“The grandparents come over… ‘now just come here and kiss your grandmommy, muh muh muh muh muh, grandmommy love you to death.’ And my children think that my mother is the most wonderful person on the face of this earth and I keep telling my children, ‘that’s not the same woman I grew up with. You’re looking at an old person who’s trying to get into heaven now.’
Those are not my words, however, I didn’t transcribe those words either. I didn’t look them up, read them, or research them. No, those words are emblazoned in my mind. My Grandma Julie came over to visit one night with Grandpa and LB, and she handed me a cassette tape (this is the early 1980’s). “You like that Bill Cosby don’t you? My friend has one of his records and I made a tape for you,” she said and she handed me a cassette tape, the kind you might use to make a mix tape off the radio. That little tape was one of the greatest presents I ever received. I took that tape up to my room, popped it into my tape recorder, (you know the little silver and black plastic things that people would dictate into) and I would listen and I would laugh and I would laugh and I would laugh. I laughed hardest when he made fun of his father. I don’t know what it is with fathers and sons, but my own son loves to laugh at me and at that time, I loved to laugh at my dad. Must have something to do with the coming of age, in any event, I laughed and laughed until I stopped laughing and began to mimic. After I could mimic, I began reciting parts of it. “I’m sick of this and I’m sick of you. So sick I don’t know what to do with myself. I am just sick and tired. ‘And tired’ always followed ‘sick’. Worst beating I ever got in my life my mother said, ‘I am just sick…’ I said, ‘… and tired’. I don’t remember anything that happened that day.”
The record Grandma Julie had pirated was Bill Cosby Himself. (I later purchased the record album, which I believe absolves Grandma of her innocent piracy) Now at that time, Mr. Cosby was already famous. He’d co-stared in I-Spy, had his own sitcom ‘The Bill Cosby Show’ in which he played a gym teacher, had been on the Electric Company (which is where I first saw him), had a short segment on PBS called Picture Pages, and of course was the host and creator of Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, one of my favorite cartoons growing up. He’d already had hit comedy albums, was a stand-up major headliner, and a legitimate star, but it was this album Grandma had taped for me that would propel Bill Cosby into the realm of superstardom. This was the album that inspired the Cosby Show, the 1984 television show that is credited with single handedly resurrecting the nearly dead television format of the situation comedy. This was the one. And I had it all memorized (well, all but two bits, Chocolate Cake For Breakfast and the Dentist because Grandma Julie didn’t record those). Not only did I have the words memorized, but the delivery, the cadence, the pauses, the inflections. It was comedy school 101 taught by a master craftsman, one of the best to ever stand on stage and tell a joke.
Well, that isn’t exactly accurate, is it? Because Bill Cosby doesn’t stand on stage and tell jokes, he sits. And he doesn’t tell jokes, he tells stories. It just so happens that his stories are hilarious. Perfectly worded, perfectly timed, and perfectly delivered. I learned a lot about comic delivery and story telling from listening to that tape. But that isn’t what makes Mr. Cosby so funny. His true talent lies elsewhere.
When my grandmother gave me that tape, there were other popular comedians around with best-selling albums. It was 1982 and I was nine, going on ten. George Carlin had just released ‘A Place For My Stuff’ two years before. Eddie Murphy released his self-titled album and the next year would release ‘Delirious’. There was Richard Pryor, Cheech and Chong, and others. But, not only would my parents never let me listen to those… I’m not sure I would even think they were funny. (Some kids got a kick out of hearing the swears, but if I wanted to hear those all I had to do was hit my sister, wait for her to cry and I’d get my fair share of those words for free and in person from my dad.) The jokes on those records would’ve been way over my head. But not Bill Cosby. And that’s where his true talent lies. He can relate to, and remember what it was like to be, every age. His best stuff is from the perspective of a child. His own childhood is vivid. Not in the sense that he remembers every event, but rather in the more rare ability to remember what it was like, how he felt, how he thought. Those are the things that escape most of us. We can all tell you the story of the time when I was eight years old and such-and-such happened. But, not many of us can reach back and tap into the mindset of your eight-year-old self. Bill Cosby can. And when he does, he reminds us of our own eight year old selves, because though it’s difficult to bring ourselves to that mindset, that way of thinking and feeling of that little ‘me’ of so long ago, it is right there on the tip of the consciousness and we go willingly and easily along when Mr. Cosby takes us there, and that is where the fun is, and where the funny is. That is his true talent. He takes us back to that perspective, of how we viewed our parents, our siblings, the world and ourselves. For a split second we are eight again, or ten, or eleven, or twelve. And then, in the next breath, he brings us back. Back to now, to the other side where we have to deal with those ‘brain damaged’ people we call children. Where we have to try to reason with those eight year old minds. He articulates our frustrations, our failures, our inabilities to be the ‘perfect parent’ by pointing out that none of us are, that we all share that shortcoming that is to successfully communicate with, understand, and guide these small, still developing people with this strange view of the world.
He can at once make us laugh at our own parents from the perspective of a child looking up at authority, and as an adult looking at aging, softening at the edges, grandparents “that is not the same woman I grew up with”. And we can identify and laugh with both because he takes us there so effectively.
I don’t know when I first saw Mr. Cosby on TV. I think it was on the Electric Company. By the time I was watching Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids in the late ‘70’s, I recognized him. I knew him. “This is Bill Cosby comin’ atcha with music and fun, and if you’re not careful you might learn somethin’ before it’s done, okay? Hey Hey Hey!” I’d see him on Picture Pages, Jell-O commercials, Coca-Cola commercials. He was everywhere. It’s worth pointing out too that the civil rights movement hit its peak in 1968. Real Jim Crow style segregation was still very real in many parts of the country. By 1971, Bill Cosby and Morgan Freeman were on PBS teaching all us kids phonics and math. He is a large part of the progress America has made in race relations. He is the first African American to be on mainstream television in his own show without it being about ‘a black guy’, but rather a guy who happened to be black. He co-starred, with equal billing, with Robert Culp in I-Spy in 1965. Only twelve years earlier, American TV sets were tuned to Amos and Andy. Mr. Cosby is criticized by some for not being ‘black enough’. As a white man, I can tell you that he’s black enough for racists to dislike him just the same as they would any black man, maybe even more so. What he did, is he changed the way white-middle-class-suburban people viewed African Americans and their culture.
For once, a black man wasn’t emptying the garbage, or working as a butler, or a barber… he was a doctor. He lived in a nice house, not in the projects like on Good Times, and not in some “Movin’-on-up, one-in-a-million-shot-success-fish-out-of-water-highrises” like the Jeffersons, but in a realistic, honest way, he was upper middle-class, and he was black. And he was the first to be that on television, and while white suburban families across the country sat every week in droves watching this successful black couple make them laugh on TV, Mr. Cosby made a point to integrate African and African American culture and history into the show. Yet the very existence and scope of the popularity of the show is due to the fact that, despite racial, sociological, cultural, and economic differences, there is a thread of commonalities throughout American culture that transcends those differences; shared thoughts, feelings, and experiences that come not from being black or white but from being American and in a family. There’s a lot to be said for having achieved that at the time he did, and in the manner in which he did.
So, needless to say, I am, and have for a long time, been a fan of Mr. Cosby. I respect him. I studied him. I can identify with him even though he grew up with black skin in the projects of Philadelphia thirty years before I was born and I grew up with white skin in working-class neighborhoods of Chicago, I can identify with him, as can millions of people of all races and classes across America.
So this weekend, thirty-two years after I’d first gotten that tape from my Grandma, I finally got to see the man in person. He was performing at the Rosemont Theater. My wife and I sat about five rows back from the stage, but off to the side. Good seats, had they been center, they would’ve been extraordinary seats. On stage was a chair and table. Across the chair was draped a cloth of some kind that had embroidered into it the words “HELLO FRIEND” in a rainbow of colors. On the table sat a bottle of water, a glass, and a box of Kleenex. Behind the table, a little garbage can like you’d find under a desk in an office.
It says: HELLO FRIEND
The house lights were still up and the audience still conversing and moving about, when, unannounced, this larger than life figure with a familiar walk, strode across the stage to the seat and said ‘hello.’ With that, the show began. Unlike every other show I’ve ever seen, the house lights stayed lit. Mr. Cosby began talking and soon asked the ‘soundman’ to turn down the level so his voice wasn’t bouncing around the room so much but rather it “sound more like a living room”. And that is exactly what the next two hours felt like. Like an old friend, an old man you’d known forever, stopped by the house for a glass of water and a long chat. And it was funny. Admittedly, it started out slow, but most visits usually do. Conversations don’t usually start with a bang, we ease into them. That’s what he did. He eased into it and before you knew it, you were engrossed in the conversation, one-way though it was, and laughing. My wife chuckled. She elbowed me a couple of times as if to say “you do that” or “sounds like my parents, doesn’t it?” But me… I was laughing. I laughed so hard a few times that it caused me to go into a coughing fit. I started sweating, I had tears running down my cheeks. By the time the two-hour show was over, I was wet. Which brings us, unfortunately, to the news reports of earlier that day. (Hell of a segue, huh?)
I’d waited, like I said, for 32 years to see my favorite comedian perform his craft in person. (I’d seen Carlin and Seinfeld years before. Carlin is like my devil on the shoulder favorite, while Cosby is like the angel on my shoulder favorite. Seinfeld’s funny, but I saw him for my wife. Great show though). So, here I am, the day I’m finally going to see Bill Cosby in person! And he’s all over the news. And it isn’t good news.
There are reports surfacing, that he drugged and raped a woman. Then reports that others, several others, have reported similar instances of having been drugged then raped by Mr. Cosby. I’ve been in the television industry myself for close to twenty years now. I’m not naïve enough to believe that the people we see on TV are the same in real life as they portray themselves to be. In interviews, on the Tonight Show, in magazines, it is a carefully orchestrated strategy at work. This is, after all, a business and their product is themselves. And so they market themselves in such a way, at least the smart ones do, that people will like them and buy their albums, watch their sitcom, go to their concerts, see their plays, etc. I’ve also been in this business long enough to know to never trust anything I see on TV. That’s the other side of the business. Grab as many eyeballs (or clicks) as possible. You have video of a fire, run it! You have footage of Japanese politicians beating the crap out of each other, it’s news! Lindsay Lohan goes to rehab or Paris Hilton gets arrested, lead with it! If it’s not salacious enough, find a salacious angle to it and present it that way! (Fox News is brilliant at that, but they’re all guilty of it to some extent) America’s favorite TV dad is accused of rape; goddamn right that’s news. Front friggin’ page. Tweet it, Instagram it, Facebook it, just tell them about it and let them know to turn to us for more info, they’re starving for it!! It doesn’t have to be true or proven; the mere allegations are newsworthy in and of themselves! Find me more women who’ll say the same thing and do it before we go on the air at six!
So what’s a fan to think? There are women who will have sex with a TV star, simply because he’s a TV star, so I find it difficult to believe someone who is the top TV star at the time this was supposed to have happened, would have to resort to drugging and raping a woman just to get laid. All he’d really have to do is walk into the right club and say “Hi”. I also know that doesn’t mean a thing.
I know there are people who will do some low-down dirty-rotten things to extort money from someone, and that includes falsely accusing him of rape. I also know it is strange that so many women have such similar stories. It’s also strange, though, that no one did anything about it at the time. He was very famous and very wealthy. The woman who claims she sought representation from an attorney who laughed her out of his office can’t be trusted because if there were any way to even possibly sue him for rape, any lawyer would’ve jumped at it just for a piece of the settlement money, and yet, she was ‘laughed out of the office’. Even a slimy lawyer couldn’t see enough to make a case out of it. But that’s one. Rape is too serious an allegation to dismiss it easily. It’s also too serious an allegation to convict the accused without due process based on stories on the news.
I hope those women are lying. I hope he didn’t rape them, for their sake and his. He’s done some great things in his life, and as I stated in a previous post, it is difficult to not like someone who makes you laugh, and he has made me laugh since I was a little, little boy. My thoughts on this can be summed up with the words of another little boy to his idol nearly a century ago when Shoeless Joe Jackson was confronted with the words “Say it ain’t so.”
Please Mr. Cosby, say it ain’t so. In the meantime, I’m getting together with some old friends for a furious game of ‘Buck-Buck’ and try to remember the mindset of that nine year old boy with a cassette tape that made him laugh so much.
Bill Cosby in concert at the Rosemont Theater, November 15, 2014
I don’t get dressed up for just anybody. I was even going to wear a tie, but my neck outgrew the shirt.