More than 20 albums, a dozen books and countless accolades have established him as bona fide comedy royalty. With another book on the way, The Cos looks back on his early inspirations, his Philly childhood and one unfortunate mishap involving a whole lot of cologne.
Author DAVID CARR
ILLUSTRATION BY JEFFREY DECOSTER
ENTERTAINMENT FIGURES, generally speaking, have problems with punctuality. Not so Bill Cosby. Two minutes before we were scheduled to call him about his new book, the phone rang. But what was expected to be a publicist apologetically postponing the interview turned out to be The Cos himself, announcing, in his best voice-of-God intonation, “You. Have. Two. Minutes. To. Call. Cosby.”
Thus prompted, we dove right into I Didn’t Ask to Be Born (But I’m Glad I Was), Cosby’s new book, out this month.
It would take a separate book just to enumerate the man’s accomplishments, but suffice it to say Cosby has led a full life. After getting his start in standup, he broke through as the first African-American co-star of a television series in “I Spy,” winning three consecutive Emmys. “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids,” which Cosby created and produced, animated tales from his upbringing in Philadelphia and won an Emmy as well. His television work culminated in “The Cosby Show,” a sitcom that set aside racial stereotypes and found the comedy common to all families. The Huxtables and their day-to-day triumphs and travails spawned many imitators, as well as a spinoff (“A Different World”), and reigned as the No. 1 show for five years in a row. In between all that, and a whole lot of Jell-O commercials, Cosby found time to make more than 20 comedy albums and write a dozen books, many of which sprang from his live shows, which he continues to perform.
Talking to Cosby, 74, is less a matter of finding things to discuss than it is of struggling to keep up as he riffs in the manner of his jazz heroes. (Let’s just say that in the conceit of the Q&A, there was more A than Q.) But we figured a good place to start would be his ill-fated first date, with the “fine” Bernadette Johnson, recounted in the book to great effect.
HEMISPHERES: When you were getting ready for your date with Bernadette, you didn’t just splash on a little bit of cologne — you took the whole bottle, dumped it in the tub and soaked in it.
COSBY: My dad had this bottle of Canoe that was unopened and I thought that’s what you did with it.
HEMISPHERES: But that was the least of your problems. You also had to get past her dad, who made it clear that, should anything happen, he knew exactly where you lived.
COSBY: Whether it was a father or a mother, when you went to visit a girl, you came to that gauntlet. It happened at my house as well.
HEMISPHERES: The book is full of such vivid recollections of things that happened when you were a kid. Do you have some kind of superhuman memory?
COSBY: When I started out, we didn’t have all the television and computers that we have now. What you saw is what you remembered. I developed a style early on: from the mind, to the page, to the stage and back to the page. That has not changed. I don’t think it has anything to do with photographic memory; I think it has to do with a kid who loved comedy and tried to remember it all and talk about it.
HEMISPHERES: Why comedy?
COSBY: Well, back then, if you were black and wanted to be in the entertainment business, you didn’t run away to the circus. So I began studying comedy, listening to Jack Benny. I knew I loved it, I knew I loved to laugh with these people, and I wanted to retain some of the things they said and somehow learn to do it myself.
HEMISPHERES: But you ended up in the Navy before you got into comedy, right?
COSBY: I didn’t join the Navy to see the world. I was just trying to get off my block. I was 19 and I had mismanaged my life to the point where all the guys I played basketball and baseball with, and crashed parties with, were gone. There was no one left except little kids and old people, and I couldn’t play with either of them. The children complained that I was cheating when I played ball with them, and the old people just drank. I didn’t drink, so I went down and joined the Navy. I had no high school diploma, I was stuck in the 11th grade and, judging by the way I was studying, which is to say not at all, I was on track to graduate at about age 23. But I got my GED in the Navy, and when I got out I was accepted by Temple University, which made me feel like the luckiest 23-year-old in the world.
HEMISPHERES: And college added literature to your bag of comedic tricks.
COSBY: When you read Mark Twain, you begin to view books as something to be enjoyed, something you don’t have to just plow through. I was assigned a composition about doing something for the first time, and I decided to write about the first tooth I’d ever pulled. And that’s where my approach to humor started to come to me, the very close observation of things that I knew. It was a lot like radio in those days. Radio was like listening to books. My humor is like listening to “The Lone Ranger” on the radio. You have to guide the action by what you say.
HEMISPHERES: The approach you ultimately hit on was pretty novel. It ended up influencing some of the greats who followed you.
COSBY: I’m a comedian. There are some comedians who really don’t want to be known as just the guy who’s on the stage telling jokes; they want to be thought of as someone deeper than that.
HEMISPHERES: Like Chris Rock.
COSBY: Or like Flip Wilson — Flip would come off the stage and he was almost insular. Richard Pryor would be offstage after his stories and become very soft and quiet. George Carlin was sort of humble in the same way.
HEMISPHERES: What about Cosby?
COSBY: I’m the same no matter where I am. I have people meet me and say to me, “You’re the same as when you’re onstage. That’s really you up there.”
HEMISPHERES: So, no persona?
COSBY: I don’t want one. My performing style came to me when I saw a fellow talking to friends in a restaurant. He wasn’t performing, and people were just having a ball laughing with and at him. I said, “That’s what I want to be — I want to be a friend.”
HEMISPHERES: In the book, you point out that your children are not your friends, because you can’t get rid of them. If they borrow money from you and they don’t pay you back, you can’t fire them or tell them to go away.
COSBY: That’s right. You are stuck with them and they are stuck with you. You’re all in the same lifeboat. You might as well work together.
HEMISPHERES: I’ve always thought that the thing that made your stuff work so well through the years was this ability you have to make people see each other in a different light.
COSBY: I’ve had the Jackie Robinson role put on me, but I’m not a hero. The only thing I really adhere to from my learning is not to embarrass my race, to make a point of sounding educated and to respond to negative behavior toward my color. Other than that, my job is to come to your town and hurt your face. To make you laugh so much, your face hurts.
As a kid, New York Times media columnist DAVID CARR used to walk around saying, “Hey, hey, hey!” like he meant it.