For many years, good-natured humor was Bill Cosby’s tool. These days, however, he worries that his wink and smile were too subtle for the kind of change he was hoping to affect. He still aims to teach by example and he still places family at the forefront of everything he does. But he’s also not afraid to air his concerns about the culture he spent a lifetime trying to improve. Now in his seventh decade, his message has a new sense of urgency.
He wants to shake sense into people who don’t take responsibility. He’s mad at people who give up too easily. The apathetic are his toughest audience. If they aren’t getting the messages he puts into his performances or his latest TV show, Nick Jr.’s “Little Bill,” he’ll use interviews as his bully pulpit, and he’ll call it as he sees it.
To Cosby, a lot is at stake. A lot was always at stake, like showing others how rewarding a well-lived life can be. But don’t worry. He is still funny.
My conversation with Cosby started with his most recent TV show and then quickly headed into deep territory.
Gene: My son, who’s almost 3, really loves your show “Little Bill” [based on his children’s books]. One thing about the show that caught my eye was Little Bill’s friend, Monty, the character who has cerebral palsy (CP). That was particularly interesting to me because I have CP. It was nice to see it presented the way it was on TV.
Bill: Now, tell me about that. Was it? I mean, when you saw it – because see, people are afraid to put a situation like that on a comedy show.
Gene: But you know what that did for my son is – it did a couple of things: It let him think, “OK, that’s another version of everyday life. That is also normal.” It also might teach him things he might want to know, that I didn’t think of telling him.
Bill: Yeah, it’s also there to teach people how to react, and how to feel comfortable. You give people the correct behavior without making it stuffy. There are people who can overreact in a way of being helpful and being kind. But sometimes that comes out in a way that you just wish they would go away.
Gene: But of course, they were trying to react in the best way that they could.
Bill: That’s right. For TV, we always need some form of discussion, some form of talk with someone who can guide us. That’s where the teaching is.
Gene: It’s also nice when it is natural, and it doesn’t come across like it’s beating you over the head with anything.
Bill: Well, I don’t mind beating people over the head, actually, when it comes to a room full of people where they just don’t wake up. Apathy is something I believe, after awhile, you have to yell.
Gene: There are situations when laughter or TV shows can’t do enough?
Bill: I think that laughter raises the spirit, puts out fantastic hormonal, very positive changes for the heart, for the organs, etc. I think it’s medicine. However, I also think that it depends on how and what causes the laughter. For instance, let’s say you just want to laugh because somebody walked and slipped and fell. Well, people laugh but that laughter is not something that will help someone to look down or be careful where they walk.
Gene: Right, there’s no message delivered.
Bill: You’re laughing at somebody. Then you turn around and find somebody laughing at you.
Gene: So the difference is whether or not you feel a sense of community?
Bill: The difference would be in the realization that you’re laughing at someone, but that someone is really you. You don’t recognize it. I mean, for instance, if you had a room full of CP people and a comic with CP came on stage and started – you guys would be falling out of the chair…I’m sorry. [In a comedic tone] Everybody’s in a chair! Whether or not you need to be in one [referring to wheelchairs]. You’re sitting down. You’d be falling out of the chair! But…if we bring somebody up, another comedian [without CP] – you’re gonna get some people laughing. But then there’ll be some letters coming in: “Why did you have that person? This is very serious.” I did a routine maybe about 11 years ago, I have not done it since. But I thought it was one of the most beautifully sensitive pieces about a person with cancer. And man, it is beautifully written and beautifully performed about this fellow who has been diagnosed with cancer, nothing that I felt was gross. I got a letter from a woman who told me that she had come with her friend who is terminally ill to laugh. And instead, what I had done was put dying in their face. So I had to stop the routine. My intent is not to do that.
Gene: You’re obviously very aware of how to communicate a message. So, you were careful with your jokes. What do you think happened?
Bill: I think that they misinterpreted. With that room full of people, you’ve got people with different personalities.
Gene: And different reactions.
Bill: Yes, indeed. You’ve got some people who will be very sensitive to a word that you really don’t mean to be what that person picks up, which can send them spiraling into a depression.
Gene: Have there been other times where you intended one message but a different message was taken from it?
Bill: Well, there was a fellow, I think it was in, either in South Dakota or Iowa. I don’t know if it’s MS or CP. But the person is in a chair, the motions can’t be controlled. And he’s come to see Bill Cosby. I heard him in the audience. I know the sound of the laughter [imitates a laugh that would indicate a vocal disability]. So I walked out into the audience and I went up to him and I said, “How are you?” and I said, “Are you married?” so forth and so on. People were laughing. [Later] I got a letter from a doctor and his wife that I shouldn’t have done that. They said, “it was cruel and everybody knows that a guy like that doesn’t have a wife and probably never will, and why would you make fun of someone like that?” So I called the people and I said, “Look, I was a physical therapist for four years and I’ve treated people and my feeling is to go over to them.” No, they just think I need to be careful. I had to hold myself back from getting angry.
Gene: And of course, people with disabilities do get married and have normal lives.
Bill: Yes. So, it’s the misinterpretation. I remember in Atlantic City, I was playing a casino, two shows. I finished the first show and now they asked me to go meet with about 12 kids, terminally ill, cancer… I decide I’m going to meet each one individually. So I go down the line and, “How are you?” “I’m fine,” “How are you?” You know, and so forth. And I’m looking in their eyes and I’m thanking God that I was a physical therapist for four years in the Navy ’cause I am able to look. And I come to the kid with these marbles on his face and he said to me… [imitates a speech impediment] You know who that is? That’s Mush Mouth from “Fat Albert.” This kid was so happy. It was fantastic.
Gene: I read that when you did therapy in the Navy, that was a revelation for you. What kind of revelation was it?
Bill: Well, it was the first thing I had ever done in my life where I put all of my spirit into that person. Whatever the exercise was, whatever we were doing, even if the diagnosis said, “They will never again…” Fill in the blank. But for some reason, when I finished at the end of my day, after doing maybe five patients, I felt totally wiped out spiritually. But I felt a sense of power, being able to give and teach and reeducate one to keep trying. And I felt that the people I worked with, whether they were amputees, whether they were arthritic, blind, stroke victims, I just felt that they were also teaching me something. There is a point in everybody’s life where you kind of imagine yourself where your legs are gone, you have no arms, or that you’ve gone blind. The first thought from that is, “I don’t want to live.” To see these people when they come down from their hospital, from their bed, to our ward, so devastated by what has happened to them…some of them so depressed. But then there’s that human spirit that kicks in. A part of it is the acceptance that, “This is who I am.” Many of them have been my heroes.
Gene: And this influenced your art from then on?
Bill: Yes, sir. And it influenced me to become a school teacher, to finish [school] with the idea that I could be a teacher and I could find those Bill Cosbys that I used to be.
Gene: When did the switch happen from being the young boy who would throw his book down and say, “The homework is done” when it wasn’t, to being a person who places a high priority on education?
Bill: The first morning, wakeup in boot camp at age 19. And a man with a cigarette in his mouth — looking at me as he put his nose almost on mine with the cigarette smoke going up my face — he said to me, “I’m not your mother.” My first reaction was, I wanted to punch him. Then quickly I thought, then I would be put in the brig and from the brig, I don’t know what they could do to me ’cause I had signed over my life. And I thought to myself, the old people are right. All those people who kept telling me that I could be more than I wanted to be, if I would just study, and that’s when I – you know how you meet Christian people and they say they’re “born again?” Well, this wasn’t necessarily through the Lord Jesus, Christ my savior. It was education…So I went to hospital corpsman’s school, the connection dealing with life and death, and then taking on physical therapy school.