Bill Cosby - Biography
By Tony Goldmark
Bill Cosby is unquestionably one of the most recognizable names and faces in the history of comedy, television and pop culture. His rubbery face, unique vocal rhythms and ability to somehow be dignified and clown-like at once made him appeal to adults and children alike (often because he talked to children as one would an adult) of all races. Though most young people know him primarily for NBC’s seminal 1980s sitcom “The Cosby Show” (as well as his ubiquitous Jell-O commercials from the same decade), in fact “The Cosby Show” merely represented the peak of more than twenty years of show business success, from his first vinyl stand-up albums to his history-making role on “I Spy” to his animated Saturday morning smash hit “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids.” Bill Cosby isn’t just an icon – he’s the icon all the other icons look up to.
William Henry Cosby, Jr. was born on July 12, 1937 in West Philadelphia. Cosby was an exceptionally bright student and a fine athlete, but his first love was always comedy and clowning around, with his biggest influences being 1940s radio comedians as well as Groucho Marx (from whom he adopted a lifelong love of cigars). Faced with the pressure of playing on multiple youth sports teams and working several jobs to help support his family, young Bill fell behind in his studies, flunked tenth grade and joined the Navy, where he served as a Hospital Corpsman for four years before completing his high school education via correspondence.
In the early sixties, after realizing he had a unique ability to make people laugh, Cosby became a stand-up comedian, and before long was performing all over the country. In 1963 he got his first national TV exposure on Johnny Carson’s “The Tonight Show” (a show he would later guest-host frequently), and released his first vinyl stand-up album, Bill Cosby Is A Very Funny Fellow…Right! The album touched upon many topics Cosby would later make his staples, such as observations about the oddities of sports and the differences between men and women, but it also included the breakout piece “Noah,” a three-part routine which comically deconstructs the Biblical tale of Noah’s Ark, from Noah’s skepticism that God is talking to him (“Right!”), through his unbearable frustration at having to find two of every animal. The bit ends in a fever pitch, as Cosby’s Noah rants at a breakneck pace about the impossibility of his task, and threatens to give up completely…just before a sound effect of a rain storm shuts him up.
Cosby followed this up in 1964 with I Started Out As A Child, in which he started talking about reminiscences from his own childhood for comic effect, in bits involving water bottles, street football and the Lone Ranger, as well as accounts of his time in the Navy, in between sillier bits where he used things like rhinoceroses, Neanderthals and werewolves to put eccentricities of human behavior into sharp relief. In 1965 he released his third album Why Is There Air?, which could almost be considered an autobiography: he talks about the inedible snacks served in kindergarten, the horrors of high school gym and shop classes, the awkwardness of cheap cars and philosophizing classmates in college, and the paranoia, at the time, that came from expecting his first child. Both albums won the Grammy award for “Best Comedy Recording,” an award he won six consecutive times in the sixties for Child, Air, Wonderfulness (1966), Revenge (1967), To Russell, My Brother, Whom I Slept With (1968) and Sports (1969). These albums contain so much great material that each one of them, viewed separately, could be mistaken for a “Greatest Hits” compilation. The bits included such masterstrokes as “The Playground” (“the monkey bars came in, we lost a hundred and twenty-four kids in one day”), “The Special Class” (in which young Cosby envies “the dumb class” who never have to do anything, in a bit that’s only offensive in tangled retrospect), “9th Street Bridge” (about his inability to watch monster movies without diving under the seat in fear) and “Buck, Buck” (which introduced the world to Fat Albert). But perhaps the funniest bit of all – arguably the one that perfectly distilled Cosby’s natural combination of childlike wonder, adult cynicism, cartoonish behavioral extremes and ironically moralistic view of the world – was the title track of Revenge, in which Cosby precisely describes the dramatically tragicomic epic tale of an elaborate attempt to get revenge on a friend for a practical joke, only to have it go horribly, horribly wrong.
1965 was also the year Cosby was cast as Alexander Scott in the NBC spy series “I, Spy” opposite Robert Culp. It was controversial and history-making at the time, as it was the first time a black man had ever starred in a dramatic series, but the show became a smash success and won Cosby two Emmy awards. Cosby was determined to not fall into any sort of clichéd “sidekick” role, but to depict a character who worked as an equal partner with Culp. Similarly, when asked why he didn’t do racial material in his stand-up, Cosby replied “A white person listens to my act and he laughs and he thinks, ‘Yeah, that’s the way I see it too.’ Okay. He’s white. I'm Negro. And we both see things the same way. That must mean that we are alike...So I figure I'm doing as much for good race relations as the next guy.”
Apparently under the belief that he could do no wrong, in 1967 Cosby released one of the few artistic failures of his early career – Silver Throat: Bill Cosby Sings, recorded with the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band, later of “Express Yourself” fame. Though his taste in music was impeccable, covering the likes of Jimmy Reed, Ray Charles and Willie Dixon, his limited vocal range left quite a bit to be desired. The only successful track was “Little Ole Man (Uptight, Everything’s Alright)” in which he uses the background music from Stevie Wonder’s “Uptight” but adds his own spoken-word tale on top of it, about an insane old man who lets trains run over him because he believes someday they will stop. Though obtuse and strange, the single rocketed to #2 on Billboard, prompting the frankly ludicrous follow-up Bill Cosby Sings Hooray for the Salvation Army Band! Though his exuberance alone almost makes covers of songs like “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” work, Cosby was clearly out of his element and the album tanked. Cosby returned to what he knew: acting and stand-up.
But it wouldn’t be long before Cosby got the chance to stretch his talents again. In 1969, off the success of “I, Spy,” NBC gave him his first sitcom, “The Bill Cosby Show,” in which he played high school P.E. teacher Chet Kincaid. Though “The Bill Cosby Show” only lasted two seasons and eventually got overshadowed by Cosby’s later sitcom work, it had a natural breezy charm all its own, filled with ridiculous slapstick and almost none of the forced saccharin lessons of its more ubiquitous later counterpart. And remarkably, it was one of the VERY few sitcoms of the late ‘60s to eschew the traditional laugh track.
Cosby returned to educational studies in the ‘70s, as he pursued a degree in education, and devoted seemingly the entire decade to teaching children while entertaining them at the same time, starting with memorable appearances on PBS’ “The Electric Company,” continuing with Grammy-winning children’s album Bill Cosby Talks To Kids About Drugs, and reaching a boiling point with his Saturday morning animated series, “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids,” a show loosely based on Cosby’s childhood friends. This show was the biggest success of Cosby’s career so far, airing in some form or another from 1972 to 1984. Every episode had a lesson of some sort at the end, and Cosby’s own thesis on the program’s educational foundation led to him being awarded a doctorate in education in 1977.
But astoundingly, this was not even his biggest television success. After returning to stand-up in 1983 for the astoundingly successful album/video Bill Cosby: Himself (including such brilliant bits about the infuriating nature of children as “Brain Damage” and “Chocolate Cake For Breakfast”) Cosby was eager to return to prime time, and give television (which had been oversaturated on cynical, Normal Lear-produced shows like Good Times and The Jeffersons) a more positive and less violent portrayal of a black family, one that was intelligent and affluent. “The Cosby Show” was a smash hit for NBC in 1984, almost single-handedly reviving comedian-based family sitcoms. With his colorful sweaters, adorable-to-a-fault children, and lucrative endorsement contract for Jell-O pudding, Cosby, as Dr. Theo Huxtable, was on top of the world.
Unfortunately, the success of “The Cosby Show” softened him severely, and proved to be a cultural milestone impossible to top. He starred in two feature film vehicles during the show’s run, the 1987 commercial flop Leonard Part 6 and the 1990 critical flop Ghost Dad. When he produced the spin-off “A Different World” in 1987, he convinced NBC to move their Cosby-following hit “Family Ties” to a different slot to make room for it, and as a result both shows’ ratings suffered. More importantly, though, as comedy got more edgy and dark in the nineties, and especially as new outlets like the FOX network represented a significantly less positive view of modern American family values, Cosby couldn’t keep up with shows like “The Simpsons,” which battled defiantly for supremacy in Cosby’s Thursday night time slot, and won when “Cosby” went off the air in 1992. Cosby attempted to rebound with the detective crime show “The Cosby Mysteries,” but it was cancelled after seventeen episodes. He’s since turned his attention to other projects, such as the CBS sitcom “Cosby,” the Nick Jr. kids’ show “Little Bill” and the 2004 “Fat Albert” feature film, but it was hard to see these projects as anything more than throwbacks to earlier, more fruitful moments in his career (“Cosby” even re-cast Phylicia Rashād, his wife on “The Cosby Show”). Meanwhile, aside from a few compilations, Cosby had all but abandoned the stand-up comedy albums which had made him a household name in the first place – his last one was 1986’s Grammy-winning Those Of You With Or Without Children, You’ll Understand.
In May 2004, at an event to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Brown Vs. The Board of Education, Cosby launched into a tirade about how he felt the largely-uneducated black youth of America was squandering the sacrifices of their elders. Many pop-culture pundits saw it as solid proof that “the Cos” had largely abandoned humor and replaced it with preachy anger. It’s still a shame to see such incredible talent erode, but the comedy legacy he’s left behind more than makes up for it.