Bill Cosby, Himself
Cosby discusses turning the other cheek to hecklers and why he resisted the temptation to use profanity in his act.
When comedian Bill Cosby answers the phone, his response to a reporter’s greeting of “Mr. Cosby?” for verification, is a playful grumble: “No! This is George Roofles!” before breaking into his slow, wiseass Cosby chuckle: “Heh, heh, heh!” One is never quite sure when Cosby is being playful and when he is genuinely irritated. He speaks in a deliberate cadence he has made his own, slightly stretching out some syllables when not pausing between every other word to get his point across. Cosby is not the easiest person with whom to hold a conversation, but thankfully he answers with engaging, thoughtful responses. When asked if he has ever dealt with hecklers, he simply replies, “Yeah, yeah.” As I waited several seconds for him to elaborate, he suddenly interjects, “There are two of us talking here, so you’re going to have to say something. You asked me about the hecklers, The answer is ‘Yes.’ What do you want to know?” Wow, I was being reprimanded by “the Coz.” Bill Cosby will appear at the BJCC Concert Hall on Saturday, February 5, at 8 p.m. Tickets: $25–$65. Details: www.bjcc.org, 458-8400.
Black & White: Tell me about the early days when you were a struggling comic.
Cosby: I decided to leave Temple University and to go out for a year to test and see what would happen to me. I got favorable reviews from people who had seen me in different venues around the city of Philadelphia. So I went up to this club at 116 MacDougal Street [in Greenwich Village] called the Gaslight, which had a reputation for having classy entertainment and folk music. In those days there was no comedy club. Plus, there was no profanity. Dick Gregory had come along, it was about 1963. This booker for what they called Negro comics was there. So I brought my storytelling and auditioned and the guy said, “Well, you’re a little raw, but we’ll hire you.” I don’t know that I even had a day off, and I got $60 a week. I want you know that I’m the first old person to say, “And that was not a lot of money!” You hear a lot of old people go, “And that was a lot of money in those days.” Noooooo! By the time I cleaned up that room they gave me—which I’m very thankful for—I had spent close to $60 on mops and stuff to clean and make it look good. I showered without a shower. I used the restroom at the club to take a bath. I started at eight o’clock at night and worked ’til four in the morning, working between the folk singers.
How did you deal with hecklers?
After being upset with people, I just decided to go in another direction and not fool with them. Because, you get angry with these people and you start a vocal argument. And many times, for some weird reason, the audience sees you become angry and after a while it has changed the aura in the room. It’s difficult for you to get back to the image that you’re a fun person, even though it wasn’t your fault. But then again, it was your fault because it’s also the entertainer’s job not to lose it. I’ll give you an example. I was at Lake Tahoe in the late ’60s. I already had the mindset that when people wanted to interrupt to say things, the first thing is to understand what they are saying, and then respond as if you were really interested in what a person was saying. When you listen to that, many times if you stay linear with it, you can get rid of ‘em post haste. So I walked out onstage, had on a brown leather suit, and the shoes I had on were high-tops and had sort of like a dark brown mustard color. It was a midnight show, so the people have a chance to medicate themselves with alcohol. The room holds 750—Harrahs, Lake Tahoe, one of the most beautiful rooms in the world. And a woman’s voice shouted out, “I hate those shoes!” And because of the way I think—which is not to challenge, not to beat up the person but to understand what the person has just said and to remain linear—I said, “Madame, you are very, very fortunate, because these shoes will not be performing.” And, man, I never heard from her again.
Were you ever tempted to work as a blue act?
Sure. There was a time when Richard Pryor’s popularity kicked in strong, and there really was a feeling from me—not that I wanted to use profanity—but it just seemed like this was due to Richard’s sales and the publicity. . . . Hey man, it’s a matter of sort of “keeping up with the Pryors.” I was at the Las Vegas Hilton, and it had been on my mind for some time. But I had rejected it because I just always felt I didn’t want it. That particular night I went into a story about my father, and I gave my father the profanity while addressing me. I think I did it for about two or three minutes, which is a long time. The next day, Barron Hilton called the owner of the hotel in Las Vegas. Barron never bothered me, and I was drawing strong, so . . . He said, “Bill, I just want you to read something. And you just do what you want with it.” It was a letter from six nuns who had seen that show. And they very nicely said that they were disappointed that a fellow they felt comfortable with had disappointed them with the use of the profanity. They didn’t ask for their money back, they didn’t say they walked out, but they just felt that they respected this fellow, Mr. Cosby, so much and he really and truly did not need to go in the direction of this, the [foul] language was unnecessary. Then they wished me the best. That was the day . . . that was it. I wasn’t too happy anyway, so the letter just helped close the book on that. And for my not embracing it [working blue], I have been able to turn over volumes of thoughts and write about them and turn them into modernist routines.
When “I Spy” came out, there was a fear that some network affiliate stations wouldn’t carry the show.
It wasn’t only a fear, it was a reality. Television, in those days, people blamed everything on the South. But they were using the South as a reasonable excuse to do what they wanted with their racist thoughts. The beauty of “I Spy” was that even though there were some stations that had people threatening to pull their commercials because of the presence of this actor—this black man—it didn’t have much strength. But I would not be surprised that there were some stations that did put on something else.
How did your life change after the success of “I Spy”?
NBC allowed me to have my own show, “Chet Kincaid,” which lasted two years. Then I had one-hour variety shows with my variety specials, so the change was just tremendous, the acceptance. I think in 1971, I had four LPs on Billboard’s charts. I had four comedy albums in the Top 10 because radio stations were playing them then. So there you can see the strength, the popularity.
Was there any subject matter you wanted to cover on “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids” but didn’t feel comfortable approaching?
No, and when you look at the box set of Fat Albert shows, you just look at the titles and see how far ahead that show still is on subject matter.
Which of your television shows had the greatest impact on society?
If you play “Chet Kincaid,” there’s a ton of stuff there, a ton. If you play “I Spy,” you look at it. But people keep saying that I’m the Jackie Robinson of television. And I always say to them, “Well, if I’m the Jackie Robinson, then Robert Culp must have been the Pee Wee Reese and the Eddie Stanky [Robinson's teammates].” We went all around. We went to Mexico, we brought Mexican people into your living room. We brought Japanese, Chinese, and Korean people into your living room because we traveled around the world. We brought Greek people, Italian people into your living room, Spanish people into your living room, English people. So, “I Spy” just wasn’t a black man and a white man, it was all around the world. &