Bill Cosby: Still Himself
Comedian and actor William Henry “Bill” Cosby Jr. has been spinning humor into gold for more than half a century. This Emmy- and Grammy-winning megastar, with more than 60 recordings, books and films to his credit plus enduring success on television, has tickled our funny bone and engaged our brain. This map takes a brief look at his signature family-friendly work and comedic legacy.
Bill Cosby’s first foray into episodic television came in 1965, when he and Robert Culp played secret agents in the groundbreaking series I Spy, which marked the first time an African American starred in a weekly drama. His earliest sitcom was The Bill Cosby Show (1969–1971), in which he portrayed a high school gym teacher, but his next project, the popular Saturday-morning cartoon Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, was a career turning point. Fat Albert’s ensemble cast of urban neighborhood kids originated from the children’s characters Cosby had used in his stand-up act, and the show’s sitcom format presented them dealing with growing up, or trying to avoid it. Fat Albert kept Cosby in the public eye while he honed his technique of using humor to address family issues—ultimately his most marketable quality. (Another way Fat Albert helped Cosby: He wrote his doctoral dissertation about it.) Further encouraged by the wealth of family-centric material in the concert film Bill Cosby: Himself (1983), TV producers Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner recruited Cosby to star in a new family sitcom, The Cosby Show, which would become the comedian’s greatest success.
Running for eight seasons and winning three Golden Globe awards, The Cosby Show was nothing short of a television phenomenon, resuscitating the failing fortunes of both a network (NBC) and a genre (the sitcom). One of the highest-rated shows of the 1980s, it succeeded because of its cast, its writers and, perhaps most of all, its universality. While it portrayed an upper-middle-class African American family, it didn’t focus on what it means to be black any more than The Bob Newhart Show, for example, focused on being white. Anyone of any age could relate to this family, which faced day-to-day challenges with warmth and humor—and it seems just about everyone did.
After a few years, star and cocreator Bill Cosby took a similar approach when he penned Fatherhood, a witty look at husbands, wives and their offspring, based on his personal experiences and observations. Fatherhood itself led to another TV program: In June 2004 the Nickelodeon network premiered its first original animated series, also called Fatherhood. Cocreated by Cosby, the adventures of the Bindlebeep family featured the voices of Blair Underwood (L.A. Law, In Treatment) and Sabrina Le Beauf, both of whom had appeared on The Cosby Show.
In his best-seller Fatherhood, Bill Cosby looks at parenting and childhood and the challenges faced by those attempting each. “The essence of childhood, of course, is play, which my friends and I did endlessly on streets that we reluctantly shared with traffic,” Cosby has reflected. Joining Cosby on those inner-city Philadelphia streets was his friend Albert Robertson, upon whom Cosby’s beloved character Fat Albert is loosely based. A behemoth with a thick, throaty voice, Fat Albert first appeared as a sometimes menacing figure in Cosby’s earliest stand-up routines and achieved nationwide fame via the “Buck Buck” track on Cosby’s 1967 comedy album Revenge, in which Albert’s weight causes the young Cosby no small pain.
With a few alterations to his character, there would be no stopping this now gentle giant, who became the focus of a prime-time animated TV special (1969’s Hey, Hey, Hey, It’s Fat Albert), a weekly cartoon show for children (Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids), three holiday specials, a comic book and the live-action feature film Fat Albert (2004). The movie’s closing scene, set at Robertson’s grave, is a tribute to him and the other real-life Cosby Kid inspirations.
Bill Cosby’s humorous reflections in his book Fatherhood provide a vehicle for addressing various social issues, such as single-parent families and conspicuous consumption, which Cosby has discussed elsewhere more directly. He delivered his controversial “Pound Cake” speech as part of an NAACP ceremony in 2004. Resonating throughout his remarks was the theme of a lack of personal responsibility that he felt was destroying society. Cosby lamented that there are “people getting shot in the back of the head over a piece of pound cake!” He continued, “Then we all run out and are outraged: ‘The cops shouldn’t have shot him.’…I wanted a piece of pound cake just as bad as anybody else. And I looked at it, and I had no money. And something called parenting said, ‘If you get caught with it, you’re going to embarrass your mother.’ Not ‘You’re going to get your butt kicked.’ No…‘You’re going to embarrass your family.’” Many in the African American community were outraged. Playwright August Wilson called Cosby a “clown,” and Georgetown University sociology professor Michael Eric Dyson wrote the book Is Bill Cosby Right? to defend those he felt Cosby had maligned. Undaunted, Cosby continues to speak his mind.
Comedians have been recording their jokes since the dawn of the audio age, and after the development of the LP, in 1948, they were no longer limited to a few minutes on each side of a 78 rpm record. It took a while for comedy albums to catch on, but in the late 1950s, comics such as Mort Sahl and Shelley Berman achieved such success with their albums that few in the business of making people laugh could ignore the opportunity the format presented.
Bill Cosby’s premiere venture into recording was 1963's Bill Cosby Is a Very Funny Fellow…Right! (The Recording Industry Association of America certified its platinum status in 1986.) During the next 28 years, he recorded 20 more original comedy albums plus compilations, making him one of the most prolific comedy recording artists in history. Following the path blazed by Cosby, as well as the more risqué and controversial comedians Redd Foxx, Dick Gregory and Lenny Bruce—Richard Pryor debuted on vinyl in 1968 with an eponymous album (his first of 19 LPs). The track names, such as “Super Ni---r” and “Prison Play,” tip us off that this isn’t Cosby’s family-friendly subject matter.
Eddie Murphy cites Bill Cosby and his records as strong influences on his career. If that seems a stretch, consider one of Murphy’s other role models, Richard Pryor: As he reveals in his autobiography, Pryor Convictions and Other Life Sentences, Pryor pronounced Bill Cosby Is a Very Funny Fellow…Right! “perfect” when he first heard it. So perfect, in fact, that he began to emulate Cosby’s winning style to deliver his far-from-Cosby-esque material, finding his own voice by figuring out which Cosby techniques worked for him.
Though a generation removed from Cosby and Pryor, and born just two years before the release of Very Funny Fellow, Murphy clearly displays Cosby’s impact, not only when he performs spot-on imitations of “the Cos” but also when his humor is character-driven and mines everyday life for nuggets of absurdity. Murphy used Cosby’s work to build a solid foundation for his first album, Eddie Murphy (1982). But much like the young Pryor, Murphy targeted a hipper crowd than Cosby’s, one that liked its humor a good bit raunchier. (His recording debut was later given an “explicit lyrics” parental advisory warning.) Murphy has gradually returned, however, to the cornerstone of Cosby’s more polite humor.
With his use of the inner city as a backdrop (but not a focus), his broad spectrum of subject matter and the universal appeal of his characters, Bill Cosby became a role model for many comics but especially for African American stand-up artists like Flip Wilson, Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy.
According to a segment in Murphy’s 1987 Eddie Murphy Raw concert film (recorded at a show in New York City), Murphy claimed Cosby sought to mentor those who followed him. Murphy tells the audience that Ennis Cosby, Bill’s teenage son, saw one of Murphy’s stand-up performances and told his father about the off-color language he’d heard Murphy use onstage. A concerned Cosby phoned Murphy to chastise him. Afterward Murphy called Pryor, his comedy hero, for advice. As Murphy exaggerates it, the conversation allegedly went something like this:
Pryor: Do the people laugh when you say what you say?
Pryor: Do you get paid?
Pryor [naming products Cosby pitched on TV]: Well, tell Bill I said have a Coke and a smile and shut the fuck up. The Jell-O pudding–eating motherfucker.
Richard Pryor’s impact on Eddie Murphy is self-evident, yet the influence of Bill Cosby and the transcendent quality of The Cosby Show is equally strong. It’s easy to imagine a young Pryor substituting for Murphy in films such as 48 Hrs. and Beverly Hills Cop, which feature flip, edgy characters who are essentially defined by their race. But it’s hard to say the same for The Nutty Professor and Dr. Dolittle. Those two films and much of Murphy’s recent work (Nutty Professor II: The Klumps, Daddy Day Care, The Haunted Mansion) show Murphy not so much mellowing with age as reaching out to the G- and PG-rated audiences to which Cosby and The Cosby Show have appealed for decades.
Pryor did exhibit similar range in Silver Streak and California Suite (with Cosby), but he will be best remembered as the brilliant, harsh-talking, angry comic who could make an audience laugh uproariously at the racial prejudice of which he was both ironist and tragedian. But not Murphy—not anymore. If The Cosby Show were remade today with any comedian past or present, the first choice to play patriarch Cliff Huxtable might be suburban Long Island–raised Eddie Murphy.