As a comedian and performer, Bill Cosby transcends generations. His storied, celebrated stand-up comedy career led to one of the most beloved sitcoms of all time. The Cosby Show is one of the highest rated televisions shows of all-time, but he also gave us Fat Albert, kids ranting about their parents, “eat the pudding,” and multiple Emmys for dramatic work in I Spy, (the first African-American actor to star in a TV drama).
His list of achievements in entertainment and charity goes on and on, but this article, unfortunately, cannot. And despite being pronounced dead via rumor a few times on Twitter, Cosby is alive and well, exercising his celebrity to help effect true change through charity work and speaking out for what he believes in. Here’s why he’s everything great about this country.
A lifelong comedian and athlete, the Philadelphia native joined the Navy, which provided his act with the hilarious story of how he discovered the way the world really worked. After four years of guiding Korean War casualties through physical therapy in the Hospital Corps, he emerged with a new sensitivity. So he’s a serviceman and a healer.
He decided to study physical therapy, and completed his education via correspondence courses before earning a track scholarship to Temple University. Back in Philly, he tended bar and began performing comedy. So now he’s also a scholar-athlete who can pour you a decent drink, listen to your woes, and tell you a few jokes to buck up your outlook.
And he’s still performing today! Though probably not tending bar. Would you let Bill Cosby pour you a drink? Uh-uh, you would insist he let you pour him one, because he’s like…everybody’s dad. Just not at this point in our story. Because right now it’s 1965 and he’s cast as Alexander Scott in I Spy,which runs three seasons and Cosby wins an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor every years. He and Robert Culp played international tennis players that were actually…look, it’s better than it sounds. The two had a really fun dynamic. And even though Cosby’s casting was a breakthrough in the most racially charged era of the century, the show never made race a point. Not once. Nope. Just two dudes saving the world and charming ladies over a game of tennis.
Cosby’s comedy was similarly focused. In fact, he fired out six comedy albums in the same timeframe–plus trying his hand (er…larynx) at some decent musical albums– but he simply talked about the topics that interested him: universal topics that anyone might understand: society, family, growing up. When asked why he never discussed the racial divide like so many other comics, Cosby replied that he felt he was bridging it by mapping out the common ground.
Okay, now here comes the greatest thing anyone’s ever done in the history of broadcast television. Are you ready? When NBC gave him a sitcom, The Bill Cosby Show, he refused to include a laugh track. He respected you, America. He respected you enough to let you laugh instead of smashing over the comedy with some canned laughter. Even though the show was a great success, it was not renewed, probably because the kind of people who think laugh tracks improve a show are the kind of people who will cancel a successful project just to get back at you for defying them.
Then he helped educate kids with The Electric Company and Picture Pages, and possibly the only great cartoon to ever come out of the ’70s, Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids. For those of you who have only seen the movie, just picture in your mind’s eye, for a second, the total opposite of that. That’s how much fun Fat Albert was.
Then came The Cosby Show. And we could go on for pages about the portrait of America that it painted, but perhaps it’s best to keep it short. Suffice it to say, it was one of the most human TV shows to ever grace our collective consciousness. It taught lessons without preaching them, entertaining both funnybones and hearts. It celebrated African-American culture while refuting the idea that it was separate from the prevalent American experience. On The Cosby Show, race was never emphasized, but neither was it divorced from who the Huxtables’ were. As Cliff Huxtable, Cosby delivered an earnest humor, patience, and concern for his family to which all could relate and aspire.
It was like almost no program before it, and it changed everything that came after. It was a response to all the hokey, formulaic shows, and when it threw out all their presupposed notions about what America wanted to see to replace them with things America liked about itself, it crushed the ratings.
And then he went on to do another fine sitcom with Cosby.
In 1988, Cosby donated a staggering $20 million to Spelman College in Atlanta. And that’s ’80s dollars.
In early 1997, a heartbreaking tragedy struck the Cosby family, when son Ennis was murdered in a random crime at the age of 27. Along with his wife Camille, Cosby established the Hello Friend/Ennis William Cosby Foundation in his memory, hoping to help fulfill Ennis’ dream that no one with learning differences be denied the lifelong joy and fulfillment of learning. And though the foundation suspended its day-to-day operations in late 2008, it brought countless new books and better learning materials to thousands of children in over 500 cities in nearly all 50 states.
Millions of dollars have been raised through the Ennis Williams Cosby Foundation, and he continues to speak and donate substantial gifts to education personally, through private gifts to many different universities. Cosby even donated some of his famous sweaters to an auction for the Ennis Williams Cosby Foundation.
In 2004, Cosby became involved with The Jazz Foundation of America, a non-profit that assists jazz and blues musicians in all aspects of their careers, including performance opportunity in schools and the community. He has often been a featured host for its annual A Great Night in Harlem, which takes place at the Apollo Theater in New York City.
Most notable are Cosby’s socioeconomic views and public speaking. After receiving an award at the 50th anniversary commemoration of the Brown v. Board of Education ruling, Cosby delivered a controversial speech emphasizing community, personal responsibility, and stronger parenting. The speech had many harsh words for some in the black community, and was widely contended as myopic.
Its accuracy and efficacy are not ours to argue here, but its source should be admirable even to those who disagree with him: this is a man who cares about people, and wants to see them at their best. He is a man who cares enough to risk his popularity with critical statements, knowing the heat they will draw. In an era of noise, most shocking statements are made by demagogues who draw followers to themselves with fear; Cosby made a different pronunciation, challenging people to unite that they might thrive.
Despite criticism, Cosby continues to speak out for what he believes, that instilling standards in children from a young age is the key to change. He often speaks to small groups around communities, usually at churches.
These days, Cosby continues to tour as a performer, philanthropist and speaker. He’s received highest honors in the arts, including the Presidential Freedom Award, the Kennedy Center Honor, and the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.
Though he has worn many hats, and spoken in many voices to this country as both entertainer and educator, to us he will always be, first and foremost, America’s Dad.
Kyle Ayers is a comedian and writer living in New York City. He has performed alongside anyone and everyone, such as Nick Thune, Dave Attell, Reggie Watts, Nick Vatterott, Nikki Glaser, Derrick Comedy (Mystery Team), Broken Lizard (Super Troopers), Tommy Johnagin and more. He has trained at iO and Second City in Chicago, in the improv-ing. He writes for KorkedBats.com and CBS because doing comedy for free doesn’t pay very well. He was in the feature film Box Elder, which showed all over the country, as well as a few other flicks. He runs a comedy show in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, called Game Night. He has starred in numerous sketches and been featured on the front page of FunnyOrDie.com. He specializes in short, concise sentences about his comedy career. You can follow him on Twitter @KyleAyers.
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