Final JEOPARDY! for June 11, 2007:
Category: ENTERTAINERS OF THE ’60s
Answer: He won 3 straight Emmys for dramatic acting & a record 6 straight Grammys for comedy albums.
No, not William Shatner or Jackie Gleason, or even Bob Newhart.
I think I’ve given it away.
Yes, it was Bill Cosby. It’s hard to write about him, not because I can’t think of things to say, but because I could write forever about him.
I can’t recall whether it was in the TV show “I Spy” or listening to one of his comedy albums when I first became aware of him. It was a Big Deal when I Spy was on. Here was a black man on TV, a star of the show, not playing a servant or a buffoon. Every black person I knew was watching.
Then there were the albums. I own three of his Grammy-winning LPs, I Started Out As A Child, Why Is There Air? and Wonderfulness, awardees in 1964-1966. They were funny, but as the liner notes on one of them explained, it wasn’t just the content, it was the delivery that became so noteworthy that it was imitated by everyone from Richard Pryor to Jamie Foxx.
Beyond the humor, though, is that I learned a lot. That’s where I found out about Lombard Street, the curvy road in San Francisco, where they put flowers to note where “they bury the people who’ve killed themselves” traversing down it; it was funny the way he said it. I’ve had four wisdom teeth removed, so I know he was right that “Novocaine doesn’t deaden pain, it postpones it. Allows the little pain buddies to get together. ‘We’re going to hit that hole at five o’clock.'” He could make a line like: “And the pain…was tremendous” hysterically funny. “All the ice cream you can eat!” “900 cop cars.” “Smearing Jell-O all over the floor” so that the chicken heart on the radio wouldn’t get him. (I wonder if that routine led to him later being the spokesman for Jell-O pudding.)
The most important lesson, though was about The American Way of Death. Long before I had read Jessica Mitford, I heard Bill Cosby say, about people looking at people in open caskets, “He looks so natural,” to which Cosby retorted, “He looks dead.” He then suggested that a tape recorder could be hooked up. That way the deceased could “reply” to people as they went by. “Don’t I look like myself? It’s good to see you.” And for an additional fee, it could be personalized: “Hello, Bob. How’s the wife and kids? Don’t I look like myself?” This has had a profound impact on how I view burials, which is, at least on this mortal coil, once you’re dead, you’re dead.
I also have a couple of Cosby’s “music” albums. The first, “Silver Throat”, even had a #4 hit in 1967, “Little Old Man,” a musical swipe of Stevie Wonder’s “Uptight.”
And I have a double album on Tetragrammation Records, 8:15/12:15, where he does the same comedy routine twice, with the latter a bit “bluer”. It’s a lesser album, but it DID address the issue of taking the Lord’s name in vain, which Cos said you shouldn’t do because He’s busy “stopping war and things, trying to make it not look like a miracle.” He notes, “I have a friend named Rudy. He ain’t doin’ nothin’. Call on him.” So when you’re hammering, you might hit your “Rudy-damned thumb.”
I watched that show when Cosby played a gym teacher. I watched both the Electric Company and Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, though I was in college at the time. And, of course, I watched The Cosby Show, religiously for at least the first six seasons of its eight seasons. I related to those parents. I KNEW those parents; not so much mine, as parents of friends. And the infusion of the music, art and other aspects of black culture in a matter-of-fact way was phenomenal. Also, I loved how, in the first several seasons, that there were variations on the opening theme song. And yes, I probably owned one or two Cosby sweaters.
I felt awful when his son Ennis was murdered 10 years ago. I struggled to understand what he was saying about poor urban youth. No, I didn’t eat JELLO pudding pops. But Bill Cosby is a figure that has been huge in my life.
Happy three score and ten, Cos.