Cosby, Bill (1937—)

views updated

Cosby, Bill (1937—)

As one of the most influential and gifted comics of his time, Bill Cosby dissolved racial barriers on television from the 1960s to the 1980s, created the epochal situation comedy The Cosby Show, produced memorable educational programs for children, and made a series of much adored advertisements. Cosby's enormously influential style as an on-stage comic influenced a generation. On the 1968 album To Russell, My Brother, Whom I Slept With, Cosby's comedy brings everyday experience away from any broader historical meaning to the level of the mundane and thus, the "universal." This quality of universality helps to account for his ability to traverse ordinarily sensitive racial, gender, and age divides with ease and grace.

In the style developed during his early years performing at nightclubs and recording a number of successful comedy albums, Cosby became his audience in their most ordinary, everyday aspects. Aware that while there were others who could tell "jokes" as well as or better than he, Cosby's inimitable signature was the domestic anecdote—a charming and instantly recognizable little tale of everyday family experience. Cosby remembers experience to such a degree that he revitalizes it.

Cosby deliberately eliminated anything in his comic presentation that might have divided his audience. According to biographer Caroline Latham, Cosby explained during an interview in the 1960s why he does not do "racially oriented material": "When I told racial jokes, the Negroes looked at the whites, the whites looked at the Negroes, and no one laughed—until I brought them together again, and then I had to tell the jokes over again… I try to find a common identity with an audience. I create a situation and say, 'Hey, this happened to me and you're laughing with me about it, so can we really be that different?"'

Born William Henry Cosby, Jr. on July 12, 1937, Cosby grew up in a rough part of Philadelphia essentially a fatherless child. When Cosby was eight years old his six-year-old brother died. Bill's father retreated from this unbearable reality and joined the Navy, leaving his family in dire financial straits. Whatever money he sent home was woefully inadequate to the family's needs and they slid quickly down the economic ladder, occasionally landing on the welfare rolls. Not long after what must be considered a desertion, Cosby's mother obtained a divorce.

"My father left home many times," Cosby has said. "He would leave home when the rent was due, or come home penniless on payday, swearing to my mother that he'd been robbed and leave again. Once he vanished just before Christmas and we didn't have a cent." Cosby's mother Anna assumed the role of family breadwinner and Bill, as the oldest child, was left to "mother" his younger siblings. He cooked, cleaned, and kept order among the kids. Latham quotes Cosby's brother Russell: "He kept us in line and whipped us when we got out of line." His boyhood responsibilities as a caretaker were not something he could either take or leave. It was his responsibility to keep everyday domestic life going. The small joys and pains of this life were as much his experience as they are for any "mother." The structure of Cosby's comedy is rooted in his communication of this experience.

In the routines he would later fashion for the stage, his albums, and for the 1984-1992 sit-com The Cosby Show, his portrayals of family life are always idyllic. Annoyance is most often involved but never despair or genuine frustration. The one word observers use to describe the experience of Cosby's comedy more than any other is "reassurance." In Cosby's comedy there is always a sort of small internal war waged between his desire to relate the feel of his actual experience and his apparent need to suppress that experience with a fantasy of patriarchal authority that clearly did not exist for him when he was a child.

Initially a high school dropout, Cosby signed up for a four year Navy hitch when he got his equivalency diploma… and did not stop there. While most celebrities settle for honorary degrees, Cosby later returned to college and got his bachelors, masters, and Ed.D. Education became a dragon Cosby would be forever trying to slay; during his career, he always maintained his interest in creating educational programming such as the beloved cartoon Fat Albert and The Cosby Kids.

After two years on a track scholarship at Temple University, Cosby started telling jokes professionally, and within a short time became television's Jackie Robinson in his role as Alexander Scott in the NBC series I Spy (1965-68). It was the first time an African American character had so significant a role on a television series. While appreciative of the opportunity, Cosby had some reservations about how the character was written: "If Alexander Scott doesn't get to go out with a girl once in a while," Cosby complained at one point, "people are going to wonder about me." According to Latham, Producer Sheldon Leonard (the Branch Rickey of television) responded: "I am not going to feed the concept that says a Negro only responds to the sex drive. We want him to have girls, but there has to be sweetness and dignity to it."

During the 1970s, while Cosby worked toward his doctorate at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, he fashioned a new comedy routine apparently based on his domestic experiences as a father of four daughters and one son. He used the substance of the routine as the foundation for his enormously popular and structurally groundbreaking television series, The Cosby Show. The show focused almost entirely on the often-overlooked yet familiar everyday activities of an ordinary, intact upper-middle-class African American family. No such family had ever before been depicted on American television and the show became a landmark success. Cosby finally had a fitting vehicle to fully realize his comic potential and appeal to virtually all segments of American society.

After the show finished its run in the early 1990s, Cosby soon had another sitcom—named simply Cosby —that became a moderate success. Then, on the morning of January 15, 1997, Cosby's only son Ennis—the model for the fictional "Theo" of The Cosby Show —was shot to death by a man who tried to rob him. Bill Cosby took virtually no time to mourn in private; neither his on-stage nor off-stage attitude could help him confront an experience so far outside of the familiar everyday world he created in his work.

—Robin Markowitz

Further Reading:

Adler, Bill. The Cosby Wit: His Life and Humor. New York, Carroll and Graf, 1986.

Cosby, Bill. Time Flies. New York, Doubleday, 1987.

Fuller, Linda K. The Cosby Show: Audiences, Impact, and Implications. Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1992.

Latham, Caroline. Bill Cosby—For Real. New York, Tom Doherty Associates, 1985.

Smith, Ronald L. Cosby. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1986; revised edition, Amherst, New York, Prometheus Books, 1997.