Bill Cosby is an open book. "You name it, I'll tell you all about it," he says. It's a trick. From hit TV shows to films to Saturday-morning cartoons to commercials for Jell-O pudding, and social activism, the comedian, who performs his stand-up routine at Harrah's Tunica on Saturday, June 26th, has accomplished so much in his 72 years that there is no logical starting point. So I embrace the illogical and begin with Cosby's singing career.
When I was in the sixth grade, I bought a battered Bill Cosby cassette tape for a dime at a yard sale. I'd expected comedy routines but no. This was the Cos singing, and I never could make out the lyrics to my favorite track, although I would try to sing along: "Ursalina, would your washing machine-a, jump so high that you touch the sky."
"Those were the words," Cosby says. "You got it right. That song actually became a hit in Israel."
The Flyer: You've done kids' TV with Fat Albert and The Electric Company. The Cosby Show was the biggest thing on TV in the '80s. They love your songs in Israel. Why do you keep coming back to stand-up?
Bill Cosby: With a monologue I can write, act, and direct myself. There's nobody in the middle. Even when I had TV shows I'd perform on the weekends. We'd finish shooting on Thursday, and I was booked Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. The monologist is who I am, unless I'm in someone else's movie.
Even when you broke into TV with
Oh yeah. When I did I Spy, I was only paid $750 per episode. And it took 10 working days to finish a show. These days, comics go to the Comedy Store or Catch a Rising Star hoping an agent will put them in a TV series. Then you never see them doing comedy anymore.
For you the comedy always came first?
The comedy came first always. I developed my style listening to the radio and falling in love with all the funny people. But also by falling in love with funny people who weren't performers.
When did you start to get serious about it?
Nothing was serious until I entered Temple University. I was put into remedial everything, and I loved it. I started writing. But I didn't really develop my style until I saw a man with nine friends talking in a Chinese restaurant. It wasn't a routine, but it was hilarious. That's my style, I said. I want to be a friend. When you're a friend, everybody knows you and they know what you're talking about.
You have been an outspoken, sometimes controversial social critic. Is there anything Bill Cosby is afraid of?
Yes. My wife. You do as you're told, you know? You don't want trouble.
People have described some of your criticisms of contemporary African-American culture as elitist and out of touch. But you overcame a lot yourself. You came from a single-parent home. In school you were held back.
I was not held back. People always get my biography wrong. They say, "He quit school to join the Navy." They don't mention that I was 19. Nobody held me back. I didn't study. But I was born again, only not through the words of Jesus Christ.
How were you born again?
In the Navy, a man would wake us up at 4:30 a.m., telling us to get dressed for breakfast. I'd think, You know, I could save you a lot of money by not eating breakfast. But that's when I "got" it. It happened when that man told me to get up and said, "I am not your mama!" Bill Cosby at Harrah's Tunica, Saturday, June 26th, 8 p.m. Tickets are $50-$80.