C is for Cosby


Bill Cosby is an iconic individual in my life. It started out with three albums that I listened to so often that I could cite dialogue as well as I could Beatles lyrics, which is to say, quite well.

The problem with describing comedy, though, is it involves context, character development and timing. As the cover of I Started Out as a Child (November 1964) notes, “Cut left at the black Chevy” (from Street Football) is not inherently funny, except as described by the Cos. The album also featured Oops!, a brief bit about the fallacy of the perfection about doctors; and The Lone Ranger, about the masked man and Tonto getting drunk, with the Ranger’s horse Silver telling him, “Get off my back!” But the album also deals with serious topics. Medic is about him being one; “zonked means dead”. And Rigor Mortis, about American funerals, along with my preternatural reading of The American Way of Death by Jessica Mitford, helped formulate my preference for cremation over the casket at an early age.

On Why Is There Air? (January 1965), in Driving in San Francisco, he discusses Lombard Street so accurately that it shows up in the Wikipedia description:
“They built a street up there called Lombard Street that goes straight down, and they’re not satisfied with you killing yourself that way—they put grooves and curves and everything in it, and they put flowers there where they’ve buried the people that have killed themselves. Lombard Street, wonderful street.” (audience reacts with knowing cheers and applause). So the one time I went to San Francisco, in 1988, you KNOW I had to go there.

That album, in $75 Car, has one of the few actual jokes. After Bill has hit a tree, he realizes he has a bunch of tickets in the glove compartment, “Which are like Savings Bonds; the longer you keep them, the greater they mature.”

But arguably the best, and in any case my favorite album, is Wonderfulness (May 1966), with Tonsils (lies about “all the ice cream in the world”), The Playground (conspiracy by the adults to knock off all the kids), Go Karts (900 cop cars!), and the radio drama The Chicken Heart. This album is so good that when we were driving down to Charlotte, NC in April 2010 and I saw this on CD at a convenience store in Virginia for $5.99, I had to buy it and give it to my 19-year-old niece.

Other albums had great bits. 8:15 12:15 (1969) has a routine about not using the Lord’s name in vain; “I have a friend Rudy; he ain’t doin’ nothin’. Call on him,” which is why I say “Rudy dammit”. To the degree I am funny at all, it is with the situational humor, rather than jokes, a la Cosby.

At the same time as those early albums came out, indeed because of those albums, producer Sheldon Leonard teamed Cosby with Robert Culp in a show called I Spy (1965-1968). Not only was it the predecessor of the “buddy” cop shows and movies, I Spy was the first television show to feature a Black actor in a lead role. Bill Cosby won three consecutive Emmy Awards for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series in 1966, 1967 and 1968. Robert Culp was also nominated in the same category for all three seasons of I Spy. One can find old episodes of I Spy on Hulu, at least in the United States.

I watched Cos on The Bill Cosby Show, about a school teacher, then the kids’ show, Electric Company – an example here – even though I was in college.

Bill Cosby did films, worked on a cartoon series, and did Jell-O commercials – which he’ll be doing again in 2010. Cosby earned a Doctor of Education degree from the University of Massachusetts. “For his doctoral research, he wrote a dissertation entitled, “An Integration of the Visual Media Via ‘Fat Albert And The Cosby Kids’ Into the Elementary School Curriculum as a Teaching Aid and Vehicle to Achieve Increased Learning”.

Then he saved the American situation comedy with The Cosby Show. Don’t believe me? Check out Ken Levine, writer for the TV shows M*A*S*H and Cheers, among many others. The 1984-1992 show revived a moribund format in the U.S.

The program portrayed black American life as normal, if by “normal”, you mean having a doctor and a lawyer as the parents. It regularly displayed African-American art, music (especially jazz, a Cosby love) and culture as a normal part of everyday life. Here’s a piece of Night Time Is The Right Time.

I always loved the changing theme songs myself:

Season 1
Season 2
Season 3
Season 4
Season 5
Seasons 6 and 7
Season 8

He’s best known recently for his controversial call for black Americans to take more individual responsibility, for which some have castigated him for blaming the poor. His book Come On People: On the Path from Victims to Victors is a New York Times bestseller.



ABC Wednesday – Round 7

0 thoughts on “C is for Cosby”

  1. “Cool Cos” was one of the comedy staples of my childhood as well, part of a triumvirate including The Smothers Brothers and Alan Sherman. And I can still repeat segments verbatim even after forty-odd years.

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  2. To this day, if I see that The Cosby Show is on some vague unknown station, I will tune in to watch. My favourite part was when Cos told Theo “I gave you life, I can take it away, too!” LOL

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  3. Wow, Roger, what a great post on truly an icon for our time. This morning I read a blurb on Google News that Bill Cosby announced that his demise has been prematurely reported!

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  4. I think WONDERFULNESS is one of the most underrated comedy albums ever.

    I know people compare Cosby unfavorably to Richard Pryor – I think they both reinvented and brought a unique flavor to standup. If Pryor was earthy and real, Cosby brought a nice human feel, and…well, I still chuckle when I hear him announce “I was seven years old, standing up…in my crib”….

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  5. Cosby is my all-time favorite comedian. His style, wit and timing are spot-on perfect. I also owned “Why is there Air” and “Wonderfulness” when younger (LP album), and have been fortunate to have seen him a couple of times at live performances. I laughed until tears rolled down my cheeks. The Cosby Show (syndicated shows running late at night) kept my mind occupied numerous nights as I stayed up waiting for teenagers to hit curfew. They just don’t make comedians like this anymore. Although Bill Engval comes very, very close.

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  6. Thanks for all the great information about Cosby, – I have always admired him and think he is a great comedian as well as an icon for good responsible living.

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  7. Thank you, thank you, Roger, for a damned near perfect C blog! I am nominating you for this week’s award!
    For me one of the funniest routines was about the line down the middle of the bed. My sister and I had that same line in our shared bed and when we heard it for the first time, live in the 60’s, we almost passed out from laughing so hard.

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  8. My Dad had a few of Cosby’s albums on vinyl (“I Started Out as a Child”, “To Russell, My Brother, Whom I Slept With”, and “200 M.P.H.”) and we would listen to them once in a while. I really enjoyed them, but haven’t heard them in years.

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  9. Some of my favorite memories are from his albums.

    Of San Francisco driving: “Come around idiot, come around!”
    Of his daughter learning to swim: “There she was swimming. (Pause) On the bottom of the pool.

    I have a bunch of CDs that I cherish. I Spy was one of the best shows going back then.

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  10. I’ve only ever known him for the Cosby Show (and one other show that I can’t remember the name of). That was massively popular in the Netherlands.

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  11. Allow me to add to your fans! We LOVED Bill Cosby, saw him in person at Idaho State U but mostly our faves are his To Russell My Brother Who I Slept With–‘the police are your mother and father!’
    Perfect choice for today.
    ‘Everybody know why there’s air. . .’

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  12. Took me time to read all the comments, but I really enjoyed the post. It proved to be very helpful to me. It’s always nice when you can not only be edjucated, but also entertained! I’m sure you had good time writing this article.

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  13. Great post, he always seemed larger than life to me (whatever that means, I think as I type it 🙂 – but yeah, I loved his albums too. Thanks for bringing him back…

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  14. I used to watch both of his shows.
    My favourite routine he did though was “Noah” – “How long can you tread water?” lol
    Great post!

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  15. Well, that was interesting! I have often enjoyed Bill Cosby’s humour, he was quick witted and very funny, but we didn’t have an awful lot of it on TV here in England.

    You certainly do your research! Great post!

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