Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Photo Credit: Erinn Chalene Cosby
Talking with Cosby

Last week I had the opportunity of speaking with a guy whose work has entertained me for years. My parents bought his comedy albums and they were staples in our household in 1965 and 1966. I loved "I Spy" and his sit coms as well.

What I've like about Cosby is how he has used his family experiences as common denominator that bridges race and age.

Now I've been blessed with speaking with a number of people whom I hold in great esteem – Vincent Price, Lillian Gish are two at the top of the list – and generally I don't get nervous. But I did last week.

Cosby is appearing at Symphony hall in Springfield for two shows on Oct. 16

The reasons for the nerves was in part due to the preparations were at the last minute. I was interviewing him at 8 a.m. – traditionally not the best time for most entertainers – and when i asked the publciist how much time I would have she replied, "You'll know when he wants to stop."

Usually reporters are told that we have 10 or 15 minutes to get some quotes for a story. So I didn't know exactly what I would get.

The other reason is that Cosby has a reputation for not suffering fools lightly and I didn't want to fall into that category.

I called his home in Shelburne Mass. at the appointed time. The first line was busy. When the second line was picked up it was Cosby. I told him who I was and he said, "Well, hang on. Let me get rid of this other guy."

When he came back after a few seconds, we began to talk. And we did so for 45 minutes. I was pretty astonished he gave me that much time.

At one point I though the interview was coming to a close and I thanked him. he said, "Wait a minute I'm not done with you yet!" It seemed to please him that I live in Springfield and that I attended UMass ( I got my BA in 1976 when he got his PhD.)

Below are two chunks of the material. One appeared in the weeklies I edit and the other will be in our monthly. I've still have more which will appear eventually in this blog.

Since 1963 Bill Cosby has been making people laugh and the iconic comedian told Reminder Publications that he has no intention of stopping anytime soon.

The most famous resident of Western Massachusetts will be appearing for two shows at Springfield’s Symphony Hall on Oct. 16. Although known more in recent years as a social commentator and author, Cosby is dedicated to comedy.

His appearances here are part of a lengthy touring schedule that brings him from California to Massachusetts to Florida and Canada.

“I’ve been doing this [comedy] since 1963. That when I made the commitment,” he said in an early morning telephone interview from his home in Shelburne. “It’s important that this mind think things and I write them down and I can’t help it.

“My wife says I’m being beamed,” he added with a chuckle.

The man whose show business career has included Grammy-winning comedy albums, many successful television series and movies as well as being a highly influential stand-up comedian, said his path toward being a comic came out of education.

He explained that he was “born again” when attending college – not renewing his Christian faith, but rather “in terms of accepting education, of wanting it.”

While at Temple University, he said he became serious about writing and read extensively. He also began listening to comedy albums and studied comedians such as Jonathan Winters, Elaine May and Mike Nichols, Shelly Berman and Don Adams.

It was while listening to the Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner album “The 2,000 Year Old Man” that Cosby said he realized, “you don’t have to have a joke.”

The story and the delivery were more important. He began to write and enjoyed it.

He said that while in his freshman remedial English class, the professor assigned the student to write about a first time experience. The class was full of members of the football team and Cosby said, “The football players wrote about their first touchdown, but I got beamed.”

He wrote about the first time he pulled out a tooth as a child.

“There were no computers – just a number two pencil and a legal pad,” he said. “I had so much fun and I just wrote and wrote and wrote.”

He found that he didn’t mind revising his work.

“When you’re born again, you don’t mind going over it,” he explained.

In his junior year of college, he said he “began to see things differently,” and thought he could sell what he was writing.

In the early 1960s there were no clubs dedicated to comedy as there are today, and Cosby said he went around the nightclubs of Philadelphia. He explained the clubs would feature a singer and a comedian and he would try to sell his work to the comics, but no one bought any of his stories.

“One fellow read it and said, ‘This is not funny.’ I started to perform for him and he said, ‘It’s still not funny,’” Cosby recalled.

The manager of the Gilded Cage nightclub finally gave Cosby the chance to perform for 15 minutes.

“There were seven people in the room and they were spread out three, two and two,” Cosby said.

The manager didn’t care for his act, although the audience laughed and Cosby lost hope momentarily. “That night I took those pages and I threw them down the sewer, but when I woke up I was right back at them,” he said.

Cosby said his career started taking off, though, with appearances in clubs in New York City. In 1963 he made his first comedy album, “Bill Cosby is a Very Funny Fellow, Right!” and was booked onto “The Tonight Show.”

He said his career was like a slide one could do on a kitchen floor wet with soap and water.

“There was no long suffering,” he said.

After all these years of performing, Cosby said, “I still have those thoughts. I’m still being beamed. I still have things to say.”

Cosby said that his material today provides a “night of comfort.”

“I put a chair on the stage, I sit and talk and tell a story,” he said, resulting in the audience and himself “feeling comfortable.”


Bill Cosby has made hit television series. He has appeared in popular movies. His comedy albums are legendary. He has written both humorous and serious best-selling books. He has advocated for education and personal responsibility.

And now Cosby will enter a unique group that recognizes his contributions to American humor. On Oct. 26 he will be receiving the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor presented by The Kennedy Center.

Cosby spoke about the award with Reminder Publications as part of an interview prior to his two comedy concerts on Oct. 16 in Springfield’s Symphony Hall.

The Twain Prize has been awarded for the past 11 years – Cosby will the twelfth recipient – and, according to the Kennedy Center Web site, “recognizes people who have had an impact on American society in ways similar to the distinguished 19th century novelist and essayist best known as Mark Twain. As a social commentator, satirist and creator of characters, Samuel Clemens was a fearless observer of society, who startled many while delighting and informing many more with his uncompromising perspective of social injustice and personal folly.”

Although this description certainly fits Cosby’s many accomplishments, the entertainer said that he had turned down the award three times.

He explained he had heard about the first award presentation for Richard Pryor in 1998 and that some of young comedian who had been asked to perform in Pryor’s honor had used profanity and the “n word” in their routines. Ironically Pryor had long stopped using the “n word” in his performances.

“There were many people there who were from the civil rights movement,” Cosby said. “It was disgraceful and embarrassing. When they came to me I told them no.”

Cosby is a 1998 recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors and said, “I was a friend of Teddy’s. I met Bobby and I was a friend of Ethel’s.”

Cosby only consented to the award once he sat with the producer of the show who assured him he could approve the guests.

“As you know,” he recalled talking the Kennedy Center officials,” I want [my award] to represent who I am and the style, that would be jazz.”

Acclaimed saxophonist Jimmy Heath will be among the guests as will be jazz great Wynton Marsalis.

Cosby said he wanted specific people to appear, such as Len Chandler, the folk singer and civil rights advocate who introduced Cosby as a young comic to Bob Dylan, when he was beginning his career.

Not only does the Twain prize’s connection to the Kennedy family have meaning for Cosby, but Twain and his works do as well.

“Our mother read Mark Twain to us,” Cosby said. For him and his brother James – who died at age six – Twain’s works were a regular part of their childhood.

He said that Twain’s importance rests in part in his style.

“You could finish fifth grade and the only thing keeping you from reading Twain’s essay is the subject matter.”

He called the recognition “wonderful.”

© 2009 by Gordon Michael Dobbs

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