A conversation with CosbyWritten by Vicki L. Kroll | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Bill Cosby has several groundbreaking moments on television — from being the first African American to co-star on a series, “I Spy,” to hosting “Fat Albert,” an educational cartoon, to masterminding one of the highest-rated family sitcoms, “The Cosby Show.” What meant the most to the comedian?
“The only show that I knew would be monumental in my whole career was a TV show called ‘You Bet Your Life.’ It probably was the lowest-rated show I’ve ever done,” he said. “This is the comedian’s wheelhouse, to talk to people and counter with humorous things; I just knew I couldn’t beat it.
“I have no idea about the mystery to solve it, why it didn’t work.”
The engaging entertainer who has written best-selling books and won Emmy Awards for his TV work and Grammy Awards for his comedy albums was in New York City when he answered questions for Toledo Free Press during a phone interview April 14.
TFP: Have you thought about bringing back “You Bet Your Life” with all the reality TV?
Cosby: I don’t know [big laugh]. I just know when I’m performing — for instance, I was in Montclair, New Jersey, Sunday night, just to give you an example, I introduced a man who was 80 years old … his name is Calvin Jackson… and I said to him … ‘The house gives me two seats, you take my two seats up front.’ … And I sat down and I smiled and I said to him, ‘Your daughter loves you very, very much; she wrote this wonderful letter hoping I would say happy birthday’ … I said, ‘Do you have any other children?’ He said, ‘Yes, I have twin girls.’ I said, ‘Congratulations. How old are they?’ He said, ‘42 and 41.’ I said, ‘Whoa!’ Now the audience laughs. I said, ‘The second one was a little slow coming out, wasn’t she?’ The audience laughs even more. I said, ‘So where’s your wife?’ He said, ‘She’s in heaven.’ I said, ‘I would imagine so, being in the stirrups for a whole year waiting for the second.’ Well, the place went crazy, and he loved it.
And I’m telling you that this kind of humor needs to be seen on TV. When we talk about reality, that would be reality. It’s not written by somebody making up something; it’s people talking to Bill Cosby.
Now I’m not going to do this when I come to work in your city unless — it isn’t something that I hunt and peck; I’ve got my own stuff, which I guarantee will hurt faces, yes, face hurting. And people generally leave my show saying two things: How did he get in my house? And No. 2, I’m not alone.
TFP: You went back to school to get your master’s and doctoral degrees after you were a star. Talk about why education is so important.
Cosby: I did great up until [grade four and] it was now on me. It’s things called homework; I didn’t do it. … At age 19, I quit high school; I was still in the 11th grade …
In the Navy, my wake-up call was really an actual wake-up call. The man came in at 0430; it’s pitch-black outside, my first morning wake-up in boot camp, and I didn’t want to get up. And that man made me get up; he didn’t put his hands on me, but just kept looking like he would, and he got in my face, his cigarette on his bottom lip, and he said, ‘I am not your mother.’ It was there and then — now think about it, I had three years, 11 months and 29 days left [laughs] in the Navy, and I wanted to get out. And I said to myself, I now understand, I’m going to get my high school diploma and I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I’m going to do everything I can to keep from having myself in a position where I’ve got to do these things and I don’t want to do these things. … I took the SAT exam to get into Temple University; my score was 500.
They put me in remedial everything, but I will tell you this: It was fantastic because I was ready, and I didn’t thumb my nose at the word ‘remedial.’ All I knew was I was enjoying — this is important — being born again … in terms of loving to study, loving to do my work, loving to learn.
TFP: Did you always plan to keep your comedy clean?
Cosby: I’m not afraid of being called an old fuddy-duddy … I’m 72 years old. I was 27, 26 years old standing onstage in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, at the Academy of Music; it is sold-out. My mother cannot believe her son is this major funny person. She is seeing me for the first time in her life. I’m doing a routine that is a hit called ‘Noah and the Ark’ from the Warner Bros. album. And my mother is sitting with Aunt Lil about eight rows back in the middle center. And I start to do this routine, it’s my big closer, my hit, and there’s a part where I say, ‘What the hell is going on?’ That word, back then, was a curse word. There was no cursing in our house … And as I approach the part of the routine where you’d have to say ‘What the’ and say the word ‘hell,’ I looked and I could see my mother, but I’m not looking directly at her, and I’ve got to make up my mind as I’m doing the routine, and the tension is building, and I said it. And I saw my mother flinch.
After the show, people were backstage and I felt this sharp pain in my thigh, and it was my mother pinching me and looking at me, and we both knew why she was doing it. And I said, ‘I’m sorry, Mom.’ And later when we were alone with Aunt Lil, she said, ‘How much further do you plan to go with this language?’ And I said, ‘Mom, that’s the only thing.’ And she said, ‘Why did you write that?’ I said, ‘Mom, I was a character.’ And she said, ‘Well, you better find better characters [laughs] with cleaner mouths.’
… They have all these comedy clubs — but in the fairness of it, the places are packed. So the people don’t walk out … people are used to [profanity]. … I don’t do it because my people, obviously, would be getting up in droves and walking out, and the word would be that Bill Cosby has lost his mind and that dementia has hit him so hard that’s all he can think of. They would be surprised, but I think the most important word would be disappointment, and I don’t want to do that on purpose to them.
Cosby will be in Toledo May 2 for shows at 3:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. at Stranahan Theater. Tickets range from $39.50 to $59.50. www.billcosby.com.