COSBY, BILL

U.S. Comedian/Actor

Bill Cosby, is a successful comedian, product representative, television producer, story teller, author, and film and television actor. His work in the media has been recognized by his peers and critics, and acclaimed by audiences.

Cosby began his career as a stand?up comedian and in that arena developed his trademark of using raceless humor to capture audience appeal. His "humor for everyone" cast him less as a jokester than as a story teller, commenting on the experiences of life from a personal point of view. Immensely popular on the nightclub circuit, Cosby translated his act to phonograph recordings and won five Grammys and seven gold records for his comedy albums.

His first starring role on television, however, came not in comedy, but in the 1960s action-adventure series, I Spy (1965-68). Producer Sheldon Leonard fought network hesitance to cast him as costar for Robert Culp, making Cosby one of the first African American players to appear in a continuing dramatic role on U.S. television. More than the faithful sidekick to the star, Cosby's role developed into an equal partner, winning him three time Emmy awards. His portrayal in this series introduced viewers to an inoffensive African American feature character who seldom addressed his blackness nor another character's whiteness.

When Cosby began to produce his own comedy series, however, this disassociation with black culture ended. The programs were noted not only for their wit, but for introducing a side of African American life never portrayed on the small screen. Cosby's comedies share several common characteristics. Each has been a trend setter, has included characters surrounded by family and friends, and has specialized in plots with universal themes and multidimensional characters.

As Chet Kincaid in The Bill Cosby Show (1969?71) Cosby defied the typical image of the militant black man depicted on 1960s television by exuding his blackness in more subtle, nonverbal ways. Starting with the opening music by Quincy Jones, the program created a black ambience unique to the African American experience. Kincaid wore dashikis, listened to black music, had pictures of Martin Luther King and H. Rap Brown and prints of black artist Charles White hanging on the walls of his home. He worked with less privileged children and ordered "soul" food in black restaurants. Kincaid was pictured as a colleague, friend, teacher, and member of a close supportive family unit. Audiences experienced his failures and successes in coping with life's everyday occurrences.

Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids (1972?84) was the first cartoon show to include value?laden messages instead of the slapstick humor used in most cartoons to that time. Plots featured Fat Albert and the Kids playing, going to school, and sharing experiences that provided the back-drop for the inclusion of pro?social content. After the success of Fat Albert on CBS, ABC and NBC also added children's shows to the Saturday morning schedule that presented specific value oriented material.

Cosby's most notable success in series television, The Cosby Show (1984?92), discontinued familiar sitcom formulas filled with disrespectful children and generational conflict and presented instead a two-parent black family in which both partners worked as professionals. In the Huxtable household, viewers were exposed to the existence and culture of historically black colleges and universities. Prints by black artist Varnette Honeywood decorated the walls. The music of African American jazz artists was woven into the background or featured for discussion. Events in black history and signs calling for an end to apartheid became elements of plots. Just as Chet Kincaid and the Cosby Kids portray their frailties and personality traits, the Huxtables followed this Cosby pattern by depicting imperfect but likable people in realistic situations.

Even when he turned to the police genre with The Cosby Mysteries (1994-95), Cosby continued his exploration and presentation of his fundamental concerns. His use of nonverbal symbols (e.g. pictures, magazines, a fraternity paddle) attached his character, Guy Hanks, a retired criminologist (who recently won the lottery), to African American culture.

To ensure that universal themes were depicted in his series, Cosby hired professionals to serve as consultants to review scripts. When A Different World (1987?93)--the spin-off series from The Cosby Show that portrayed life on the fictional Hillman College campus--floundered during its first year on the air, Cosby hired director and choreographer Debbie Allen to lend her expertise to focus and give direction to writers and actors. The ratings improved significantly and A Different World became a top 20 program for the 1991 season.

Commercials began to interest Cosby in the mid-1970s and he has developed into one of the most respected and believable product spokespersons on television. He has represented Coca Cola, Jello Pudding, Ford Motor Company, Texas Instruments, and Del Monte Foods. The Marketing Evaluation TVQ index, the television industry's annual nationwide survey of a performer's popularity with viewers, as well as the Video Storyboard Tests that rank the top most persuasive entertainers in television commercials rated Cosby the number one entertainer for five consecutive years during the 1980s.

In 1974, he teamed with Sidney Poitier in the film Uptown Saturday Night. This duo was so popular with audiences that two sequels followed, Let's Do It Again (1975) and A Piece of the Action (1977). Cosby also starred in a number of other movies, but his Everyman character, so successful on the small screen, did not translate into box office revenues in theatrical release.

As a creative artist, Cosby's forte is the half-hour comedy. In this form his application and exploration of universal themes and multidimensional characters create situations common to audiences of all ages and races. He counters the accepted practice of portraying African Americans as sterile reproductions of whites, as trapped in criminality, or as persons immersed in abject poverty performing odd jobs for survival. Instead, he creates black characters who are accepted or rejected because they depict real people rather than "types." These characters emanate from his own experience, not through reading the pages of 18th century literature or viewing old tapes of Amos 'n' Andy. The Bill Cosby Show presented a more realistic image of the black male. Fat Albert significantly altered Saturday morning network offerings. And with The Cosby Show, a standard was set with which all television portrayals of the black family and African American culture will be compared. Cosby's personal style is stamped on all his products, and his creative technique and signature are reflected in each book he writes or series he produces.

-Bishetta D. Merrit

 


Bill Cosby

BILL COSBY. Born in Germantown, Pennsylvania, U.S.A, 12 July 1937. Served in U.S. Navy, 1956-60. Attended Temple University; University of Massachusetts, M.A. 1972, Ed.D. 1977. Married: Camille Hanks, 1965; children: Erika Ranee, Erinn Chalene, Ennis William, Ensa Camille, and Evin Harrah. Worked as stand-up comedian through college; appeared on Tonight Show, 1965; starred in TV's I Spy, 1965-68; guest appearances on shows, including The Electric Company, 1972; host and voices, Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, 1972-79; star and producer, various television programs since 1984. Recipient: Four Emmy Awards; eight Grammy Awards for comedy recordings.

TELEVISION

1964-65 That Was the Week That Was
1965-68 I Spy
1969-71 The Bill Cosby Show
1971-76 The Electric Company
1972-73 The New Bill Cosby Show
1972-77 Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids
1976 Cos
1981 The New Fat Albert Show
1984-92 The Cosby Show
1987-93 A Different World (executive producer)
1992-93 You Bet Your Life
1992-93 Here and Now (executive producer)
1994-95 The Cosby Mysteries
1996-99 Cosby

MADE-FOR-TELEVISION MOVIES

1971 To All My Friends On Shore
1978 Top Secret
1994 I Spy Returns

TELEVISION SPECIALS

1968 The Bill Cosby Special
1969 The Second Bill Cosby Special
1970 The Third Bill Cosby Special
1971 The Bill Cosby Special, Or?
1972 Dick van Dyke Meets Bill Cosby
1975 Cos: The Bill Cosby Comedy Special
1977 The Fat Albert Christmas Special
1977 The Fat Albert Halloween Special
1984 Johnny Carson Presents The Tonight Show Comedians
1986 Funny

FILMS

Hickey and Boggs, 1972; Man and Boy, 1972; Uptown Saturday Night, 1974; Let's Do It Again, 1975; Mother Juggs and Speed, 1976; A Piece of the Action, 1977; California Suite, 1978; The Devil and Max Devlin, 1981; Bill Cosby Himself, 1982; Leonard: Part VI, 1987; Ghost Dad, 1990; The Meteor Man, 1993.

RECORDINGS

Bill Cosby is a Very Funny Fellow... Right!; I Started Out as a Child; Why is There Air?; Wonderfulness; Revenge; To Russell My Brother With Whom I Slept; Bill Cosby is Not Himself These Days; Rat Own Rat Own Rat Own; My Father Confused Me; What Must I Do? What Must I Do?; Disco Bill; Bill's Best Friend; Cosby and the Kids; It's True It's True; Bill Cosby - Himself; 200 MPH; Silverthroat; Hooray for the Salvation Army Band; 8:15 12:15; For Adults Only; Bill Cosby Talks to Kids About Drugs; Inside the Mind of Bill Cosby

PUBLICATIONS

The Wit and Wisdom of Fat Albert. New York: Windmill Books, 1973.

Fatherhood. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1986.

Time Flies. New York: Doubleday, 1988.

Love and Marriage. New York: Doubleday, 1989.

Bill Cosby's Personal Guide to Tennis Power. New York: Random House, 1975.

"Someone at the Top Has to Say: 'Enough of this'" (interview). Newsweek (New York), 6 December 1993.

FURTHER READING

Adams, Barbara Johnston. The Picture Life of Bill Cosby. New York: F. Watts, 1986.

Adler, Bill. The Cosby Wit: His Life and Humor. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1986.

Behrens, Steve. "Billion Dollar Bill." Channels of Communication (New York), January-February 1986

Britt-Gibson, Donna. "Cover Story: The Cos, Family Man for the 80s." USA Today (New York), 23 December 1986.

Cohen, Joel H. Cool Cos: The Story of Bill Cosby. New York: Scholastic, 1969.

Darrach, Brad. "Cosby!" Life (New York), June 1985.

Fuller, Linda K. The Cosby Show: Audiences, Impact, and Implications. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood, 1992.

Goodgame, Dan. "'I Do Believe In Control'; Cosby Is a Man Who Gets Laughs and Results--By Doing Things His Way." Time (New York), 28 September 1987.

Griffin, Cynthia, and George Hill. "Bill Cosby: In Our Living Rooms for 20 Years." Ebony Images: Black Americans and Television. Los Angeles, California: Daystar Publications, 1986.

Jhally, Sut, and Justin Lewis. Enlightened Racism: The Cosby Show, Audiences, and the Myth of the American Dream. Boulder, Colorado: Westview, 1992.

Klein, Todd. "Bill Cosby: Prime Time's Favorite Father." Saturday Evening Post (Indianapolis, Indiana), April 1986.

Lane, Randall. "Bill Cosby, Capitalist." Forbes (Chicago), 28 September 1992.

McClellan, Steve. "Wussler, Cosby Eye NBC Bid." Broadcasting & Cable (Washington, D.C.), 19 July 1993.

Merritt, Bishetta D. "Bill Cosby: TV Auteur?" Journal of Popular Culture (Bowling Green, Ohio), Spring 1991.

Smith, Ronald L. Cosby. New York: St. Martin's, 1986.

 

See Also Cosby Show; Racism, Ethnicity, and Television