Bill Cosby, Still Himself After All These Years
Originally published on Mon November 25, 2013 1:11 pm
Comedian Bill Cosby has been in show business for 50 years, and he celebrated on Comedy Central over the weekend with a stand-up special — his first in 30 years — called Far From Finished.
That earlier special, called Bill Cosby Himself, inspired one of the most popular sitcoms in TV history: The Cosby Show, starring Cosby as paterfamilias Cliff Huxtable. It was a show that was really the first of its kind, capturing life in a highly educated upper-middle-class African-American family.
Cosby is 76 now, and he has a room full of awards. But he shows no sign of letting up — and with his 50th-anniversary special, we thought it would be a good time to check in.
But I've got to tell you, I immediately lost control of the interview. He wrong-footed me at the outset, asking what I had to say for myself that morning. And when I hesitated, he — well, he kind of took me to school.
"Mr. Greene," he said in that inimitable paternal baritone, "I think this is your program. And I'm sure that whatever professor you had said, 'For God's sake, don't say, 'Lemme [stutter mumble squeak...]' "
But when I'd gotten my act together, and asked what moment he points to as the launching point of his long career, his answer took us back to the 1960s. Cosby was a student at Temple University in Philadelphia, and it was in class there that he noticed something that would become central to his comedy: the way his mind has a tendency to wander.
"I'm drifting!" he says. "I'm drifting ADD [attention deficit disorder] off of Professor Barrett."
And "the ability to drift," as he puts it, is key to his free-associative comedy.
"ADD people, they are the real — and this is my humor, but it's true — they are the real multitaskers," he says.
Jokes About Marriage, And Sober Truths At Home
Cosby's comedy, old and new, has always involved a heavy dose of domestic-affairs humor — jokes about the plight of the husband and the iron rule of the wife. He says his own wife, Camille Cosby, honestly loves his marriage jokes — actually edits some of them.
The two have been through a lot in their 49 years together: Cosby has admitted to a secret affair. He settled a lawsuit with another woman who claimed he had drugged and sexually assaulted her.
And the Cosbys lost their son, Ennis, in 1997. The 27-year-old was shot and killed on a California roadside while changing a tire. His murder rocked the family, along with a public that, in a way, felt it had watched Ennis grow up on TV, in the character of Theo Huxtable.
In talking to Cosby about losing his son, something becomes clear: His wife is indeed the one who manages the family.
"I was told about Ennis," Cosby remembers. "And immediately, immediately after opening the front door and going into the house, the children were there, the daughters, and it was quiet. And I went to her, and she was warm, she was loving. And she mothered, she wifed. She human-ed — and helped me an awful lot."
Man work, woman cook? Not in Bill Cosby's world view.
"It's wonderful, and it's hilarious," he says. "It's hilarious because you and I, and our fathers and our grandfathers and our great-grandfathers, are told, 'You will toil in the fields, and you will pick up the oxen and carry them and do all of this and that,' and she's supposed to be there in an apron boiling a pot of something.
"And we forget, the males: You. Are. Her oldest child."
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Comedian Bill Cosby has been in show business for 50 years. He celebrated over the weekend with a standup comedy special on Comedy Central. It was called "Far From Finished."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FAR FROM FINISHED")
BILL COSBY: The game of chess is about war and the bravery and the genius of commanding pieces and - no. It's marriage.
COSBY: The queen moves anywhere she wants...
(AUDIENCE LAUGHTER, APPLAUSE)
COSBY: ...picking off people. And what happens to the king? He's moving one square...
GREENE: The last time Cosby did a standup special was 30 years ago. It was called "Bill Cosby Himself," and it was the inspiration for one of the most popular sitcoms in television history, "The Cosby Show."
(SOUNDBITE OF "THE COSBY SHOW" THEME MUSIC)
GREENE: Cosby played Cliff Huxtable on a show that was really the first of its kind, capturing life in a highly educated, upper middle class, African-American family. Cosby is now 76. He has a room full of awards. But he shows no sign of letting up. We thought this was a good moment to check in with Bill Cosby. But I've got to tell you, I immediately lost control of the interview.
COSBY: What do you have to say this morning for yourself, Mr. Greene?
GREENE: Well, let me - can I start by asking you to look back at the beginning...
COSBY: Mr. Greene...
GREENE: Yes, yes, Mr. Cosby.
COSBY: I think this is your program.
GREENE: It is.
GREENE: You want me...
COSBY: And I'm sure that whatever professor you had said, for God's sake don't say lemme - go back...
GREENE: You want me to have a more clear opening, a better question, a better starter.
COSBY: Well, hey, you're Mr. Greene. Do it.
GREENE: All right. What moment do you point to as the launching of your long career?
GREENE: His answer to that took us back to the 1960s. Cosby was a student at Temple University, in Philadelphia; and he noticed something that would become central to his comedy: how his mind has a tendency to wander.
COSBY: While Professor Barrett is lecturing on the Revolutionary War, I'm sitting there - and I drift on him.
(SOUNDBITE OF STANDUP PERFORMANCE)
COSBY: At the beginning of every football game, a referee comes out and then, he flips a coin. Suppose way back in history, if you had a referee before every war, and the guy called a toss. Let's go to the Revolutionary War. Capt. Hartman(ph), to the British, this is Capt. Soble(ph) to the settlers. Capt. Soble to the settlers, this is Capt. Hartman to the British. Call a toss, there, British. British call heads. It's tails. You lose the toss, British; the settlers win. What we do, settlers? All right. The settlers say that during the war, they will wear any color clothes that they want to, shoot from behind the rocks and trees and everywhere; says your team must wear red and march in a straight line.
GREENE: So you're not totally drifting. You're just putting your own spin on something like, oh, the Revolutionary War.
COSBY: I'm drifting. I'm drifting ADD - I'm drifting ADD off of Professor Barrett.
GREENE: Do you have ADD? Is this something you've been...
COSBY: I am. I am ADD.
GREENE: ...diagnosed? And you're saying that's a real strength - I mean, when it comes to your comedy.
COSBY: Yes, the ability to drift. You know, ADD people, they are the real - and this is my humor, but it's true. They are the real multitaskers.
GREENE: One of the themes that was very prominent in "Bill Cosby Himself" and also, your new standup, is marriage, the plight of the husband.
(SOUNDBITE OF STANDUP PERFORMANCE)
COSBY: When the children leave, you become her oldest child.
COSBY: You don't need a brain anymore. You just do what I tell you to do. Sometimes we go to the mall. Here's the rule that I know I'm supposed to do. When she gets out, if she wants me to go, the lock will go up.
GREENE: From everything I've read about you and Camille, you have this marriage that doesn't totally seem like anything like the marriage that we hear about onstage.
COSBY: Yeah, but do you identify with any of it?
GREENE: (Laughter) At the risk of my wife hearing...
COSBY: See? Stop. There you go, Mr. Greene. You are becoming who we are.
GREENE: What do you mean?
COSBY: You said "at the risk of."
COSBY: What you're saying is, hey, man, don't get me in this. I asked you the question.
GREENE: Cosby and his wife, Camille, have been married for 49 years. He says she loves his marriage jokes. Actually, she edits some of them. They have been through a lot, as a couple. Cosby has admitted to a secret affair. He also settled a lawsuit with another woman, who claimed he had drugged and sexually assaulted her.
The Cosbys also lost their son, Ennis. The 27-year-old was shot on a California roadside while changing a tire. His murder rocked the family, and a public that felt it had watched Ennis grow up on TV, in the form of Theo Huxtable.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE COSBY SHOW")
COSBY: (As Cliff) I just want you to do the best you can. That's all.
MALCOLM-JAMAL WARNER: (As Theo) I'll try, Dad.
COSBY: (As Cliff) Yeah.
WARNER: (As Theo) I really will.
COSBY: (As Cliff) All right. I love you. And maybe your mother loves you, too.
GREENE: In talking to Cosby about losing his real son, something becomes clear. His wife is, indeed, the one who manages the family.
COSBY: I was told about Ennis and immediately, immediately after opening the front door and going into the house, the children were there - the daughters - and it was quiet. And I went to her. And she was warm, she was loving. And she mothered, she wifed, she human-ed - and helped me an awful lot.
GREENE: This is the strong woman that we hear about in your comedy, but God, in a totally different light.
COSBY: She's protecting you. I mean, all those things, whatever, as you get older, she takes them away. You can't have this, and you can do this. It's just wonderful, and it's hilarious. It's hilarious because here, you and I - and our fathers and our grandfathers and our great-grandfathers - you will toil the fields, and you will pick up the oxen and carry them, and do all of this and that. And she's supposed to be there, in an apron, boiling a pot of something. And we forget - the males - you are her oldest child.
GREENE: Bill Cosby, this has been a true pleasure. Thank you for taking the time with us.
COSBY: No charge.
GREENE: Bill Cosby, still reflecting on marriage and family in his comedy, and his life, as he marks 50 years in show business.
(SOUNDBITE OF "THE COSBY SHOW" THEME MUSIC)
GREENE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.