O Comic Legend

BILL COSBY: Comic Legend
ne of the things that distinguishes a legendary talent from a fad, is his ability
to be enthusiastically enjoyed by all generations while he is still alive. Dr.
Bill Cosby has that ability. It didn’t matter whether you were 19 or 90: you
were laughing at the Staller Center for the Arts at Stony Brook University last
month, during the annual gala. So much so, that the laughter could be heard from
outside the auditorium, from behind closed doors, from at least a hundred feet
Cosby proved himself, once again, to be a world-class storyteller, which is the
skill that launched his career, he later told Networking® during a phone interview
from his California home.
He began the evening by inviting New Yorker illustrator and Stony Brook resident
George Booth to the stage and giving him one of the school’s red-and-white letterman jackets. Booth’s illustration with Cosby lounging with a newspaper in a robe
monogrammed “Gran Poppy” beamed onto the backdrop. It was from Cosby’s best
selling book, I Didn’t Ask to be Born, (but I’m Glad I
Cosby creates the stage that invites you into his
private room. It’s simple: there is a small table
with tissue box and green beverage bottle, set
atop a maroon area rug, and a chair where he sits
in casual grey pants and slip-on sandals with the
collegiate jacket draping behind him. In a few
days, he’d perform in Denver at South by Southwest, (where people would reach out to him as if
he is a god, touching him as he walked down the
aisle and thanking him over and over, and Huffington Post columnist would call him the best of the
show,) but at the moment, you feel that he is there
just to share and confide his personal stories with
you as his intimate audience.
With older performers, there’s often a stuttering
to a halt; a feeling of an echo of a legend, and the
wistful feeling that one should have seen them in
their prime. One might expect an aging, slowingdown comic who blurts out old jokes and reuses old material. This isn’t the case
with Cosby. There isn’t a sense that he’s winding down. At 76 he is sharp and
sleuthfully keen with more material than ever. He pulls from his experiences as a
child, teen, over-eager young man in love, newlywed and exhausted father, confused mate and long-suffering husband. And he plays with his audience when they
begin to chuckle before the punchline, “You know this story?” The result is, he tickles the entire room.
At 76, he still is a grand entertainer.
“He’s clean, he’s funny, he tells you what you already know and you still laugh at
it. He’s just a special talent,” said Alan Inkles, director of Staller Center, now in its
25th year.
What is it that has always enabled Cosby to enthrall the masses? Is it because his
methodic storytelling is feverishly perceptive? Or because, now a grandfather, the
experiences from which he draws are a complete cast of characters, and he easily
slides in and out of the ages he has been? Within each character, Cosby is imperfect,
but trying to understand life as he pokes at it with both a magnifying glass and a
notepad. His stories take you along, building information. There’s always a
crescendo. And it’s not a short fizzle. It’s a full revelation. He never goes for one little hit. Instead, he carries you with him, feeding you information, comically, step by
step, unexhaustedly never forgetting a detail.
He pantomimed his wife applying lipstick between labor pains, and didn’t forget
to scratch it off from where it accidently marked his teeth. These are things men
aren’t supposed to notice. But he does. Lovingly. Which of course, makes it fun
when he says lines like, “It doesn’t matter how much you make, to your wife, you
will always be the concierge: ‘Make sure these bags get to the car! ‘“Or: “Wives can
make snow under the covers.”
Even feminists and wives, although perhaps a bit ruffled, were chuckling.
"I have to confess that I laughed," said musician Sybil Lefferts, who was active in the
feminist movement, and has known Cosby from when he was a student at Temple
University and would come in to her record shop religiously each week for a jazz
purchase. (When they reconnected later in life, he called her and told her jokes for a
few hours.)
"As a married woman, I walk away from this feeling I have to laugh at myself
more," said Siegrid, one of a few women who refrained from giving her last name.
James Lebrand felt like he finally had a voice. “It’s all true,” laughed his partner
Tasha Staton.
“I could hear everyone murmuring around us, elbowing each other, saying, ‘You
do that!’” said Judy Hayward.
Suddenly during his performance, Cosby becomes the eight-year-old boy, who
was warned by his mother not to lay hands on his annoying brother. It doesn’t matter that his hair is peppered with grey, his mannerisms are so extraordinarily finetuned to that of an eight-year-old, the audience is entranced. As his sibling taunts
him within his own bedroom, Cosby pantomimes holding his hands away and
pushing him out of his bedroom with his formidable belly. When his brother kicks
at him, and somehow manages to fall, Cosby becomes the brother to blame when
his troublesome sibling’s “fake spit tears” deliberately get him into more trouble.
The story goes on, and in the end, 8-year-old Cosby, now full of “hate!” does the
worst thing he can do to his brother without laying hands on him. He creeps up-
stairs and strangles and breaks the neck... (Cosby demonstrates this, with the audience gasping and fearing the worst, but of course, he brings it back to center) “of my
brother’s invisible friend.”
The 1,100-member audience roars with laughter. It’s obvious Cosby is “on.” Even
before the event the audience bought up tickets as if it were a fire sale – selling out
the event for weeks, including the $500 gala tickets (which included jazz, roses, and
sumptuous savory and sweet delicacy stations staffed with chefs.) And, when the
university put student tickets on sale for half price a week before the performance,
students rolled out of bed and rushed to get theirs, standing in line at noon on a Saturday.
“And students don’t get up on Saturday,” chuckled Julie Rulon Greene, Public Relations for Staller.
Alan’s 19-year old son, Jesse Inkles, stood in a circle of friends after the performance, laughing about what they had just experienced. “I thought it was great… a lot
of his stories I could relate back to when I was a
kid. He was on point with everything. All my
friends said the same thing.”
As director, his father Alan Inkles has a shortlist
of performers he’d love to come to Staller. He
waited for the perfect gala moment when Cosby
wouldn’t pack two shows into one day, and booked
the show two years ago.
Staller is known to bend over backwards to accommodate special guests, even flying in special
flowers from another country for Patti LuPone‘s
stage. For Cosby, they hired a chef to make him his
favorite juice drink with 42 ingredients. Inkles said
Cosby was “on all night” from the minute that he
came to the auditorium, for about three hours before his performance, as he held court and met
with the university president and other VIPs.
“I’ve never seen that before, even from someone
who’s 25 years old,” said Inkles.
The evening ended with a standing ovation.
“It’s a once in a lifetime show,” said Inkles.
After the show, Cosby left to perform two shows the very next day.
16 NETWORKING April 2014
"I feel that I have something to
give to this world and I mean it.
And I mean that it is working in
the way of comedy, it is working
in the way of asking families to
protect each other, to keep our
children out of harm’s way...
but funny."
The Phone Call
It is a week later, and Cosby is talking to Networking® magazine by phone.
Being granted an interview was akin to winning a golden card to the chocolate factory. And one gets the distinct impression that she is in the audience of a king.
He speaks, you listen, and, if there is time, you can ask your questions. It’s a press
conference for one press, and Networking® is it.
When he answers the phone, he puts me on hold while he wraps up a conversation. As he says goodbye, he ends on a joke. Then he is back to me.
He wants to know my angle; why he has caught my interest. He seems a bit leery.
There are a few allegations rekindled in the press about him, but I will leave those to
other media. I stammer that I have always been a fan. I grew up on The Cosby Show,
A Different World and watched Fat Albert as a toddler. The truth is, I have a list of
questions that I want to ask him. He is a comic god that has appeared for a brief moment in my life, and I want to know what it takes to be funny. I want to know how
he honed his skill. I want to know what has given him the edge in being able to perceive the human interactions that are our common denominator, and bring them to
a light that makes us laugh. It’s the genius that is inside of him that is my angle.
And the fact that he can still perform two shows per day at age 76 -- the type of
shows that bring a standing ovation, with hundreds of people standing in the lobby
of Staller Center buzzing about what they’ve just seen.
We start at the very beginning of his life.
“I mis-managed at least 14-and-a-half of my first 19-and-a-half years. You will
read in Wikipedia that I quit high school. But they don’t say he quit when he was
19-and-a-half-years old…” Cosby says.
He wants us to know that he fumbled for a career. At first, it was shoe repair. But
there wasn’t enough room for creativity in the profession. His first love was radio –
when he was seven, he'd turn the knobs, seeking out the comedy shows The Jack
Benny Show, Jimmy Durante, and bypassing the adventure shows for other kids his
age. “So in retrospect I can say without knowing it I was studying comedy,” he said.
He felt the need to correct some public information: He wasn’t a disruptive class
clown, because, “I lived with a mother, single parent, who did not enjoy having a
son who would have bad manners” but did enjoy making people laugh. He hung
out with kids three or four years older, which earned him the nickname “Shortie.”
At 11, he learned he had a talent for ad lib. By junior high, he ad-libbed an entire
play at graduation to his co-star's surprise.
He attended Central High in Philadelphia, one of the top schools in the country,
and teachers recognized his brilliance, but begged him to apply it. He quit to join
the Navy, and finally reapplied himself when discovering that to get farther in life,
he needed "credentials."
It was a remedial English class during freshman year that set his course for the
rest of his life. He began writing essays. For the first time, his teacher marked him
highly for his ideas, but poorly for syntax. One of his first essays was about brainstorming for a point to write about while ironically sharpening his pencil.
“I wasn’t looking for 'the funny,' I was just trying to convey what I thought was
interesting and different. The two As and the B moved me into a position of think-
Bill Cosby • Photos by Erinn Chalene Cosby
nore them being shot -- whether someone did it on purpose or whether someone was shooting at someone else and a stray bullet took a
child out. You’ve got to pay attention to this and it’s in the home.”
Inevitably, he came under fire.
“(There were) so many angry people, and angry because I’m saying to them, ‘This
is your responsibility.’ And they’re angry because they have also not really reacted
to it. Somehow, somehow this ‘being a victim’ has some people wrongfully feeling
that it’s a better, comforting position than it is being a victor,” Cosby told
Yet through television, the comedian often has a subtle way of delivering a message, without being overbearing. On The Cosby Show, a popular morality-driven sitcom-drama about an upper class black family in the 1980s, Theo, the young male
Continued on following page
NETWORKING April 2014 17
ing that things that I thought about could
and should be fleshed out," he said.
He was driven to help children learn
that they had to achieve their credentials. At a time when he would make
more during two weeks than most
school teachers earn in a year, he went
on to earn his doctorate in education
in 1976 from the University of Massachusetts, using his animated
show, Fat Albert, as part of his thesis. He studied what affect the
show had on his audience. The
cartoon featured an urban band
of diverse friends, along with an
individualist, Fat Albert. Together, they would overcome
negative situations. Akin to
Aesop’s fables, Dr. Cosby
would speak about the moral
lesson at the end of the cartoon. He said he just heard
from a fan, ‘Hey Bill, I just
bought the box DVD and I
played it for my 11-year-old kid! She
loves it. She thinks she discovered something fantastic.’ So it still works. The stories work.
“It was diverse, it was authentic, it changed children’s television,” said
Halle Stanford, vice president of Children's Entertainment for the Jim Henson Company.“ Like the Muppets, they were the underdogs. The loveable weirdos.”
Interestingly, his current goal is not to be “preachy,” but instead, to always be
funny, even when calling people to higher ground. Yet there have been moments
where he has urged parents to take better care of their children. A father of five, after
his only son Ennis, a Columbia graduate student, was fatally shot by a stray bullet
while changing a tire in 1997, Cosby did take a moment to talk to black Americans
about raising their children correctly through the book, Come On, People, co-written
with leading child psychiatrist Alvin F. Poussaint, M.D. Through the book, he called
people back to their feet, argued that welfare made people lazy, urged them toward
proper nutrition, asked parents to speak correct English (and read aloud to their
kids if they couldn’t) and value their cultural uniqueness. He urged black people to
invest in themselves, form businesses, urge the police to clean up druglords in their
neighborhood, and to raise children with two active parents so the children would
be "less likely to end up in prison." It was his one “preachy” book out of a shelf full
of comedies.
Cosby told Networking®, his voice softening, the unspoken reference to his son’s
death is clear, “Because how can you ignore your fallen children? How can you ig-
Continued from previous page
18 NETWORKING April 2013
teenager and role model, has an anti-apartheid poster in his bedroom. When
grandchildren are born, their names are Nelson and Winnie.
Said his publicist David Brokaw, who has represented Cosby for 40 years,
“He was a force in abolishing apartheid in South Africa by making The Cosby
Show available in the country for free so blacks could see how they might
Network doors are opening again to the thought of another show.
“We’re at a time now where different networks are entertaining the idea of
having me come to their office -- and see what I have that they would be able,
or want to have, as a television series,” says Cosby.
Yet, television has changed in the past few decades. Although Dr. Cosby's
shows are still syndicated, with the onslaught of raw entertainment, networks
are skittish about anything Aesop. Studio execs want him to be sure that he
knows he’s walking a tightrope.
“(I say) I’m going to teach and show the people and make them feel this.”
And they say, ‘Oh boy, it’s going to be preachy.’ (and I say, ) Noooo, (it's going
to be) funny!” says Cosby, his voice emphatic and driven to be perceived as
the funnyman, first and foremost. After all, he's known he's wanted to be a
funnyman since he was 7.
Along the way, Cosby has received the Kennedy Center Honors, the Presidential Medal of Freedom (America’s highest civilian honor), the Mark Twain
Prize for American Humor and the Marian Anderson Award.
Currently, he's working with the Jim Henson Company (muppets) on developing two animated productions for preteen kids. “I’m still pinching myself,”
said Jim Henson’s Halle Stanford who says he’s actively involved. The shows
could appear about two years from now.
“Without talking about it in specifics, it’s going to make kids feel like
they’re all the same, and to find commonality, and that being a kid is about
kindness and compassion. There’s a lot of heart. And a lot of good jokes,” said
“He’s very brilliant and working with him is very exciting. When you’re developing children’s content, you’re always talking about your childhood, and
it’s fun to share stories with him,” she said.
Cosby uses child psychiatrist Alvin F. Poussaint as a consultant and takes
moments to get children’s feedback at the company. “He truly has the gift of
the gab with kids. They feel very safe with him and ultimately share their
thoughts,” said Stanford.
Said Cosby, “I feel that I have something to give to this world and I mean it.
And I mean that it is working in the way of comedy, it is working in the way
of asking families to protect each other, to keep our children out of harm’s
way... but funny.”
The interview ends, as if we are friends, winding down the conversation.
“You know I have to go,” he says quietly. But of course, he wants to leave me
Samuel Stanley, Jr., MD, president, Stony Brook University, Bill Cosby and George Booth, New
Yorker cartoonist who illustrated Cosby's latest book I Didn't Ask to Be Born, But I'm Glad I
Was. The illustration on the screen is from the book. Photo by Kenneth Ho
with a laugh.
“You’re in New York City?” he asks.
“And riding around with all those potholes?
There was a driver taking me to the airport,
(Bumping through them, we said,) ‘somebody
ought to shoot this and make it a video
Of course, I chuckle.
“I’ll see you later, kid,” he says.
As I hang up the call, I am still smiling. ■