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Bill Cosby: A conversation with TV's favorite dad

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    Cosby and the cast — Phylicia Rashad, Clarice Taylor, Earl Hyman, Malcolm Jamal Warner, Keshia Knight Pulliam and Raven Symone — during filming of the final episode of "The Cosby Show" in 1992.

Posted: Wednesday, July 24, 2013 11:00 am | Updated: 9:47 am, Thu Sep 18, 2014.

Mention Bill Cosby's name these days, and some folks are more likely to think of a fearlessly outspoken icon who rails against what he considers to be negligence on the part of the black community than the legendary entertainer whose groundbreaking sitcom, "The Cosby Show," became a television phenomenon in the 1980s.

Few could have predicted the series' success at a time when the networks were convinced, courtesy of their ratings-research departments, that the sitcom was all but dead in the eyes of the mass-viewing public.

First rejected by ABC, "The Cosby Show" eventually was picked up by NBC, which had fallen to last in the ratings race and occasionally was willing to buck conventional programming wisdom, if only to send its competitors quickly scurrying for imitations.

Loosely based on Cosby's own family, it was the highest-rated show for five consecutive seasons and remained in the Nielsen top 20 throughout its eight-year run.

Nearly everyone, it seemed, could relate to the warm, benevolent Huxtables — Dr. Heathcliff or, simply, Cliff (Cosby); his wife, Clair (Phylicia Rashad); and their five children, Denise (Lisa Bonet), Theo (Malcolm Jamal-Warner), Vanessa (Tempestt Bledsoe), Rudy (Keshia Knight Pulliam), and later, Sondra (Sabrina Le Beauf).

Even now, almost three decades after its debut, the series' hilariously fresh approach to comedy still holds up. Similar to how "Seinfeld" made light of everything from marriage to answering-machine protocol, "The Cosby Show," in its own way, was about the everyday nothings of family life, whether dealing with the death of Rudy's goldfish, Theo getting his ear pierced without permission or Cliff's gut-busting grievances over getting a lousy gift on Father's Day.

Of course, there was so much more to "The Cosby Show" than roughly 22 minutes of laughs and life lessons. It remains the only TV series with a predominantly black cast that succeeded in defying racial and demographic boundaries. More importantly, it managed this feat while presenting an educated, upper-middle-class black family devoid of any stereotypes.

Cosby, who’ll appear at the Roanoke Performing Arts Theatre this Saturday for a night of stand-up, recalled the sitcom’s significance and relatively immediate impact on our culture during a chat by telephone last week from his home in Massachusetts.

“The opening show of that series, I had written a scene, which is probably one of the classics of our series, between Cliff and Theo,” Cosby, now 76, said. “And Theo has this speech that he just wants to be like regular people, which he knows is disappointing to his doctor father and lawyer mother. But Theo has decided that he doesn’t want to study, and there’s no sense in doing all these things that school requires, because he doesn’t want to go to college. He just wants to be like regular people, at a regular job.

“And he says, ‘I know that you and mom are a doctor and a lawyer, and I love you for that. And all I’m asking is that you just love me for who I am.’ And I never expected it, but the audience burst into applause while we’re doing this scene. I’d pinned on something I’d never expected. Whether you were the kid or the parent, you were watching ‘The Cosby Show’ and could see yourself. And there, mon frère, was the defining moment of that TV series.”

Cosby’s foray into revolutionizing television actually took place years earlier, when he starred in the 1965 espionage drama "I Spy" — the first action series to feature a black male performer.

Then, in the 1970s, the actor created the animated Saturday morning high jinks of "Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids." Based on his own upbringing in the housing projects of North Philadelphia, Cosby’s depiction of an overweight neighborhood kid — with a rallying cry of “Hey, Hey, Hey!” — as well as a buck-toothed adolescent with an unusual speech impediment and, somehow, a more youthful version of himself dominated the CBS lineup and ran in syndication from 1972 through 1985.

A combination of slapstick comedy and gentle moralizing (plus a catchy opening theme song), “Fat Albert” was Cosby’s Trojan horse. It cut through the vast cartoon wasteland and taught children about basic values and issues of the day, in episodes that dealt with the consequences of cheating on tests, cutting school and confronting gang violence.

The series helped Cosby earn a doctorate in education, and foreshadowed how he would later use his celebrity to be a more full-throated critic of ills he sees in black culture and society.

"People will say to me, 'Your words are very harsh,'" he said. "They're certainly not as harsh as a drug dealing boy shooting another drug dealing boy. They're not as harsh as the stray bullet that paralyzes a 9-year-old child playing somewhere. ... This is not a prediction anybody could see coming."

The comedian's public pointedness has been a reoccurring theme throughout his career, but it never seemed to affect his mainstream popularity. In fact, if there was something equivalent to a vetting process for pioneering entertainers, it’s hard to imagine anyone putting forth a stronger, more laudable resume than Cosby.

After appearing on “The Tonight Show” in 1963, which introduced him to a national audience and led to a recording contract, he released his first comedy album, “Bill Cosby Is a Very Funny Fellow ... Right!” The following year, he won a Grammy for his next effort, 1964's “I Started Out as a Child.” And for the remainder of the 1960s, Cosby released hit album after hit album, winning another five Grammys.

In the beginning, he went for the knockout, hitting the audience hard and straight up. But over time he learned to pace himself, to draw out situations and embroider them with characters. His style became more relaxed, more conversational. Soon he was creating mini-plays in which he performed all the parts. Three-minute bits evolved into seven-minute tales, and then those became full-blown epics.

One of Cosby's most famous, "Noah," from his 1963 debut, imagines the biblical figure's conversation with God before the Flood. Memories of Cosby's impoverished childhood became "To Russell, My Brother, Whom I Slept With," a 27-minute spoken-word classic. "The Dentist" is about, well, going to the dentist.

The root of all his storytelling is identification. Situations must be familiar, accessible and universal. His material has never been idiosyncratic, shocking or racial in nature. Cosby used to be criticized for not being "black" enough, some said, especially in the 1960s. Still, he always believed his comedy made all kinds of people see what they had in common, which was a considerable racial achievement in itself.

During our interview, Cosby explained this dichotomy in detail (and in the third person).

"What Bill Cosby did on records, on TV shows, was he walked and talked without allowing white people, Asian people, Native American people, European people, to come up to any of his characters and be negative about his color," he said. "And he was not negative towards their difference. And you were able to hear, on record, Bill Cosby, Fat Albert and the gang, talking about things that happened to someone who is a racist without racism. Racism is stupid."

There also was, with varying degrees of success, "The Bill Cosby Show" — the first and least known of his three sitcoms, in which he played physical education teacher Chet Kincaid — "Kids Say the Darndest Things" and those Jell-O ads, among other endeavors.

He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, one of the nation's highest civilian honors, in 2002, the Bob Hope Humanitarian Award in 2003, the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor in 2009 and is an accomplished author, with his most recent book, 2011's "I Didn't Ask to Be Born: (But I'm Glad I Was)," landing on the New York Times Bestsellers list.

But wealth and prestige doesn’t exempt someone from tragedy, a reality Cosby faced head-on when his only son — 27-year-old Ennis William Cosby, who’d been the inspiration for some of his father's most impressive work — was shot and killed while changing a tire near the San Diego Freeway in 1997.

And, just last summer, he was saddled with the unenviable task of debunking the latest in a handful of Internet assaults on his existence over the past few years. Apparently people are fond of killing off the comedian on social media websites, so much so that they keep coming back to the well for more. Despite the fact that this most recent attempt didn’t include anything remotely convincing, some users bought into the rumor that he was dead anyway.

Cosby decided to prove to the world that he was as alive as ever via a simple post on Twitter that showed an old photo of him in character as Dr. Cliff Huxtable, wearing one of his famously bright-colored and wildly patterned sweaters, along with the caption, "I've never met anyone who didn't like this one!"

Lest anyone forget, Cosby is first and foremost a brilliant comedian who has a unique gift for taking the awkwardness of a situation and turning it into a moment of complete and total levity.

This became crystal clear during our conversation after a failed attempt at cracking a joke — not worth repeating here — was met with his trademark quick wit, and a rather blunt critique.

"You sound like a bad hooker," he quipped.

Undoubtedly, Cosby is the type of performer who’s free from restraints and crafty enough to understand the art of threading his life through his work, and vice versa.

Years ago, he occasionally heightened reality into absurdity. Heightening is no longer necessary. The absurdity of everyday living is his primary theme, and he communicates his comic self-awareness by staging imaginary conversations among various Cosby components, namely his inimitable brand of body language.

Where Bob Hope's comedy relied on rapid-fire one-liners, Cosby's relies on folksy, and sometimes surreal, stories about his life, children and the media, which he'll showcase this fall when he returns to television for a stand-up comedy special entitled “Far From Finished,” his first in 30 years.

Comedy Central has announced that the show will air in November and be compiled from footage of him onstage in June.

As for what the crowd attending his gig in Roanoke this weekend can expect from the acclaimed jokester, he guaranteed at least two things were bound to happen: “I’ll be there,” he said. “And I’m gonna be funny.”

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