Breaking Barriers

Why Comedians Still Think Bill Cosby Is a Genius

In an excerpt from ‘Cosby,’ biographer Mark Whitaker describes Cosby’s reaction to his friend Bob Culp’s death and his triumphant moment receiving the Mark Twain Prize.

The news of Robert Culp’s death came as a shock. Cosby hadn’t been in regular contact with his old friend for a while, but when they did talk, it was always as though no time had passed—as if, he joked, Culp had just gone across the street to pick up a loaf of bread. On the phone, they didn’t have to introduce themselves: it was just a “Hey” on the other end of the line, or “How ya doin’, pard,” in the raspy cowboy accents they liked to imitate in the I Spy days. When they got together, Culp looked dapper for a man in his late 70s. Unlike Cosby, who had only a fringe of gray hair left, he still sported a silver mane. Culp had kept in good shape, too, by taking daily walks in Runyon Canyon, the 160-acre park full of hiking trails and dog runs a short distance from his apartment in the Hollywood Hills.

On Wednesday morning, March 24, 2010, Culp had set out on one of those walks. As he entered the canyon, he clutched his chest and fell to the sidewalk. A passing jogger spotted him and called 911, but by the time police and paramedics arrived, he was gone.

Cosby was booked to perform that weekend in Florida, but as the concert approached, all he could think about was his old partner and everything that they had accomplished together. So that Saturday night, as he walked onto the stage at the Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater, he decided that his usual routine could wait.

“I want to take this time to talk about my friend Bob Culp,” Cosby said as he placed the “Hello, Friend” sweatshirt over his chair. “When I was hired to do I Spy… people were writing… that I was the Jackie Robinson of television drama. And I say to you, if this is true, then Robert Culp has to be… Eddie Stanky… Pee Wee Reese… those men who stood beside Jackie and put their arm around him.”

The crowd applauded at the mention of I Spy and clapped again as Cosby invoked the man who had broken baseball’s color barrier and the white Brooklyn Dodger teammates who befriended him and defended him against racist taunts.

“Racism is a waste of time! …” Cosby continued, reciting the line he had first heard from Granddad Samuel. “And Bob’s contribution in I Spy was very valuable, in terms of civil rights in this country, the United States of America. He played a wonderful part—and never asked a question.”

So many of Cosby’s professional abolitionists were gone now, the people who had helped him get his start in show business. Sheldon Leonard had passed away in that awful January 1997, days before Ennis’s murder. Clarence Hood and Alan Ribback, the coffeehouse owners responsible for his first bookings at the Gaslight Café and the Gate of Horn in Chicago, were gone, and so were their clubs. And Roy Silver—Silver had died of a brain tumor in 2003 so broke that he would have been homeless if a former girlfriend hadn’t let him sleep on her couch. After failing as a talent manager and a restaurant owner, Silver had lost most of his friends and barely knew his children, so he was astonished one day to pick up the phone and hear the voice of his most famous client on the line for the first time in more than 30 years.

“Guess who I got a call from?” an audibly moved Silver said when he phoned Ron DeBlasio to tell him the news. “Cos called!”

But Dick Gregory was still hanging on, a decade after surviving a nasty battle with lymphoma: Gregory, the comedian who had been Cosby’s early model, and then his inspiration to develop an original style of his own. So Cosby was particularly touched when Gregory showed up to pay homage to him as he accepted the lifetime achievement award named after his very first influence, Mark Twain, the one whose stories his mother Anna had read to him as a child.

Cosby had turned down the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor twice before. The first recipient, in 1998, was Richard Pryor, and Cosby had been so upset at all the profanity in the tribute show that he told the Kennedy Center, which presented the award, that he wanted no part of it. But a decade had passed, and Cosby had mellowed, and when he was offered the prize for a third time in 2009, he accepted.

Before the televised ceremony, Cosby was greeted backstage by his two favorite members of the Obama family: Michelle and her mother, Marian Robinson. Then as the First Lady took her place in the presidential box, Cosby, Camille, three of their daughters, and his brother Russell sat in another box directly above the stage and watched as Jimmy Heath and Wynton Marsalis serenaded them with jazz and three generations of comedians described the debt they owed to Bill Cosby.

Dick Gregory recalled what it had been like to be the first black comedian to perform in a white nightclub. It was 1961, and Gregory was a 29-year-old post office worker moonlighting at a black club in Chicago called Roberts Show Bar. Hugh Hefner came in one night and liked Gregory’s “That‟s okay, I don’t eat colored people” routine so much that he booked him at the Playboy Club. Gregory’s career took off, but for years he was invariably referred to as a “Negro comedian.”

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“My brother,” Gregory said as he looked up at Cosby’s box, “I came out here tonight to thank you for what you was able to do… When Bill broke through with I Spy and all of the brilliance, all of the wisdom, from that day on they dropped the word ‘Negro’ off my name!”

Jerry Seinfeld remembered his first Bill Cosby album. It was 1966, and he was another 12-year-old Jewish kid growing up in the Long Island suburbs. Like countless other boys in Massapequa, he had a crew cut and wore Keds sneakers and T-shirts with horizontal stripes. Then one day he bought Why Is There Air? and brought it home to play on the portable turntable in his room. Legs crossed, he sat on the floor and listened to the album over and over again.

“I completely lost my mind,” Seinfeld said. “In comedy, people very casually use the word hysterical. They don’t mean it literally, because the real meaning of the word hysterical is not something a person wants to be. It means an out of control, almost convulsive state of emotional breakdown. I became hysterical listening to Why Is There Air? It really was the singular, most powerful event of my entire childhood.”

Chris Rock told the story of being turned on to Bill Cosby by none other than Eddie Murphy, the same Murphy who later turned imitating and mocking Cosby into one of his trademarks. It was the mid-’80s, and Rock was a high school dropout from Brooklyn starting to perform stand-up in Manhattan comedy clubs. Murphy took him under his wing, and one day he gave Rock To Russell, My Brother, Whom I Slept With.

“He said, ‘If you really want to be a comedian, you need to listen to this album,’” Rock said. “And to this day, whenever I meet a comedian I like, I make sure that they have that album.”

Between the tributes, the audience was taken on a trip back in time. On a huge screen across the back of the stage, big enough that Cosby’s failing eyes could make it out, they watched some of his most memorable routines through the decades. They saw Cosby in his 20s, performing “Noah” on The Jack Paar Show. They saw him in his 30s, sporting a huge Afro and smoking a big cigar on The Dick Cavett Show. They saw him on The Tonight Show in his early 40s, explaining what “a conniption” was: what Camille had the day she discovered Cosby feeding their kids chocolate cake for breakfast. (As that clip played, Camille leaned over and gave her husband a playful poke in the ribs.) They saw Cosby in his 50s, performing a bit about George Washington’s father. And they saw him in his 60s, still making an audience howl with the “Dentist” number.

At last, the time came for Cosby to come to the stage to accept his award. He had already been there a decade earlier, when he was one of the recipients of the annual Kennedy Center Honors, but this time the night belonged to him and he wasn‟t going to be rushed. “This is all right!” he said after walking on to the music he had specifically requested for his entry, the Central High School fight song. “Even my wife said I was funny!”

Then Cosby came out from behind the podium, leaned against it, and started telling tales about the improbable journey that had brought him to that night. He told the story of what a terrible student he was in elementary school and how his mother conspired with Miss Forchic to stay on him. He told the story about the grief he got from Mr. Sapolsky, the math teacher. He told stories about his days as a penniless college student trying to make it in Greenwich Village. He told so many stories that he got a big laugh when he said, “I’m taking my time to thank everybody!”

Finally, after 30 minutes, he began to wrap up. “And I just want you to know that each and every time I plant my feet, if it is to perform for you, you’re going to get everything I have!” he vowed. But he couldn‟t finish without mentioning one of his favorite memories of the evening, watching his appearance on The Dick Cavett Show in the winter of 1973.

Cosby was a regular guest on Cavett’s show in those days, but this night was special because he was on with Jack Benny. Jack Benny, whom he had first heard on the radio when he was a boy in the projects! Jack Benny, whom he had watched on TV as a teenager to learn the art of comic timing! He had so much respect for Benny that when Cavett brought him on, he didn‟t even try to needle the host the way he usually did, because he didn’t want to compete with his hero.

“You haven’t picked on me this time,” Cavett remarked.

“No, because Jack is here,” Cosby replied. “He did you in pretty good.”

Cavett had seen Cosby talking to the band before the show, so he started to ask about his interest in music.

“You wanted to be a jazz musician at one time,” Cavett said. “That’s a new one on me.”

“Oh, that may be a new one on you,” Cosby said, “but I was very serious about that.”

He started to tell Cavett about his teenage dreams of becoming a jazz drummer. He described the $75 drum set he bought from the pawnshop and the $2.50 lessons he took at Wurlitzer’s music store.

Then he told the story of the day he tried to sit in with the professionals at the Showboat Club in Philadelphia.

It was an open bandstand night, and Cosby, convinced that practicing along with recordings of bluesy jazz numbers in his bedroom had given him all the chops he needed, took over the drum chair, pulled his blue-tipped sticks out of his back pocket, and started fiddling with the keys on the snare as if he actually knew how to tune the thing. When Cosby looked up, he saw that Sonny Stitt, the famed alto sax player, had joined the bandstand. Oh boy, I’m going to play with Sonny Stitt! he thought.

Stitt turned around to address the band. “Let’s play some jazz!” he said. “I’m tired of just the blues!” Then he called out “Cherokee,” the name of one of the most famous, and fastest, tunes in the bebop repertoire.

By now Cosby wasn’t just telling Cavett the story. He was launched on one of his brilliant comic improvisations, reenacting every thought and sound and movement of the experience as if it were happening at that very moment. And for once, comedy and jazz were coming together, as Cosby riffed about riffing—or, as it turned out, about his inability to riff.

“Now wherein we had been doing boom—de—booom, boom—de— boom, in “Cherokee” you have to play dit-dit-dit-dit-dit-dit,” Cosby explained, his arms frantically demonstrating the difference between a blues and a bebop rhythm. “And I had never played that fast before!… I was in a panic where this thing is starting to tighten up [he pointed to his right shoulder]… Meanwhile, the left hand is frozen. I want to do something hip, you see, because that‟s the hip part of the hand, but the dudes in my brain are saying: ‘NO, WE CAN’T HANDLE THAT!’ Now rigor mortis starts to settle into my forehand, and when your hand gets tired, you can’t grab anything! [He picked up a lighter from the table and let it fall from his trembling hand.] The muscles here are saying: ‘WE’RE NOT PLAYING ANYMORE!’ …”

By this time, Jack Benny was doubled over with laughter, his head listing so far toward the floor that it was almost in Dick Cavett’s lap. Cavett was pointing at Benny and looking into the camera, as if to say to the audience at home: Can you believe this?

Cosby was still going. “So now I start hitting with the shoulder,” he said, “and this leg, I put it on automatic spasm… and I’m going like this—dit—dit—dit—and nobody’s started playing yet!”

Now Benny lifted his head up, slapped his knee, and laughed so hard that he almost tumbled over backward.

On The Dick Cavett Show 36 years earlier, Cosby had been so busy telling his story that he only sensed what was going on next to him. But that night at the Mark Twain Prize ceremony, watching the clip on the huge screen, he had finally been able to savor a dream come true for Shorty Cosby of the Richard Allen Homes.

“This honor tonight is wonderful,” he told the audience as he ended his acceptance speech. “And I’m especially happy that you saw Jack Benny fall out of his chair!”

From Cosby: His Life and Times by Mark Whitaker. Copyright © 2014 by Mark Whitaker. Published by Simon & Schuster, Inc. Reprinted by permission.