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Well before Cliff Huxtable provided a portrait of upper-middle class Black America in the 1980s, and the namesake of The Cosby Show began hawking Jell-O as his favorite snacktime treat, Bill Cosby was a seriously funny guy. Born in Philadelphia in 1937, Cosby forged a career in show business that opened doors for African American actors (as the first Black actor to play lead in a primetime TV series, I Spy) and comedians. In a bestselling series of LPs, beginning with 1964’s Bill Cosby Is a Very Funny Fellow, Right!, Cosby told stories: about his childhood with his little brother Russell and difficult parents, and his adult contentment as a bemused head-of-household.


20th Century Masters: The Millennium Collection has documented dozens of artists, from Bo Diddley to Rod Stewart, and its reach into related areas, such as Cosby’s stand-up comedy albums—the ones owned by MCA, anyway—proves more than worthwhile. Though not flawless, The Best of Bill Cosby‘s twelve tracks, from five albums released between the years 1970 through 1973, include five or six routines that you’ll laugh over for years to come.


The first track, “Hikky-Burr”, was the theme song from the actor/comedian’s first solo TV series, The Bill Cosby Show; sporting a funky, Quincy Jones-produced instrumental backdrop for a scatting, then incoherently ranting Cosby. These are easily the least appealing minutes on the disc. (The song would be more appropriate for a box set, in fact, as it is nothing like the “best” of Cosby’s comedy routines.) Track two finds Cosby detailing one of the funnier stories involving his younger brother: The much-abused Russell starts out by laughing at the boys’ father (“You think my face is funny you keep laughing, I’ll smack your face off”, comes the gruff reply) and ends with his head in the toilet, at the mercy of his big brother.


If the high points here mainly involve Cosby’s relations, there’s a lot of funny material that riffs on less memorable topics (“Dogs”, “The Invention of Basketball”). Current, more anatomically inclined stars such as Tom Green miss the masked, sideways humor found in the “The Lower Tract”: “No I don’t want none a that”, answers Cosby to his mother’s offer of chitlins. “No, cause if I know anything about anatomy, you got the lower tract in there. Ain’t no food down in that area. Matter of fact I think you better check it out, somebody misspelled the word!”


Cosby is invariably at his best when his subject is his family: eccentric, somewhat dysfunctional, occasionally damaging, followed by a sunnily suburban adulthood. In describing his two girls, ages four and five, discovering him peeing in “Wallie, Wallie”—and later trying to emulate him—there’s an openness in description, a self-deprecating quality, that later comics have steadily abandoned. Cosby was criticized for ignoring race in his material, but his response at the time (“I don’t think you can bring the races together by joking about the differences between them”, he said. “I’d rather talk about the similarities, about what’s universal in their experiences”, according to his Kennedy Center Honors bio) remains applicable today.


Cosby stutters to the principal, “My father don’t particularly care”, about his being placed in “Slow Class”, saying, “He’ll come in here and kill you”. The routine ends with an episode of what might now be called child abuse, but that Cosby invests with humor as well as pain. Small ironies and brushed over injuries flow through the eight minute long story, as Cosby’s precocious wit manipulates the adults in his life into paying the attention they don’t otherwise seem to give. The characters that inhabit his childhood—Fat Albert, Old Weird Harold and the gang—are familiar to generations from the animated series as well as the records; they seem to provide a respite, a bit of childlike surreality, from the insular family.


Cosby’s later success with the aggressively nuclear Huxtables (stable, intelligent, attractive to a member), the color-blind family that broke an economic glass ceiling in popular culture’s portrayal of African American urbanites, was well-deserved. But his series’ considerable success came at a price for his comedy; while never as urgently inventive as Richard Pryor, only three years younger, Cosby began his stand-up career with a sharp voice that becomes progressively blander as the mediums get more mass. The Best of Bill Cosby provides an imperfect but still compellingly enjoyable introduction to the early years of an American icon.

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