeners and tells long, detailed anecdotes. The same is true of his style of discourse: As opposed to one-liners, he makes his points through intricate, branching stories. Thus, the interviewer quickly abandons his list of questions and lets the storyteller do what he does best.
“A looooong time ago,” the raconteur offers, “about 44 years ago, a woman came to me and said, ‘Buster Keaton would love to meet you.’ Now, let me tell you something, Mr. Santa Cruz. Shucks. I called my mother.” Cosby recalls watching The Buster Keaton Show religiously: “I don’t know why people describe things when they’re watching something at home, and they say the same thing about comedy: that they fell off the sofa. I don’t understand why they fell off the sofa. But I fell off the sofa.”
When Cosby and his wife Camille entered the late Buster Keaton’s house, they found the comic legend seated at his card table, playing double solitaire. “He never got up; he never came over; we never shook hands,” Cosby recalls. “I looked at him, and somebody said, ‘Buster, Bill is here.’ And he’s lookin’ at the cards. So obviously, in retrospect, Buster’s very, very shy. I said, ‘How are you, Buster?’ and he said, ‘I’m just fine, Bill.’ And he kept playin’ the cards. It was like one of his silent films, only worse! And I didn’t have any real questions. I’m scared, too! I did not feel that he was arrogant; I did not feel that he was rude; I just felt, ‘Hey, man, Buster is playin’ double solitaire, and I am not interrupting that. I’m just happy I can go the rest of my life tellin’ people, “You know, Buster Keaton asked me to come to his house.”’”
Though Cosby’s meeting with Keaton wasn’t what he’d expected, it made a profound impression on him. “From that, a part of my philosophy morphed into: If I get a chance—and I’ve had millions—to talk to and give information, then the person across from me may be Bill Cosby,” he explains. “And I’m gonna talk to ’em, and I’m gonna tell ’em. And I’m gonna hear what they have to say, and then we’re gonna talk some more.”
Along with dispensing information to the youth by way of programs like Fat Albert and The Electric Company and records like 1971’s Bill Cosby Talks to Kids about Drugs, Cosby has lectured extensively in churches and other public forums, speaking out against academic underachievement, reliance on welfare, teenage pregnancy, foul language and drug use among black people. In 2004, he made headlines with an address he gave at an NAACP awards ceremony commemorating the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education. Therein, he voiced his disapproval of crime, violence, parental irresponsibility, use of urban dialect and school dropouts in black society. His comments incensed several members of the African-American community, including Georgetown University sociology professor Michael Eric Dyson (named one of the 100 most influential black Americans by Ebony magazine). In his 2005 book “Is Bill Cosby Right?,” Dyson called the NAACP awards speech “a vicious assault on black poor folk,” contending that disadvantaged black people are not to blame for their plight; the true culprits are a lack of economic opportunity and a bad education system for poor black kids. He further berated Cosby for his “Johnny-come-lately standing as a racial critic.”
In regard to the latter indictment, it could be argued that Cosby has spent his entire career commenting on race issues—simply by not making an issue of race. When he introduced himself to America via The Tonight Show in 1963, he began his comedy bit by announcing that he wanted to talk about karate. He was taken aback to hear a guffaw from the audience, whose members were apparently unaccustomed to the notion of a black comic making jokes about anything other than being black.
Two years later, Cosby made a name for himself as “the Jackie Robinson of television” when he became the first African-American to play a lead role in a prime time drama. That program, I Spy, was unprecedented in its depiction of black and white leading men relating to one another as equals. Cosby’s race never figured into the show’s plots; costar Robert Culp once commented, “Our statement is a non-statement.”
The non-statements continued with The Cosby Show, whose central characters, the Huxtables, weren’t primarily a black family; they were a family, period. The name of the Santa Cruz rock band The Huxtables bears testimony to this: It’s a cute, retro moniker, but few people give much thought to the fact that its namesakes are black, whereas the members of the band are white. One has to suspect that the same would not hold true for a Caucasian band called The Jeffersons.
Though Cosby remains firmly unapologetic about his comments at the NAACP awards event, he stated on The Oprah Winfrey Show in 2007, “The only thing I regretted was, I thought that I was talking to just my people.” As Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary magnum cum laude graduate Merisa Parson Davis (a cousin of Cosby) explains in her 2010 book “Bill Cosby Is Right,” “Part of the reason why Cosby’s comments caused such a firestorm of controversy was because he had broken an unwritten ‘code of silence’ regarding letting white folks know about black people’s problems. He was fussing at black people while white America listened in.”
Cosby invokes two sayings—“The empty tin can makes the most noise” and “Let no good deed go unpunished“—to express his feelings about the flap that his speech generated. “For me, just on my side of thinking, if something is wrong, and I know, from my viewpoint, that you’re driving in a direction where the bridge is out, and I tell you where the bridge is out, and you get mad at me because I’ve said what is wrong and what you’re not doing correctly and [the problems] you’re going to run into, and you start to tell me I have no business saying that because some white people were listening, I’m tryin’ to save you from this huge disaster!” he states with a laugh. “I’m also trying to put together some things so that you can see your children standing tall, highly educated and free to be able to fight for the correct thing.”
While it’s difficult to take issue with Cosby’s warnings against committing crimes and serving jail time, his NAACP speech contained some debatable statements that appeared to endorse putting an emphasis on the “American” half of the African-American equation: “We are not Africans. Those people are not Africans; they don’t know a damned thing about Africa, with names like Shaniqua, Shaligua, Mohammed and all that crap, and all of them are in jail”; “I can’t even talk the way these people talk: ‘Why you ain’t, where you is go, ra.’ I don’t know who these people are. And I blamed the kid until I heard the mother talk. Then I heard the father talk.”
A passage from Ronald L. Smith’s 1997 book “Cosby: The Life of a Comedy Legend” seems relevant here. Smith writes of Cosby’s early years: “Assimilation was as much a battle for Bill as it was for kids of other minority groups. Bill’s generation of blacks wanted to be like their radio and movie heroes, and developed the all-American way of talking and walking. Accents, ethnic foods, and unusual styles of music were frowned upon. Cosby remembered being embarrassed by his grandparents’ accents, where a word like gentlemen came out a drawling jemmen.”
There Goes the Neighborhood
A far cry from the Huxtables’ life of upper-middle-class comfort, Cosby’s childhood was marked by the same kind of adversity that many underprivileged inner city kids endure today. He grew up in a North Philadelphia district known to its inhabitants as “the Jungle,” where the Cosbys bathed in a half-sized metal tub that they’d fill with water and heat on their stove. Though he doesn’t like to talk about his father at length, Cosby does mention in passing, “My father is a bad, naughty man. He’s not a good father.”
Cosby spent his formative years in the all-African-American Richard Allen housing project. He recalls being 12 years old, hanging out with three or four of his friends from the project and speculating as to when America would first elect a black man as president: “At age 12, we’re talking … 1949?” he estimates. "And I said, ‘I think we’ll have a black president by 1960.’ And those guys hooted me down! Well, obviously, I wasn’t clear on 1960. I wasn’t even clear about America. And this was an all-black neighborhood: ‘Aww, man, get out of here!’”
Cosby’s early comedy routines included rants about the day when the first black president would take office: The comedian envisioned “For Sale signs in the yards of every home up and down Pennsylvania Avenue.” At the time, he could hardly have predicted that there would come a day when various theorists would credit him with readying the culture for an African-American president. Novelist/blogger Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez has coined the term “the Huxtable Effect” to describe the manner in which pop culture sets the standard for social norms. Illustrating this point, Cosby Show script consultant Alvin F. Poussaint has commented that “there were a lot of young people who were watching that show who are now of voting age,” and on the night of Obama’s election, Karl Rove told Fox News, “We’ve had an African-American First Family for many years in different forms. When The Cosby Show was on, that was America’s family. It wasn’t a black family. It was America’s family.”
Cosby sees Obama as a positive role model for young black people. “I think in the two years, or whatever, that he’s been in office, the simplistic, emotional part has since left—as with relationships, as with learning experiences,” the comic offers. “And as far as I’m concerned, in those talks in the churches and arenas [such as] NAACP, Urban League, organizations predominantly black, he certainly has given information about responsibility, information about how to succeed. He has not kept these things a secret. Yet, the empty tin cans, of which there are some in the black community … they don’t want it. Because the information seems to put them in a state of responsibility. That’s some of these empty tin cans.”
Cosby adds that this is just one of many examples of people ignoring information that has been around for eons. “I’m not a religious man,” he notes, “but I’m always amazed at what’s in the Old Testament and the new one, in the Protestant religion and Catholic—that these stories, these human beings that show up, how closely they are related to the human behavior of today. I’ll tell you what: If you have a friend whose father is in theology and has a degree, or you know a professor who’s in theology and has a degree in the Bible, and you say, ‘OK, can you find an example of the Tea Party?’ And he’ll tell you, ‘Yeah!’ ‘Can you find an example of people partying too early and not taking on responsibility?’ He’ll say, ‘Yeah!’”
Get Up, Standup
Perhaps Cosby will eventually be remembered as one of many prophets who have shouted age-old warnings to a heedless populace. But for now, let those who have ears rejoice in the fun of his upcoming Civic show. Passionate and opinionated as he can be, he is still first and foremost a purveyor of good times, and he still revels in the simple act of making people laugh.
“I don’t know if people get it unless they’re doing comedy or something, but it’s that feeling—I can only say a feeling that it is funny,” Cosby states. “And it is as cathartic as a person sitting in the audience smiling or laughing. The juices begin to … the glands begin to … I mean, things feel good. I just want to go, plant, sit down, look at my audience, and from that point on, I’m gonna hurt their face.”
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