For much of its eight-season run between 1984 and 1992, NBC’s “The Cosby Show” was the most-watched television program in America. Its star, Bill Cosby, had already been a household name for years, going back to his role as co-star of the ’60s secret agent show “I Spy.”
As a black man in a white-dominated world of TV entertainment, Cosby played a Jackie Robinson-like role in the industry, opening doors for other actors and programs that followed.
Although his comedic material rarely mentions race, Cosby altered perceptions by subtly pointing out what everyone has in common. By relying on marriage and child rearing for the bulk of his material, people of any race find that they can relate.
The stories Cosby tells on his current tour, visiting the North Charleston Performing Arts Center on Sunday night, are no exception.
On Saturday, Comedy Central will air his first stand-up (although he sits for most of it) television special in 30 years, “Far From Finished.”
While Cosby has made frequent headlines for his criticism of hip-hop culture and frustration with entertainers who rely on dirty jokes and curse words, for his live routine, he skips the lectures and sticks to family-oriented humor.
Amid a lengthy national tour, he’s hinted that he’s ready for a return to network television. On the phone with Charleston Scene last week from a tour stop in Missoula, Mont., he mentioned ideas for both a variety performance show and a new sitcom, while he’s also recently alluded to a reprisal of his animated “Fat Albert” show.
Even at 76 years old, it appears that Bill Cosby’s entertainment career is far from finished. That is, if the networks would call.
“Wherever I go, I’m getting a ton of people who ask me, ‘Do you think it’ll ever happen again?’ ” says Cosby, referencing his brand of wholesome family humor reaching mainstream popularity. “I just put my palms up and shrug my shoulders.”
The first episode of “The Simpsons” aired in 1989, the year that marked the end of “The Cosby Show’s” reign as TV’s top program. Cosby cites Bart Simpson, followed by the characters from “Married ... With Children,” as the beginning of the end for classic family sitcoms.
“The kids are gross; the family is gross,” says Cosby. “I looked at Bart Simpson and said, ‘This is a perfect example of a kid who has a learning difficulty, and that’s why he’s treating the world the way he is.’ ”
Cosby should know. In fact, he’s actually Dr. Bill Cosby, and it’s not an honorary title. After “I Spy” and two years hosting the variety-format “The Bill Cosby Show” between 1969 and 1971, Cosby returned to school at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, earning his masters and doctorate in education.
He explains the state of the world’s entertainment tastes with the story of a recent limo ride in Atlanta. The chauffeur took a call from his girlfriend that he seemed excited about, and Cosby pressed him until he revealed that she’d urged him to pick up a pornographic tape on his way home.
“I asked, ‘What is it you get out of it?’ and he very comfortably said, ‘Well, you may see something new,’ ” recounts Cosby, laughing.
“You have today a ton of channels, and they’re aimed at the dopamine level. People are looking for something new. Sometimes it’s on a level of sex, and sometimes it’s on a level of ‘just do something that people have never seen.’ There were those shows where people were paid to get lowered into a tank of live worms — worms, on their naked body, so that people could see it on TV.”
Today’s world of television, where the top shows’ R-rated premises involve cooking methamphetamines or the antics of promiscuous friends, are clearly distanced from Cosby’s brand of family humor based on mutual respect between children and their loving parents.
“How many times are you going to blow up the world or blow up some people? Or another show where you say something negative to set it up, here it is, the conflict, now make a joke?” asks Cosby.
“People laugh at conflict. Move it on, next scene, BAM! Somebody’s in and out the door; conflict again. I’m saying there’s also got to be that audience that wants something else. But does a network really want to hear what I have to say?”
On the day before his interview with Charleston Scene, a Wall Street Journal reporter posted a clip of his own conversation with Cosby titled “The Art of Interviewing Bill Cosby.” The writer’s advice? Listen.
Taking that approach, however, can take time. For example, Scene’s interview began with a 15-minute explanation of the 1969 jazz recording Cosby made with Quincy Jones. But just as Cosby has done everything from recording vocal albums (his takes on “Bright Lights, Big City” and “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” are worth a listen, if only for the curiosity factor) to pushing Jell-O pudding, he’s got an equal wealth of experience to draw from when it comes to telling stories. And you never know what you’re going to get.
Amid the material on his current tour, the constant theme is his marriage. In January, he and his wife, Camille, will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary.
“When we were first married, JET magazine would have pictures of couples celebrating their 50th anniversary,” Cosby recalls. “When you’ve been married for seven years or 10 years, you can only wish to get there, but there’s a great deal of mystery in how those people got there. You see those pictures and they look old, and even their children around them look old.”
Thanks to his youthful pursuits playing football and track and field, Cosby says he’s happy with the shape he’s in for his 50th anniversary family portrait, and he’s promised Camille he’ll get a full physical, “with blood and urine and everything,” in the coming months.
“At the age of 70, you never get, ‘Oh, you have the body of a 25-year-old,’ ” says Cosby of the progression of visits to the doctor as he ages. “Now, your first place medal is just to hear, ‘Keep doing what you’re doing.’ ”
That’s instruction that Cosby adheres to for both his health and his career. Known for his delivery even more than his punch lines, the aging Cosby still keeps up all of his familiar physical antics and facial expressions in his latest round of stand-up, despite almost a decade without performing in the mainstream.
Following “The Cosby Show,” he returned to TV between 1996 and 2000 on CBS with “Cosby,” a sitcom that reunited him with on-screen wife Phylicia Rashad. Cosby held a concurrent role as host of “Kids Say the Darndest Things,” followed by the production of a children’s show on Nickelodeon called “Little Bill” and the 2004 Hollywood release of the film “Fat Albert.”
For the last decade, however, Cosby has largely been out of the public eye. He released his most recent book, a family memoir titled “I Didn’t Ask to Be Born (But I’m Glad I Was)” in 2011, but his most prominent headlines have come for oft-chastised remarks about his perceived lack of parenting skills in some African-American families.
Even this month, a speech in Alabama drew attention when he criticized entertainers who teach curse words to his grandchildren.
For decades, Cosby’s wholesome image has been the butt of other comedians’ jokes. In 1987’s “Eddie Murphy Raw,” his comedic peer’s irreverent impressions of Cosby attracted laughs as hearty as Cosby’s own.
Yet Cosby remains unapologetic about his traditional views, and he hopes that enough people agree to help propel him back onto their TV screens. That resurgence may begin with his Comedy Central special.
“I would love to work with a network to put together a wonderful thing and bring in those values,” says Cosby. “We don’t have to take people all the way back, but just bring in those things like ‘love each other’ and ‘respect each other.’ There’s no preaching. You just take time out to smile and laugh with each other.”
Citing his January appearance on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon,” Cosby argues that he’s still got what it takes to make people laugh, suggesting a variety show with guest stars and musical acts.
“I’m not talking about aiming at Fallon or David Letterman, but put me out there on a Saturday or Sunday night and let’s see if I can get some numbers as a performer,” he suggests. “This is not to be confused with doing a show with actors in a sitcom. They’re separate ideas. I can do both.”
He’s clearly a man ready to go, and slightly frustrated that he’s not already back on network television. Although Cosby openly laments the lack of family entertainers on television today, with “Far From Finished,” he’s hoping to reinject value-based humor into the mainstream. And if the networks like what they hear, he’s ready to answer their call and get back to work.