Cosby: His Life and Timesby Mark Whitaker
The first major biography of an American icon, comedian Bill Cosby. Based on extensive research and in-depth interviews with Cosby and more than sixty of his closest friends and associates, it is a frank, fun and fascinating account of his life and historic legacy.
Far from the gentle worlds of his routines or TV shows, Cosby grew up in a Philadelphia housing… See more details below
The first major biography of an American icon, comedian Bill Cosby. Based on extensive research and in-depth interviews with Cosby and more than sixty of his closest friends and associates, it is a frank, fun and fascinating account of his life and historic legacy.
Far from the gentle worlds of his routines or TV shows, Cosby grew up in a Philadelphia housing project, the son of an alcoholic, largely absent father and a loving but overworked mother. With novelistic detail, award winning journalist Mark Whitaker tells the story of how, after dropping out of high school, Cosby turned his life around by joining the Navy, talking his way into college, and seizing his first breaks as a stand-up comedian.
Published on the 30th anniversary of The Cosby Show, the book reveals the behind-the-scenes story of that groundbreaking sitcom as well as Cosby’s bestselling albums, breakout role on I Spy, and pioneering place in children’s TV. But it also deals with professional setbacks and personal dramas, from an affair that sparked public scandal to the murder of his only son, and the private influence of his wife of fifty years, Camille Cosby.
Whitaker explores the roots of Cosby’s controversial stands on race, as well as “the Cosby effect” that helped pave the way for a black president. For any fan of Bill Cosby’s work, and any student of American television, comedy, or social history, Cosby: His Life and Times is an essential read.
Bill Cosby has his image complicated in this absorbing biography from former Newsweek editor Whitaker (My Long Trip Home), who traces Cosby’s rise from poverty in the Philadelphia projects where he lived with a working mom and an alcoholic and largely absent father during his feckless boyhood of academic failure. Cosby achieved success in everything he lacked in youth: wealth and fame as a superstar, a legendary role in The Cosby Show as a prosperous, doting paterfamilias, and a public voice as a crusader for education, personal responsibility, and committed parenting in the African-American community (despite personal missteps that would come back to haunt him). Along the way the author illuminates, with telling detail, Cosby’s remarkable achievements as a comedic technician who avoided easy gags and carefully honed his long-form stand-up routines while approaching acting roles with naturalistic improvisation. Cosby has been controversial for being noncontroversial—for eschewing edgy racial humor and politics in favor of a warm-hearted inclusiveness that white audiences embraced—but Whitaker shows the prickliness beneath the affable exterior and the genuine if sometimes muted concern for civil rights. He makes a persuasive case for Cosby as a groundbreaking comic and a quiet but far-ranging pioneer of black advancement. Photos. (Sept. 16)
The first major biography of this American icon, Whitaker's book notably leaves out the long string of sexual assault allegations against the comedian and actor.
Readable, thoughtful life of the brilliant comedian and entrepreneur. Later generations of comedians have made a good living from portraying Bill Cosby (b. 1937) as a milquetoast unwilling to court controversy. They're unfounded, suggests Whitaker (My Long Trip Home: A Family Memoir, 2011), who was the first African-American editor of Newsweek. Cosby may incline toward a kind of meritocratic conservatism, but when he was at the peak of his game, he was always bending and breaking the rules, "stubbornly dispensing with all of the usual ingredients." He was also a pioneer, the Jackie Robinson of popular entertainment, the first black comedian to find true superstardom among a predominantly white audience, using that renown to subtly advance the civil rights agenda—the operative word being subtly, for vehicles such as the 1960s TV hit series I Spy were phenomenally influential in simply depicting the possibility of black and white people working together and enjoying friendship without reference to race at all. Nonconfrontational but earnest, Cosby also made a fortune for NBC—so much so, as Whitaker chronicles, that at one point, Cosby came close to buying the network. The author traces Cosby's rise, drawing on elements of his own life for comedic material; as Whitaker charts Cosby's growing success and elevation to one of the richest men in show business, he turns up episodes in which the eminently avuncular, cardigan-wearing comic exercised a steeliness and rough temper that "could flare suddenly and sometimes violently, particularly when he thought he was being disrespected." (For an example of Cosby's brawling capacities, see his encounter with mild-mannered liberal icon Tommy Smothers, Whitaker's account of which is worth the book's cover price alone.) Whitaker closes this lucid, often entertaining biography with a pointed look at the oft-mooted question: Did Bill Cosby make Barack Obama possible? The answer is yes, and in more ways than one. An eye-opening book and a pleasure to read.
In 1998, Bill Cosby was feted with Kennedy Center Honors, a just reward for a television career that stretched back to I Spy dramas of the mid-sixties. In ways, that lavish event sealed the reputation of this beloved comedian and actor, but its celebration also obscured the complexity of his hard-scrabble life. Mark Whitaker's Cosby, the first major biography of this breakthrough icon, uses extensive interviews with Cosby and scores of friends and associates to retrieve a full story of this Philadelphia housing project alcoholic's son and high school dropout who somehow turned it all around. But this no sugar-coated success story: Whitaker doesn't shy away from controversies and scandals that engulfed this mild-mannered star or the effects on his family of his son's 1997 murder. An absorbing life as it has been lived.
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Read an Excerpt
Thank you for my childhood!” a petite, thirty-something white woman calls out when she sees Bill Cosby in the Richmond International Airport. She does it from a distance and keeps walking, as though she doesn’t want to intrude on his privacy, but she is an exception. Most of the travelers who recognize Cosby as he makes his way from New York City to Virginia for a concert date in Richmond want to come over and meet him, to shake his hand, to have a picture taken with him, to share details of their own lives as though he was a familiar visitor to their homes—which, of course, for much of four decades he was.
Like a walking tour of his career, the encounters recall its most treasured landmarks. In the airport lounge at LaGuardia Airport, a businessman wearing a blue blazer waxes nostalgic about listening to the comedy albums and watching I Spy as a kid. “Lifelong fan!” he says, pumping Cosby’s hand. “What a treat for an old fucker like me!” As Cosby is driven to the gate in a motorized cart, devotees of the Saturday morning cartoon show chant “Hey, hey, hey!” On the plane, a flight attendant blurts out, “Oh my god, I loved Jell-O Pudding Pops!” And at the terminal in Richmond, a smartly dressed black man wants to declare his kinship with his most famous character.
“Mr. Cosby,” he says. “My name is Cliff!”
“No, no, no, you can’t be Cliff,” Cosby responds in mock indignation. “I’m Cliff!”
Others want him to know about more personal connections. A curvaceous blonde woman wraps him in an embrace as he is about to duck into an airport restroom. “Thank you so much for what you’ve done for dyslexia!” she gushes. “I have a dyslexic son!”
As Cosby descends an escalator, a harried-looking mother who is standing below with a young boy in tow suddenly brightens up and breaks into song:
Let others sing of college days,
Their Alma Mater true,
But when we raise our voices,
’Tis only High for you!
Stepping off the escalator, Cosby puts his arm around the woman’s shoulder and joins in:
We’ll ne’er forget those days gone by,
Those glorious days of old,
When we sang the praises of,
The Crimson and the Gold!
The woman still hasn’t announced her name, but she pushes her son forward to shake his hand as if he were an old family friend. “This is Mr. Cosby!” she says. “He went to Central High, just like Mommy!”
Near the door marked “Exit,” three men in pressed green uniforms wait to greet him. Cosby’s airport escort has alerted him in advance, so he calls out: “Where are the Marines? Come over and take a picture!”
“You know I was a marine, too, a merchant marine!” he jokes as the cameras snap.
“Really?” one of the servicemen asks.
“Navy!” he establishes for the record. “Hospital corpsman!”
Now everyone who passes by wants a picture, too, so he spends the next ten minutes posing with all of them, as the driver assigned to take him to the hotel hovers on the curb outside.
“We’re such big fans!” says a woman in a sun hat who pulls her husband over to join the receiving line, and as soon as Cosby hears her bubbly voice, he senses an amusing exchange coming on.
“So I hope you bought a ticket to my concert tonight!” he says.
“You’re giving a concert?” the woman says. “Well, we’d love to come, but we’re just passing through.”
“To where?” he asks.
“We’re going on a cruise!” she says.
“So what three games do you like to play on the cruise?”
“Eating and drinking!”
“That’s only two. What about shuffleboard or blackjack?”
“Eating and drinking and sunbathing!”
“How often do you go on cruises?”
“About three times a year!”
“Do you have children?”
“That’s why you can afford the cruise, he-he-he!” Cosby jokes.
In an age of celebrity obsession and cell phone cameras, the sight of fans thronging a famous entertainer is not unusual, yet there is something different about this picture. To begin with, Bill Cosby is in his midseventies now. He is still fit for his age, with the erect posture of a former track star and only a slight paunch. But the balding head and the white stubble and the wrinkled jowls are very much the features of a grandfather, which he has been for a decade.
Still here he is, on the road performing at an age when most men are retired, if they’re lucky enough to still be alive. And he isn’t doing it occasionally, coming out of seclusion for a brief tour every decade or headlining a few charity events a year. The dates he is playing this weekend—an eight o’clock show on Friday night in Richmond and two back-to-back seven o’clock and nine thirty shows on Saturday in Greenville, South Carolina—are three of more than sixty concerts he will give in 2013, and he is already lining up just as busy a schedule for 2014 and 2015.
Despite his age and fame, Cosby is also traveling alone. He has no entourage: no bodyguard, no publicist, not even a baggage handler. He carries his luggage himself—a leather duffle bag and a matching knapsack—and wears the clothes he will perform in this evening: brown lounging pants, sandals and socks, and a white sweatshirt emblazoned with “Hello, Friend” in bright, multicolored letters. The housekeeper of his town house in Manhattan has accompanied him to the airport in New York and helped him get to the gate, and his concert promoter is there to greet him when he gets off the plane in Richmond. But otherwise he puts himself in the hands of employees of the commercial airline industry: the flight attendants (who fuss over or flirt with him), the pilots (who come out of the cockpit to get his autograph), and the security personnel (who ask him to pose for pictures while pleading with him not to tell their bosses).
Even more remarkable, Cosby can barely see these people, or the scores of other facilitators and fans he will encounter on this trip, or the thousands of people in the audiences he will entertain. For two decades, he has battled a rare form of glaucoma that for a while clouded over one eye so badly that he took to wearing dark glasses in public. After multiple operations, the eye looks much better now, and he can go without the shades, which is a huge relief for a man who will tell you: “I perform with my face.” But he still can’t make out objects more than ten feet away. So as he travels across America, for more than thirty weeks out of the year, he has to navigate with other tools beside his vision: his acute senses of hearing, of smell, and of intuition about what lies in the fog beyond his sight.
Although Cosby’s eyesight may be failing, he can already envision what historians will say about him. They will focus, rightly, on his iconic place in the annals of television. They will describe him as the first black man to star in a TV drama—I Spy—and talk about all the other roles for African Americans that the success of that show made possible. They will analyze his contributions to children’s educational television with his early appearances on Sesame Street and The Electric Company, as well as his own creations Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids and Little Bill.
Most of all, cultural historians will measure the seismic impact of The Cosby Show on the entertainment industry and on American society. They will document how it revived the situation comedy format and laid the groundwork for other shows built around comedic personas, such as Roseanne and Seinfeld. And they will point out how, by implanting such a positive image of black family life in the national consciousness, it helped Americans envision sending a black president and his wife and daughters to live in the White House less than two decades later.
If you ask Cosby about them now, he will tell you how proud he is of his groundbreaking shows. But he will also say the same thing about many other TV and movie ventures that were deemed disappointments or flops. He is grateful for the extra measure of fame and wealth that television has afforded him, and he still likes to think that he has another show or two in him. As he waits to board the flight to Richmond, he imagines a prime-time drama about a Good Samaritan swat team that turns around the lives of troubled inner-city kids, and within months he will be pitching a new sitcom in which he would play grandfather in a multigenerational family to NBC and also developing a Fat Albert project with the Henson Muppet dynasty.
For all the attention TV success won him, however, Cosby has always known that it is fleeting. What has lasted is what he is doing now, and has done consistently for more than fifty years: stand-up comedy. (Or more precisely, sit-down comedy, since he began his career perched on a chair at the end of a Philadelphia bar and still prefers to perform in a seated position.) Stand-up is what lifted Cosby’s sights beyond becoming a junior high school gym teacher. It’s what led to his biggest breaks in television and sustained him through his worst stumbles. And it’s what first made him rich and still earns him millions of dollars a year, even though with a personal fortune in investments and real estate and artwork valued at close to a half billion dollars, he hardly needs to work.
Which raises an interesting question: why does Cosby continue to perform so much? (Beside the fact that it gets him out of the house and gives him the satisfaction of meeting and entertaining so many fans?) Is he is trying to retire the all-time record for stand-up, perhaps?
“No idea,” he says with a dismissive shrug when asked if he knows how many comedy concerts he’s given in his lifetime.
Then can he think of anyone else who has given more?
This question interests him, and he takes a minute to ponder the possibilities. (How many performers have lasted for a half century? And of that small number, how many have had the desire and the fortitude and the fan base to continue to tour successfully?)
“Victor Borge?” he ventures finally. “He was out there for a long time! Don Rickles, maybe . . .”
He thinks a bit longer.
“Liberace!” he says. “Remember what they said about him? Liberace sold out wherever he went, but they said it wouldn’t last. They said his audiences wouldn’t be there next year. Then he’d come back, and he’d still be sold out. So I guess they kept making new old people!”
As Cosby nestles into an aisle seat on the flight to Richmond, he confesses that business over the last decade hasn’t always been easy. Ever since the 1960s, he has worked a circuit of venues that seat 1,500 to 3,000 people, his preferred size. (Less than that, he says, and it’s hard to make real money; more, and audiences in the back come away thinking, I might as well have had an 8-by-10 glossy.) The venues include the casinos of Las Vegas and concert halls of New York and Washington, DC; but most are the college auditoriums, regional playhouses, and athletic arenas found in smaller cities and towns, and sometimes it’s been hard to pack those houses.
Some in the concert business have whispered that Cosby’s age was a factor in the falloff, or the intimidating sunglasses he wore for a while, or uneasiness with the outspoken stands he’s taken on the failures of parenting and personal responsibility in parts of the black community. But he blames the impact of economic policies in Washington on his core audience of baby boomers. “After Clinton, the bottom fell out, and the weight was particularly heavy on the fifty-five-year-olds,” he says. Things got even worse once the Great Recession of 2008 hit—“the last four years have not been pretty,” he says—although lately the tide has turned, and ticket sales are up again. Still, he says, “The golden age is over.”
If Cosby seems so sensitive to how well his concerts sell, it’s not just a matter of pride. Like most star entertainers, he gets paid up front, so he makes a good living whether his promoters do or not. But he is famous—or notorious, among agents—for going into his own pocket to bail out the people who put up the money to stage his concerts if they stand to lose money. It’s partly because he knows what a tough business it is. “I tell promoters, ‘I didn’t go into this so you could go broke,’ ” he says. But he also sees it as a way of winning their loyalty and protecting his own mystique.
He tells the story of a benefit concert he gave to help fund a new wing for a children’s hospital in the 1980s. He was the biggest star in America at the time, with the top-rated show on television, a book at the top of the bestseller list, a ranking as the most highly paid celebrity in the country and his own private G4 jet that took him wherever he wanted. But the promoter of the concert was a “grunt,” the son of a rich businessman who had fronted him the six figures to book Cosby. He didn’t know what he was doing, and when Cosby arrived, he learned that a quarter of the house would be empty.
“Bring the kid in,” he told his agent from William Morris. “I want to talk to him.”
“Don’t give money back!” the agent warned. “This is his fault.”
Dressed in his tuxedo, the promoter appeared in the dressing room minutes later. Cosby could see his agent fuming, so he kicked him out.
“Sit down, son,” he said to the promoter. “How are you doing?”
“We’re a little short,” the promoter confessed.
“Well, I want you to go the box office and find out exactly how short,” he said.
The promoter did as he was told, and as he left the room, Cosby could see his agent hovering outside, his face flushed with anger.
“Fifty-five thousand dollars,” the promoter reported when he got back.
“How much would it take to make you whole, given your other expenses?” Cosby asked.
“Probably sixty thousand dollars,” the promoter admitted.
“Okay,” he said, “here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to let you cut sixty-five thousand dollars out of my fee, so you come out even and can tell Daddy you made a profit.”
When the promoter left, Cosby’s agent came back into the dressing room, still fit to be tied.
“You shouldn’t have done that!” he said. “The kid needs to learn a lesson!”
“Listen!” Cosby snapped. “What is this benefit for?”
“A children’s hospital?” the agent said.
“Well, think about this,” Cosby said. “William Morris can’t pay to get back the bad publicity I would get if I were to take the entire fee you negotiated, get on my private plane, and fly home while leaving this hospital more than fifty thousand dollars in debt. There’s no way I can win here.”
In the car from the airport to downtown Richmond, Cosby explains why he gravitated toward the kind of mass-appeal observational humor that is his specialty and didn’t go in for the kind of clubby, cerebral comedy that was fashionable when he was starting out in Greenwich Village—the kind designed to show audiences how smart the comedian is. “People forget that the second word in show business is business,” he says.
The fact that he never has—that he’s a master of the show and the business—explains why Cosby has risen so far and lasted so long, but it’s also a lesson he learned the hard way. In his early thirties, just when he had become a huge star, he almost went broke when his manager squandered millions of dollars of his money on a mismanaged production company. He had to pull out and turn over supervision of his financial affairs to his wife, Camille, and ever since, he’s been prepared to do legal battle with anyone—business associates, would-be copyright infringers, even personal employees—whom he suspects of trying to take advantage of him.
Experiences with the media have only compounded his wariness. As far as Cosby is concerned, it’s been annoying enough that for fifty years reporters and critics have persisted in dwelling on the presence—or lack—of racial themes in his work, when he’s always viewed himself as searching for universal humor that can touch anyone. But in recent decades, he’s endured invasive coverage of a devastating family tragedy and an embarrassing personal scandal. He’s had to respond to what he sees as deliberately mean-spirited questioning of his lavish philanthropy and his advanced academic degrees. He makes no secret that he doesn’t trust reporters, and in return some of them have spiked coverage of him with words like angry and difficult to insinuate that there’s another side to his personality besides the soft and playful one so openly on display with fans and friends.
Yet to travel with Cosby is to be struck by several personal characteristics that provide clues to his complexity. One is how extraordinary his memory is. Even in his midseventies, he can summon up granular details from every phase of his life, from the trees on the street where he lived as a toddler to the sound of instruments in the jazz bands he played with in his teens to the home phone numbers of friends he hasn’t seen in years. His prodigious powers of recall explain why he’s been able to spin vivid threads of personal experience into so much comedy and why he can still improvise for two hours straight without losing his train of thought (unless it’s part of the act). But they also suggest that he has equally vivid memories of every personal and professional slight he’s absorbed along the way.
The second is how hard Cosby works. Not only does he perform somewhere almost every week; he shows up for every concert at least two hours early, so that he can inspect the hall, check production details, and spend ample time meeting with promoters, crew, and backstage well-wishers. Intimates will tell you that he is just following the example of his mother, who toiled twelve-hour days cleaning white people’s homes, and his grandfather, who walked four miles back and forth to a factory job for forty years. But respect for hard work is also a key to Cosby’s much-debated views on racial issues. It’s not that he is oblivious to racism—far from it. It’s just that he believes that playing its victim has never gotten blacks very far, and that ultimately his people always have and always will have to work for any meaningful advances they achieve.
Although Cosby won’t be making one of his frequent appearances before black youth or black parents on this trip, his passionate and sometimes prickly opinions about race are never far from the surface. Recalling the deprivations of his youth, he uses the term lower economic class but refuses to utter the word poor, because of all the other negative characteristics it suggests (“lacking,” “inferior,” et cetera). Remembering the segregated world of strivers in which he grew up, he worries that black people today have “abandoned the old-time religion that got our grandparents from dirt floors to normal schools.” When he travels to South Carolina tomorrow, he will explain to his promoter why he has returned to the state for the first time since 2005, after supporting an NAACP protest over its refusal to stop flying the Confederate flag over the state capital. “I called the NAACP for an update on the boycott, but they never got back to me,” he says with a shrug, “and I didn’t see that it was doing any good.”
The third characteristic is how keenly Cosby studies human behavior. It’s been the wellspring of his observational humor, enough to fertilize years of successful sitcoms and decades of fresh stand-up material. But it also means that he can detect a potential con a mile away. In person, he doesn’t appear to be angry or paranoid about it; in fact, there’s an amused glint in his eye when he sees one coming. But he grew up in the projects and served in the navy and has been in show business for fifty years, so he’s never surprised to see people trying to put one over on one another.
Cosby’s antennae are up even as he lounges backstage before the show in Richmond. After catching a brief nap at the hotel, he’s arrived at the Center Stage concert hall several hours early, as usual. In a spare room down the corridor from his official dressing room, a pizza box and a Starbucks cup sit on the coffee table as he holds a phone to his ear and listens to an agent update him on new concert offers.
“Take it! Take it! Take it!” he keeps repeating, in the tone of someone listening to an overlong argument for the obvious. Then he says, “Stop questioning, just tell them no! I just played Denver . . . We’ll do it in ’fifteen.” (Except for yearly appearances in Las Vegas and Washington, DC, which keep importing new tourists, he makes a point of waiting at least two years before he returns to most cities, so the locals don’t get tired of him and he can come back with new material.)
Cosby’s promoter looms in the doorway with last-minute personal requests. A man has dropped off a box from a place called Joey’s Hot Dogs in Richmond, and the security men out back want to know if they should send it in.
“Is it just the hot dogs or Joey, too?” Cosby asks.
“I don’t know,” says the promoter.
“See!” Cosby says, rolling his eyes. “That’s why they shoot the messenger. He comes with incomplete information!”
The promoter returns several minutes later with the box of hot dogs, but no Joey, and news of another request for a meet and greet. It’s a war veteran in a wheelchair who is a huge fan of Cosby’s and wants to get his autograph.
“Who’s with him?” he asks.
“It’s just him,” the promoter says.
“That doesn’t make sense,” Cosby says. “How is he going to get back here by himself in a wheelchair?”
“He’s with a group from a hospital for wounded vets,” the promoter says, “but they say only he wants to meet you.”
“I bet!” Cosby says. “Better check that one out.”
When the promoter reports back that four vets want to come backstage with four caretakers, Cosby says: “That’s more like it, send them in.” But after fifteen minutes, no one has arrived, and it’s time for him to go the official dressing room to receive previously approved guests.
One is Stu Gardner, the longtime musical collaborator who helped write the famous theme for The Cosby Show. Gardner now lives in Richmond with his wife of forty years, whom Cosby greets as “the high school girl!” Gardner has brought along a white friend named Arthur Lisi, who composed the bridge for The Cosby Show tune, and Lisi’s wife and daughter. But instead of the iconic theme, Cosby wants to reminisce about a mostly forgotten jazz-funk ensemble that Gardner helped him put together in the early seventies called Badfoot Brown and the Bunions Bradford Funeral and Marching Band. He prances around imitating the Bunions’s bassist, Ron Johnson, and soon everyone in the room is weeping with laughter.
Next L. Douglas Wilder, the former governor of Virginia, arrives with his son. He explains that he first met Cosby after Bill and his wife, Camille, made a $100,000 donation to a state education fund. Then Wilder shares a story about an address that Cosby delivered at William & Mary College in 1993, when former Supreme Court chief justice Warren Burger was the chancellor.
“Burger was wearing his full regalia,” Wilder says, “and Cos says to him: ‘You’ve got on more jewelry than Amos ’n Andy!’ Can you believe that? To Warren Burger? I almost fell out of my chair!”
Wilder also brings up about another, more controversial incident involving Cosby and the Supreme Court. “I was there!” he says about the tirade that Cosby unleashed at an event in Washington, DC, in 2004 to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision. At the time, critics called him an elitist for blasting black Americans who didn’t show respect for education, proper English, or responsible parenting, but Wilder points out that the speech was prescient. “Everything he was talking about is what’s happening now,” he says.
At five minutes to eight o’clock, a stagehand appears in the dressing room and encourages the guests to take their seats. Cosby begins to make his way to the backstage area, but just then the contingent of veterans in wheelchairs shows up. Introduced to the man who had requested to see him, he learns that the vet suffers from a brain injury. He was shot in the head and has no control over what he is saying, so he talks loudly and randomly even while others are speaking. But Cosby isn’t fazed—he worked with stroke patients and brain damage victims as a physical therapist in the navy—and he patiently chats with the vet and poses for a photograph.
In the arena outside, a sold-out crowd of more than two thousand people is watching a reel of excerpts from an internet show called OBKB that Cosby produces at his home in Massachusetts and puts up on his website. The clips of him interviewing kids and family members hark back to his Jell-O commercials and guest host gigs on The Tonight Show, but they are also meant to demonstrate that he is up to speed with the digital era.
Then a black-and-white image of a pale, round-faced man appears on the screen. “Please join in a moment of silence for the memory of Jonathan Winters!” the stage announcer says. The mercurial comedian, who has just died, is one of Cosby’s all-time favorites, a man he compares to the jazz saxophonist John Coltrane for his astonishing powers of improvisation. An interviewer once asked him if he had fifty dollars in his pocket, which comedian would he most want to buy a ticket to see, and Cosby answered without hesitation: “Jonathan Winters!”
Asked to expand on what the comedian means to him, Cosby cites Winter’s professional words of wisdom. “You get tired of your material before your audience does,” Winters told him when they first met in comedy clubs in the early sixties. Ever since, Cosby has taken that as a warning to keep retiring bits, no matter how famous, before they get stale. (“That’s why ‘Noah’ and ‘The Dentist’ had to go!” he says.) “Some of us have to entertain ourselves while we’re working,” Winters also said. That too resonated with Cosby, who has never liked to rehearse or memorize, on stage or on television. He has always thought he works best when, like a jazz musician, he is riffing on well-developed themes rather than performing note-for-note.
Now the video intros are over and, without introduction, Cosby strolls onto the stage. The crowd rises, applauding and cheering. He motions for everyone to sit down, and then sits down himself in a chair draped with another of the “Hello, Friend” sweatshirts that he takes wherever he goes, as a greeting and a memorial.
In his mind, he has a rough outline of the stories he will unspool over the next two hours—where he will begin, how he will build, and how he will end—that still leaves plenty of room for his imagination to roam, depending on his mood and the vibe he feels from the audience. (The outline also ensures that each performance is unique; between the two-hour concert in Richmond tonight and the two in Greenville tomorrow, Cosby will repeat no more than twenty minutes of material.)
For Doug Wilder’s benefit, he wants the climax of his performance to be a funny story that he has borrowed from the former governor: about a high school date that went awry when Wilder decided to pour a bottle of Canoe cologne in his bathwater before he went to the girl’s house. Leading up to that story, Cosby plans to spend a good half hour charting his introduction to romance, from young boyhood to his late teens.
First, he will be nine years old, peeking through a stairway banister with his friend Poppy Whitehead to watch Poppy’s older sister French-kiss a boy. Then he will be thirteen, playing spin the bottle at a birthday party and getting to brush lips with his junior high school sweetheart, Doris Mann. Finally, he will be sixteen, taking a stack of Miles Davis albums to the house of a girl named Bernadette Johnson but making the mistake of bathing in Canoe first. It will be a long, vivid reenactment that ends with Bernadette’s father brandishing a gun to make Cosby go away. Then, in the punch line, the father sees him years later at Bernadette’s wedding to another man. “I had nothing against you,” the father explains, “but I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life with that smell in the house!”
As Cosby eases into his routine, a voice can be heard at the rear of the concert hall. It’s far up in the balcony, and it sounds like someone arguing with an usher or blurting out commentary about the show. Not everyone in the audience notices, but it’s loud enough that more than a few heads turn to see what’s going on.
Even though Cosby can’t see more than a few of yards into the audience, his keen ears immediately recognize the source of the commotion in the balcony. It’s the brain-damaged veteran in the wheelchair he has just met backstage. Now he understands why the encounter was arranged: the vet knew that he might talk uncontrollably during the show, and he wanted Cosby to be prepared. He also registers why no one is trying to silence the vet, because he can’t help his outbursts. So even as Cosby continues to perform, offering no hint that anything is wrong, he is calculating how he will deal with that eternal bane of stand-up comics: the distractions from the audience or the room that can disrupt even the best of routines.
Cosby calls them “concentration thieves”—and it’s not just the comic’s focus but also the audience’s attention that they can steal. He starts thinking about how he will vary his rhythm—how he will slow down in places and speed up in others—to keep the audience from being distracted. He also begins making snap alterations to the outline in his head.
When Cosby talks about his material, he divides it into two categories: “gourmet meals” and “fast food.” The gourmet meals are the long stories he loves to tell, the ones that conjure a vivid setting and a world of characters that “put the audience there.” They don’t always deliver a laugh a minute, but they leave the audience with a deep sense of satisfaction. The fast food is made up of the more obvious jokes and physical bits that are good for a quick laugh but don’t linger in the memory.
Cosby’s cologne story and his other tales of romantic misadventures are a classic gourmet meal. But to make sure that he keeps the audience laughing despite the distracting vet, he decides to add a few extra helpings of fast food. At one point, he veers off into a trusty Northerners versus Southerners joke about the difference between a “beating” and a “whooping.” (“In a whooping, the parents give you a knife . . .”—he doesn’t have to finish the sentence, and the crowd is laughing—“to cut the switch.”) During his romantic reverie, he throws in a gag about asking his father what platonic means. “It means you won’t get any!” his father says.
The stratagems work. As Cosby nears the end of the show, no one is paying attention to the noise in the back anymore, and he is able to serve up one last long story. He is in high school, and his Granddad Samuel, a religious man, tells him that he shouldn’t play with a friend named Rookie Jackson because Jackson was “born out of wedlock.” When Cosby asks his mother what that phrase means, she mistakenly assumes that her son has gotten a girl pregnant. He is sent to his room as his parents carry on an agitated conversation in the kitchen. Then his father comes to tell him that they’ve decided that “you’ll bring the baby here.” The conversation that ensues is funny and touching and, Cosby admits later, imagines the kind of rapport he might have had with his real father if the man hadn’t been such an unreliable drunk.
The “out of wedlock” story goes over well, but Cosby wants to leave the crowd laughing a little harder. So as he slips on the sandals he took off at the start of the concert, he tells a slightly naughty story about a funny moment that he and his wife, Camille, shared at the very beginning of their fifty-year marriage. They had been wed for only four weeks and were still in the throes of young passion. Camille had taken a particularly long time preparing for bed one night, and when she emerged from the bathroom, she glanced at the sheets and witnessed the evidence of her husband’s excitement.
Camille got down on her hands and knees and started looking under the bed.
“What’s under there?” Cosby asked.
“I think there’s a dog in this room!” Camille said, and they both roared with laughter.
And so does the audience in Richmond.
Missioned accomplished—having left his fans happy and shown again why younger comedians such as Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock and Louis C.K. worship Bill Cosby in the same way that he reveres Jonathan Winters—he rises to his feet. He scoops up the second “Hello, Friend” sweatshirt draped over the back of his chair and waves to the audience as they give him another standing ovation. Then he walks offstage as the house lights come up and satisfied reviews reverberate through the hall:
“He’s so great!”
“I just love him!”
“I can’t wait to tell my parents!”
As the crowd files toward the exits, the air fills with a jaunty whistle and a rhythmic clacking sound. It’s “Sweet Georgia Brown,” the tune that has ended Bill Cosby concerts for decades. There’s a funny tale behind that, too, and it’s as good a place as any to begin his story.
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Mark Whitaker really shows off an incredible talent for research and writing. In his new book Cosby: His Life and Times. Whitaker gives an in depth look into the life and career of legendary actor Bill Cosby. Rising from a troubled childhood, Cosby rose to greatness as a stand up comic and actor. Whitaker provides inside stories about Cosby’s youth, his groundbreaking Cosby Show, and his comedy albums – among many other facets of his life. I simply loved this book. I truly couldn’t put it down.
Written with the cooperation of Bill Cosby and with enough notes that would make an English professor proud, Mark Whitaker presents Bill Cosby’s life in a clear, entertaining way in COSBY, HIS LIFE AND TIMES. The author seems to present a fairly objective view of the man even though I felt he tread carefully while lightly skimming Cosby’s womanizing years. Also, the last fifty pages suddenly took a more serious tone as it discussed black issues (single parent homes, high dropout rates, etc.) before returning back to the present day Cosby. If you’re expecting Cosby’s “routines”, this ISN’T the book for you; if you’re expecting to learn more about the man himself, this IS the book for you.
Basically, I was THOROUGHLY caught up in this book. It's a long read, over 500 pages but completely worth it. The author based this book mostly on information he retrieved from articles, previous interviews from Cosby, and interviews from many people who know him. He only spent about 5 hours talking to Cosby, in bits and pieces, mostly over the phone. And Cosby read the final draft. Not only chronicling Cosby's life, he also places that life in the context of the times, including types of comedians, show business and the television industry, and racism. He talks about Cosby's style of comedic delivery, and that he never used a "canned" routine. Whitaker compares Cosby's comedy to Jazz, that Cosby would just riff on a theme in his laid back easy style and just seemed to enchant people of all races..I found it fascinating that there was so much back story of he and his wife's family, his friendship with Robert Culp, and other media stars and how the movie and tv industry worked. The author talks about Cosby's continuing philanthropy of historic black colleges and education standards for the poor. Also, of interest is knowing those comedic stars that he influenced, among them Jerry Seinfield and Ray Romano. The author notes that Chris Rock says that he was turned on to Cosby by Eddie Murphy who told him that if he ever wanted to be a comedian he needed to listen to Cosby's album "To Russell my brother, whom I slept with." The author does not ignore Cosby's human faults, and even Cosby doesn't want to dwell on them, but they are noted. This has become one of my favorite all time books, ....and now I'm going to find all my old Cosby recordings and play them again. I encourage you to do the same.
In the latter years of the twentieth century, Americans trusted “God, Walter Cronkite, and Bill Cosby". Cosby is an icon, and Mark Whitaker is his biographer, author of the first comprehensive biography of the great comedian, actor, author and humanist. I have admired Bill Cosby my entire life, and it was an honor to be able to advance-read this well written, thoroughly documented biography. Kudos to Whitaker for a job well done. Cosby grew up really poor, the child of a man his friends later described as a “wino” and a hard-working, ambitious mother who valued education. His teachers could tell he was very bright, but he had no interest in school work during his formative years, enjoying sports, friends, and jazz music more than academia. He would later change his mind. His college degree and graduate work were done legitimately; he respected education too much to ever accept an honorary degree anywhere. He was ready to show up to class after having become famous, but he was swarmed when he turned up on campus, and so an alternate method was devised. A string of children’s television shows shown on Public Broadcasting including Sesame Street and The Electric Company were created as a part of his doctoral program, and his studies determined that they made a difference in the educational success of the children for whom they were created. Race is in the news more than ever as I write this; earlier this week Times Square was filled with people demanding an end to police violence as yet another unarmed African-American man was gunned down by police. It is a telling indictment of the US government and its police—and this is my own take, not Cosby’s—that Camille Cosby told their son Ennis not to drive her green Mercedes when he was visiting Los Angeles partly because she feared police would see a Black man driving an expensive vehicle and pull him over on account of it. From the day he was killed till this moment, nothing has changed. I’m telling you, it needs to stop. But back to Bill Cosby. For those who don’t know, Cosby started out trying to break into the music business, but he was very funny, and made extra money here and there by sitting on a bar stool and making people laugh for a few minutes. Of course it grew. His early inspirations were the stories his mother read to him by Mark Twain; comedians Dick Gregory and Jonathan Winters; and his grandfather, who read to him from the Bible, creating the voices of Noah, God, and various others. Ultimately, it was a combination of comedic talent, a sterling work ethic, and unusually strong social skills that created a successful career. Cosby made a point, once he was in a position to do so, of hiring as many talented African-American professionals as he was able. His generosity in the form of scholarships, endowments to his alma maters and well as the nation’s historic Black universities is legendary. Less well known is the world-class art collection he and his wife have collected. They have quietly accumulated art work by the finest Black artists, sending other representatives to bid for them at Sotheby’s and other auctions where items of interest were available. Bill Cosby is known for shining his light upon the common humanity between races, enabling Caucasians who had been afraid of Black folks to understand that every one of us is a person. His goal, though, in creating the Cosby family on television in the late 1980’s (which was so closely modeled after his own that he occasionally stumbled during script discussions, referring to “Cliff Huxtable” as “Bill”) was to show African-Americans a positive example of their own culture. It is telling that while white journalists constantly asked whether the Huxtable family, which featured a doctor and a lawyer as parents, was ‘realistic’, African-Americans surveyed found it entirely believable. Cosby’s wife, Camille, deserves credit for encouraging him to avoid the stereotype of the Black working man, and Cosby created a whole new art form in creating a sitcom based around family stories, rather than one-line jokes and put-down humor. Long a champion of the solid Black family, Cosby wants young men of color to help raise their children. His remarks at the ceremony where he received the National Medal of Freedom were taken out of context and upset some folks who thought he was making fun of Black youth. He says this wasn’t his intention, and I believe it. The book that followed, Come On, People, addresses the issue. I have a copy on my shelves; it’s a wonderful book. I got it partially because of its author and partially because my family is racially blended and it is relevant to me; consider acquiring it after you get Cosby’s biography, which will be released mid-September. I have seen enough tragedy that I no longer tear up easily, but reading of the loss of Ennis, something I already had known about but which Whitaker made whole and present to me, made my eyes well up. The horror of losing a child is not something anyone gets over readily, and the casual way the robber disposed of “a n*****r” was appalling. When Cosby performs stand up now, he always has a sweatshirt that says, “Hello, friend!” because that was Ennis’s greeting, for which he was known in his New England community. After the loss of their son, the Cosbys found refuge in South Africa with Nelson Mandela, who gave them some time and private space in which to recover. This, too, was moving. Perhaps you believe this review was so long that you no longer need the book. Trust me; I have barely scratched the surface. I made 157 notations in my e-reader, edited it down to 125, and still, this is a mere outline. This book is destined to become a classic, a story of success gained against the odds, success gained with talent, a work ethic that still hasn’t stopped, and a tremendous amount of heart. Sometimes I tell readers that a book is worth reading if they can get it at the library or get it cheaply; not so for this one. If you can’t afford it, request it as a Christmas or birthday gift. You won’t be sorry. It’s one in a million!
A great memoir of Bill Cosby's childhood! Cosby:His Life And Times is a great memoir of life for the black community of Philly where The Cosby Show took place. It concentrates on Mr.Cosby's life in the black housing projects of Philly in the late thirties and forties,and is simply a great read.
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