Saturday, 11 December 2010


“Cosby” details the life of television’s most popular star

Ronald L. Smith’s Cosby (St. Martin’s, $12.95) looks like your typical show biz fluff from its cover, but I picked it out of the new book rack anyway, eager to appease my Cosmania with a quick riffle. Wonder of wonders, it’s so solid a job I slowed down to savor, and ended up reading every last word.

For a start, it’s really instructive recent cultural history, placing Bill Cosby solidly against the shifting kaleidoscope of pop humor since the war. Smith is especially deft at revealing how Cosby stuck to his last through all the ebbs and flows of entertainment fads. He is also very helpful in describing how the comedian dealt (and still deals) with his “no win” posture of never pleasing either black ideologues or white media eager to cash in on a pseudo-controversy.

Favorite Writer
Like black playwright Charles Fuller who cites Herman Melville as his favorite American writer, Cosby claims he’s learned his craft mostly from Mark Twain. With the two strikes of an abusive drunken father and a Philly ghetto environment against him, Cosby can’t praise his fourteen-hour-a-day, clean-somebody-else’s-house mother enough for reading Twain to him.

Young Bill was also lucky to have Miss Forchic as a teacher at Fitzsimmon’s Elementary School. Her advice to teachers in the NEA Journal (when she got an award in 1972 from the American Association of School Administrators) has the seeds of the benign family style that has made Cosby the most familiar and likable TV star in twenty years of TVQ’s ratings: “Talk less. Speak quietly. Listen to the children . . . never belittle anything the child says or embarrass him in front of his peers. Instead, help each student to shine in his group.”

You can also see the comedian’s reactive humanism emerging out of the institutional racism of Fitzsimmon’s—the Bing Crosbyish putdown of Mahalia Jackson at a Christmas program, the shame Cosby felt at the nonstandard English accent of his grandparents.

We see Cosby dropping out of prestigious Central High, “where ‘gifted’ meant cliques of smug, self-assured, and disdainful kids.” Germantown High he found more comfortable, but when he flunked the tenth grade there, he dropped out. His “school” was radio, where “Suspense,” “Inner Sanctum,” and “Lights Out” opened the wonders of storytelling to him, and where imitating Jerry Lewis and Senator Claghorn gave him his first experience with trying on personas.

Then there was early TV, watching Sid Caesar and Carl Reiner performing on “Your Show of Shows,” with teenage Cosby dreaming of being Caesar’s second banana. The “friendly” comics of fifties TV (Benny, Gobel, Burns, and Sam Levenson) were also a turn-on and a training ground.

After dropping out of Germantown High, he tried cobbling. But leather soles were not the stitches he wanted to leave people in. Bored by a series of menial jobs, he joined the navy, as a stateside corpsman. Cosby was outraged at the chintziness of keeping the flag after it had ceremonialized a burial at sea. So he clamped a cadaver’s hands onto the flag. Rigor Mortis did the rest.

“He wants to go with his flag, he loves it. . . .” Cosby explained to his shipmates, horrified at the sight of the Stars and Stripes sliding into the sea along with the corpse. He was already working out routines.

Soon he was running track for the navy. There’s one tasty story of how he was forced to go to the back door of a diner in South Carolina where the black help compensated with a hero sandwich that had all the “unexploited” white teammates begging Cosby to let them go to the back door at the next segregated stop.

Cover room
At Temple University he scrounged for dough to cover his room and board, including tending bar at The Cellar. There he tried out jokes he had written down from TV and the new comedy records. The night club was so tiny, he had to get up on a table to be heard, but the ceiling was so low he had to do his gig sitting down—a sitting-down stand-up comic.

Especially interesting is the section on how he broke into the Greenwich Village night club scene, and the professional way he and agent Roy Silver went over tapes of routines and hours and hours each performance, trying to see what worked and what didn’t.

A turning point was his marriage to Camille Hanks in 1964. Their honeymoon was a transcontinental series of nightclub dates. As corny as it may sound to the jaded sexual pioneers of his era, Cosby had chosen the monogamous straight and narrow, preferring, for example, when he globe-hopped for the “I Spy” TV series to travel with his wife, mother, and first child—to consoling himself with the ever-so-available groupies.

“Man and Boy”
And he didn’t hesitate to take on Hollywood’s economic mores either—when he decided to finance the film “Man and Boy” about a black family’s frustrated efforts to homestead in the West.

Cynics said there was no market for such a picture but Cosby can be one stubborn fool when his values are at stake.

When controversy arose, for example, over whether it was prudent to tell children in his Fat Albert series that tonsillectomies don’t hurt much and that tons of ice cream for recuperating patients were no mean compensation for the pain anyway, Cosby characteristically didn’t wing it.

The show’s producers contacted the assistant dean at UCLA, Gordon L. Berry, and put the question to him. He in turn put the question before a panel of teachers and professors for approval. The panel could not reach a decision because one of their members, a professor in the UCLA psychiatry department, was out of town, and his view point was vital. Production waited while a pediatrician was consulted. The pediatrician pointed out that not every kid can eat ice cream anyway, because some kids are allergic to it. The question was tossed back to Dr. Berry’s CBS-and-Cosby-approved panel of anthropologists, psychiatrists, sociologists, and specialists in children’s education. (p. 128)

We’re so used to this kind of group dumbing-down of scripts by TV bottom-line watchers that Cosby’s respect for children almost sounds like a parody of the “real” thing.

But the networks remain the slowest learners on God’s green earth. The were uneasy about his proposal for a series based on “warm, gentle humor.” They found the name Huxtable “uppity” and recommended (unsuccessfully, of course) that they change Heathcliff’s last name to Brown!

Cosby told his writers: “I don’t want jokes about behinds or breasts or pimples or characters saying “Oh my God” every other line. What we want to deal with is human behavior.”

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