Bill Cosby reflects on humor, families and his new book

[28 September 2007]

By Robert Philpot

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

When the phone rings, you don’t expect the voice at the other end to say, “Hi, it’s Bill Cosby.” Sure, an interview with the comedian had been in the works. But it hadn’t been nailed down yet, and even if it had, stars of much lesser caliber usually don’t dial the phone themselves.

But here’s Cosby, calling from home, more ready to chat than the underprepared reporter he’s calling, talking for 55 minutes with occasional interruptions to receive reports from his wife that this year’s Primetime Emmy Awards had the lowest ratings since 1990—a statistic that Cosby relays with some glee. The former star of an iconic sitcom, as well as several other series (the last ended in 2000), says he’s given up on TV because of its emphasis on puerile subject matter and put-down humor.

But Cosby, 70, still has a lot to say about it and a lot of other topics, especially the family life that fuels his observational stand-up act—as he says, he has 44 years of marriage to work from, as well as children who are now in their 40s and have children of their own. Here are some of his other observations on the world today, edited for space.

On how his old material still works for him:

“Nine-year-old kid comes to see me, along with his mother and father. I had given permission for them to come backstage. He’s a black kid.

Father says that (the kid) loves Bill Cosby and that he’s done my routines. ... The kid comes back ... and he started to do “The Playground” (a 1966 routine in which Cosby details how he and his friends played in a glass-strewn vacant lot unhurt—till someone put in monkey bars).

“Now, don’t forget. I am listening to a kid do my routine word for word.

The parents are smiling, (but) I’ve gone into another space. The kid is talking, and he’s doing Bill Cosby with his inflections. But I’ve drifted into listening to, and admiring, my writing. The kid’s performing, and I’m saying to myself, `This is really wonderful writing.’.”

On the universality of his humor:

“I’ve had guys living (near) cow pastures with friends playing football and identifying with (my) street football. Because they had to run around cow droppings, so you’d lead the guy defending you right into a big pile of that stuff and then cut around it. Because he’s not going through it. And guys have told me about those things.

“It’s very, very interesting, the connection. Now that I’m doing the observations of 44 years of marriage and I can cut into 40-year-old children, it’s just a simple situation of talking about your kids and they’ve graduated from college and you’re talking about your experience—I mean, people start to chuckle right away. You don’t even have to have a punch line when you say some of them.”

On how shows about families have all but disappeared from network TV:

“By the time you look at a show with your two-three kids, and you’re female and you’re a cocktail waitress or you’re working as somebody’s associate or assistant, and you’re driving home and day care is taking half your salary, I don’t think you’re too interested in `Hi, Mom, hi, Dad’ (types of shows).

“But you see, that was the thing that was very interesting with the Huxtables. I remember people would say to me, while the show was No. 1 and kicking everybody out of the way, somebody white would come up to me and say, `I have a black friend who says he doesn’t know any people like this.’ And I would look at them, and I would say, `Tell your friend to get out more often.’ Meaning they’ve got to be in some kind of position and place where they really don’t see it. It’s not the fault of the Huxtables that you live below the poverty line. ... But I do accept people in that area having a problem wanting to identify with it if your father has abandoned you. Looking at the Huxtables would probably open a flank for you mentally, making you very sad.”

On dysfunctional families:

“The dysfunctional family isn’t the single-parent family. It’s the Huxtable family. (Kids are supposed to get in trouble) at some point.

... You can’t get any stronger than God. If you read the Bible, you can’t get any more powerful, any more independent than God. Second in line would be the devil. Can’t be any more independent. Goes around doing his work. Both powerful figures have problems. So God creates human beings, and the two that God made with God’s own hands didn’t listen to him. So where’s the functional family? You’ve got a single parent—God. Children, one simple thing not to do, and they did it.”

On “Come on People: On the Path From Victims to Victors,” his new book co-written with Alvin F. Poussaint:

This book is really and truly about the choices that have already been made and what is out there for people to either accept things that will put them in new positions to fight, to gain, to move and to be—or the examples that are set that show, yes, there’s many things against us, but the individual who decides to get up and stimulate and make a `move.’ You’re in a cocoon, and when it opens, what comes out—a moth or a butterfly?

“One of the greatest examples, flat-out emotionally, I have seen is incarcerated men and women in separate institutions receiving their GEDs. ... We’re talking about this time in life when people (have their) hats on backward and clothes down the crack in the behind, and some of the exposures of the breasts and the skirts up high ... and I’m sure this is where (these inmates) came from, and I’m sure this is the way they were talking, and they’re coming around, they’re turning that corner (to receive their GEDs), their chests are bursting, they look like Clydesdales, man. The women came around, and they looked like, not runway models, but every last one of them had an assured look.

“Now, this is very important, because so many incarcerated people come out of the joint, and they have no place to go but back to the neighborhood, and they wind up in the joint again. And these people are talking about when they get out, they’re going to community college; they’ve got their goals already set, and the recidivism is going to be very, very low on these people. And I believe it.”

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