Trying to interview the loquacious Bill Cosby over the phone is sort of like trying to capture the full-blast output of a gushing fire hydrant in a plastic sandwich bag.
On one end, the iconic entertainer unleashes a torrent of free-flowing, digressive soliloquies. On the other end, you futilely scribble away in your notebook, knowing much of it is sloshing past you.
People like Bill Cosby are why man invented the tape recorder. And shorthand.
To wit: A question about “The Cosby Show’s” possible influence on Barack Obama’s ascension to the presidency - the “Huxtable Effect” as it has been called - triggers a passionate and long-winded civil-rights history lesson that touches upon, among other subjects, Martin Luther King, baseball star Jackie Robinson, country singer Charlie Pride, the Godfather of Soul James Brown (accompanied by a funny impersonation) and Oakland mayor Ron Dellums.
The upshot of it all?
“Look at it as a big bicycle wheel with spokes. The Huxtables happened to be one of those spokes,” Cosby says of his famous fictional TV family. “On the other hand, the Huxtables didn’t get him (Obama) into Occidental College. And they didn’t get Michelle into Princeton.”
Occasionally during the hour-plus conversation, Cosby, pauses to catch his breath and lighten the mood.
“I don’t want to get too serious and wound up here,” he says. “I need to make sure that people know I’m coming to town to be funny.”
Cosby, of course, has been making people laugh for decades as a film and TV star, a stand-up comedian, author and good-natured product pitch-man (Who can forget those Jell-O pudding pops?). But he also has tried to make people think - sometimes incurring return fire in the process.
He has been on a cultural crusade in recent years, speaking out against what he sees as self-destructive behavior among blacks that has led to the tragic cycle of violence and an epidemic of absent fathers.
But some black leaders complain that Cosby, 71, is out of touch - and even a “traitor” for airing the black community’s “dirty laundry” in public.
“They say, ‘Oh look, there’s Bill Cosby on his high horse again, slinging arrows.’ That’s just crazy mess, man,” he says. “But the emphasis shouldn’t be on me. It should be on the people who need help and aren’t being helped. There are a lot of people besides me who believe that black people need to start talking about education and about taking care of their children.”
To those ends, Cosby is pleased that the nation has a first family headed by a black couple who rose to the top by hewing to the tenets of hard work, college education and family values.
“Young people can look at them and be inspired,” Cosby says. “They can proclaim, ‘I’m on the Obama road. I don’t need a gun because that’s my entrance exam to prison.’ They can also look at them and say, ‘OK, I don’t have to be a basketball star, a rapper or a comedian ... With a college education, I can go anyplace I want to go.’ “
Boldly inspiring in its own way was “The Cosby Show,” the seminal sitcom that ruled the prime-time ratings during the late 1980s and changed racial attitudes with its depiction of a loving, upwardly mobile black family headed by a doctor and a lawyer. Along the way, Cosby’s Cliff Huxtable came to be regarded as the all-American dad.
“It’s very strange and wonderful how people of all races still come up to me and say, ‘You remind me so much of my father,’” Cosby says, underscoring the cultural impact of a series that recently celebrated its 25th anniversary with a special DVD set.
“The Cosby Show,” which continues to air in reruns, made its star and co-creator a wealthy man. Still, he’s out there, touring the country and performing his brand of laid-back, G-rated comedy - often doing two shows a night.
“When I walk out on the stage ... to do my thing, the audience will smile and laugh,” he says. “And it doesn’t matter how old you are - unless you’re breast-feeding.”
But speaking of age, it’s tempting to wonder why Cosby maintains such a hectic schedule instead of just kicking back and enjoying the golden years. In issuing an explanation, Cosby asks his interviewer to peer down at his now-swollen notebook.
“Clearly, you see that the man is still thinking,” he says. “Clearly, the man still has something to say.”