Bill Cosby (1937-) has done just about everything there is to do in the entertainment industry, including breaking barriers for his fellow African-American entertainers. Unfortunately, "just about everything" includes bad behavior as well as good.
Born and raised in the Philadelphia projects, Cosby attended Temple University as a phys.ed major but eventually dropped out to become a standup comedian in the mid-1960s. He was an immediate success, in part because his material — in sharp contrast to most of the black comedians of the day — was largely apolitical, based instead around Cosby's friends and foibles growing up and the perils of raising his own family of five. Defending this choice, Cosby once noted: "A white person listens to my act and he laughs and he thinks, 'Yeah, that's the way I see it, too.' Okay. He's white. I'm Negro. And we both see things the same way. That must mean that we are alike. Right? So I figure this way I'm doing as much for good race relations as the next guy."
Success in the clubs led to an impressive string of hit comedy and music albums, including the now-classic "To Russell, My Brother, Whom I Slept With" and the, er, genesis of the similarly beloved "Noah" routine ("It's The Lord, Noah." "Riiiiiggght!"). This was followed in 1965 by a groundbreaking role alongside Robert Culp in the crime drama I Spy. It was the first time a black actor had ever starred in a television drama, and it earned Cosby the first Emmys (three total) a black actor had ever received.
Naturally, in 1969, the next step was The Bill Cosby Show — no, not that one, the one that featured Cosby as Chet Kincaid, high school gym teacher. No, really, it ran two whole seasons. He even sang the theme song.
The 1970s saw the re-emergence of William H. Cosby Jr., who had gone back to school to earn his doctorate in education. Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, a hit (12-season!) animated take on the old routines featuring his friends in the projects, and PicturePages, short interactive educational skits as part of Captain Kangaroo, were the most prominent initial results of this new interest. Also included were memorable guest-starring stints on both Sesame Street and The Electric Company.
At this undisputed high point, he was even starring in hit films with Sidney Poitier: Uptown Saturday Night and the sequel Let's Do It Again, made as a rebuttal to the violent, one-dimensional Blaxploitation films then popular. Somehow, though, while that genre has emerged beloved and even homaged, Cosby's own film career... has not. By the time vanity project Leonard Part 6 debuted in 1987, Cosby was reduced to instructing talk show audiences not to see it, by way of salvaging his big-screen reputation.
Much better received was his 20-odd-year side career as pitchman for Jell-O pudding. The standard spot featured Cosby mugging shamelessly while surrounded by cute moppets and — of course — lots and lots of chocolate pudding. Not at all surprisingly, they were instrumental in switching his image from young, hip urban dude to goofy sweater-wearing curmudgeon.
Another generation (or two) knows him best as Cliff Huxtable in the classic Sitcom The Cosby Show, which lasted from 1984 to 1992 on NBC and was again based around his old routines, this time those featuring his own family. At loose ends (largely due to by-now hopeless typecasting as that same curmudgeon) once it left the air, he took on the TV equivalent of odd jobs, hosting Kids Say the Darndest Things and the 1992 revival of You Bet Your Life. He also dabbled in detective drama (the Bill Cosby Mysteries, natch) for the ABC Mystery Movie revival, and created the animated Nickelodeon series Little Bill and Fatherhood.
His last fling at prime-time television was the 1996–2000 sitcom... wait for it... Cosby, in which he played a lovable elderly curmudgeon in a scenario loosely based on the Britcom One Foot in the Grave.
Then, in the mid-2010s, dozens of women accused him of sexual improprieties. Convicted by Public Opinion, his star fell. There was sufficient evidence for one accusation to make it to court, resulting first in a hung jury then on retrial in 2018 in a conviction for sexual assault. It's doubtful whether he'll ever work again. In fact, there were some people who believed that he would spend the rest of his life in prison... but then his conviction was overturned in late June 2021 and he was released.
Cosby's diverse range of material has netted him four Emmy Awards and nine Grammy Awards for his many albums... and a Razzie, for Leonard Part 6. He has written best-selling books, hosted comedy festivals, and — most recently — campaigned publicly against what he perceives as a lack of ambition and drive within the African-American community. This last role has earned him considerable controversy, mitigated somewhat by sympathy after the murder of his only son, Ennis, in 1997.
- Alliterative Family: See Theme Naming below. Cosby named all of his children with E-names.
- Angrish: "Did you ever make your mother so mad that she forgot your name? 'Come here, Roy—uh Ralph—Roquefort— Rutabaga—what is your name, boy? And don't lie to me, 'cause you live here and I'll find out who you are!'"
- Later in the same skit: "I used to think my father was an idiot because the man could not complete a full sentence... Now I understand ... had it've been a grown person, you'd have cursed: 'What the foul filth foul foul filth filth filth foul foul! And you're filth and foul!' But you talk to your child, you censor yourself, and you say, 'What the... Get your... I'll bust... Get outta my face!'"
- Berserk Button: African Americans who freely use the "N word", idolize rappers and proliferate bad stereotypes.
- Creator Backlash: For Leonard Part 6, a movie he co-produced and co-wrote but ended up begging audiences not to see.
- Creator Breakdown: Bill Cosby the Comedian died when Ennis did. Bill Cosby the Angry Old Man Who Mutters Invectives at Black Kids Who Wear Saggy Pants took his place.
- Actually, the breakdown was evident as early as Those of You With or Without Children, You'll Understand back in 1986. That album has only three skits, the third of which is more of a commentary on how his children are growing up than anything else. The funny isn't that diminished, but he also spends a lot of time pontificating.
- As far as the anti-stereotype grouch, that dates all the way back to 1968's Black History: Lost, Stolen or Strayed.
- The Eponymous Show: A trademark, epitomised by The Cosby Show, of course.
- Fake Rabies: "Roland and the Rollercoaster" deals with his crazy friend Roland, who used to do things like keep soap chips in his mouth. When people think Roland's head has been turned around by the roller coaster (due to Roland wearing his clothes backwards), there is a throwaway line from someone seeing Roland: "And he's got the rabies!" It's a good Brick Joke as it usually takes the audience a few moments to remember the soap chips in the mouth (which was mentioned early on in a fairly long story).
- The Fourth Wall Will Not Protect You: The "Chicken Heart" story of the radio program Lights Out ends with the titular monster paying the audience a visit. "It's in your home state!" *bump-bump* *bump-bump* "It's outside of your door!" *bump-bump* *bump-bump* "And it's going to eat you up!" It scares Little Cos badly enough to both smear Jell-O all over the floor and set the sofa on fire.
- Grey Goo (no, seriously): Played for laughs in a retelling of the old radio serial Lights Out and its "Chicken Heart" episode. The routine is probably far better known than the original audio drama.
- Inflation Negation: Cosby has a stand-up routine in which he says that grandparents will give you money; all that you have to do is listen to a story about how much the money used to be worth. He quotes his grandfather saying that he once had 50 cents and bought "a house... and a car... and put 17 cents in the bank."
- Ironic Echo:
- In the Noah and the Ark sketch:
Noah's neighbor: What's this thing for, anyway?
- Then later, when Noah's griping at God about all the ridicule he's being subjected to:
- Ironic Echo Cut: In "Driving in San Francisco", after stopping on a hill so steep that he's afraid he'll roll backward as soon as he lets go of the brakes:
Cosby: Well, I don't want to let [the guy behind me] know I can't drive, so I say "Come around, idiot, come around!" but he can't hear me because he's busy telling the guy behind him "Come around, idiot, come around!"
- Irony: Several times on the Revenge album:
- In the title track, Bill plans to hit Harold with a snowball, but Junior Barnes hits him with one instead (prompting Bill to complain in much the same way Harold always does). Bill ends up saving a snowball in his freezer, but when he goes to use it against Junior Barnes in the middle of July, he discovers his mother had found it and thrown it away. (Undaunted, he spits on Junior Barnes instead.)
- In the second half of "Buck, Buck", Bill is taken in by a prank involving a statue of Frankenstein's monster. When he tries to help play the same prank on Fat Albert, it backfires on him: "I forgot I was behind him." Cue Fat Albert (described minutes earlier as weighing 2,000 pounds) running away... so terrified he doesn't even realise he's trampling Bill into the ground in the process.
- Then, they take Bill to the hospital and put him next to "a wino who was run over by two kids." In the previous track, "9th Street Bridge," Bill and Harold ran into a wino in the dark, mistaking him for a monster and trampling him as they ran away.
- Also in his first album (Bill Cosby Is a Very Funny Fellow...Right!): His football coach's pep talk prompts them to "really wanna smash together"; they run out and the door is locked.
- Kids Shouldn't Watch Horror Films: His "Chicken Heart" routine. It culminates in him smearing Jell-O on the floor to trap the giant heart and setting the couch on fire, which his father slips on, breaking his arm.
- There's also the incident with the wino after they spend all night trying not to watch Frankenstein.
- Lamaze Class: The "Natural Childbirth" routine. Cosby seems to enjoy his role much more than his wife does, even doing "macho breathing" along with her and cheering, "Push 'em out, shove 'em out, waaay out."
- And then is mightily aggrieved, during the actual birth, to discover his wife less than appreciative for all this supportive effort: "And on the next contraction, she told everyone in that delivery room that my parents were never married!"
- Loophole Abuse: "Chocolate Cake for Breakfast," wherein, having been woken out of a sound sleep to go feed the kids breakfast, he gives his kids the chocolate cake they clamour for after rationalizing that it's healthy for them — because, after all, it has wheat and eggs and milk. And when his wife demands to know why they are eating it for breakfast, his kids pipe up, "We asked for eggs and milk!" So his wife sends him to his room. Which is where he wanted to go in the first place.
"[Men] are the geniuses of the house because only someone as smart as we could fake such stupidity."
- MD Envy: In a skit from Wonderfulness describing the day he had his tonsils removed, the young Cosby addresses an orderly: "Hey, you! Almost a doctor!"
- Obfuscating Stupidity: In Himself, Bill suggests this is the attitude many fathers take towards things they don't want to do.
"Fathers are the geniuses of the house. Because only a person as intelligent as we could fake such stupidity. Think about your father! He doesn't know where anything is! You ask him to do something, he messes it up! ... That's a genius at work! Because he doesn't want to do it! And he knows someone will be coming soon to stop him from doing it!"
- One-Hit Wonder: In 1967, he had a #4 pop hit with "Little Ole Man (Uptight — Everything's Alright)."
- One-Winged Angel: Played straight:
"I've often heard of people having a conniption, but I'd never seen one. You don't wanna see 'em! My wife's face...split. The skin and hair split and came off of her face so that there was nothing except the skull! And orange light came out of her hair and it lit all around! And fire shot from her eye sockets and began to burn my stomach! And she said, 'Where did they get chocolate cake from!?!?'"
- Precision F-Strike: Known for being very clean in his comedy both in the content and the language, but he will occasionally swear to emphasize a point. From "Himself":
"I asked a friend, 'What is it about cocaine that makes it so wonderful?' And he said 'Well, it intensifies your personality.' To which I responded, 'Yes, but what if you're an asshole?'"
- Cosby also says "shit" at one point in that same skit, which is perhaps the only time he ever said that word onstage.
- Disney Channel played a heavily edited version of the special ad nauseum in its early days. Among the cuts are the "Jesus Christ & Dammit" joke below.
- Secret Weapon: Buck Buck, a game about who can get dogpiled longer without falling down. Bill and his friends had crazy endurance, but so did the kids from "the rough part of town"... but those kids didn't have Fat Albert.
- Smith Will Suffice: Inverted:
It was because of my father that, from the ages of 7 to 15, I thought that my name was Jesus Christ, and my brother, Russell, thought that his name was Dammit. "Dammit, will you stop all that noise?" And, "Jesus Christ, sit down!" One day, I'm out playing in the rain, and my father yelled, "Dammit, will you get back in here!" I said, "Dad, I'm Jesus Christ!"
- Shout-Out: In a skit on Bill Cosby: Himself, Cosby uses the Mushmouth voice for a dentist patient who has just taken Novocain.
- Stand Up Comedy: Which eventually turned into "sit-down comedy", as Cosby took to performing while seated in a chair.
- Stop Being Stereotypical: Particularly from the 2000's onwards, he's been very outspoken about negative issues in the black community, including high rates of imprisonment, absent fathers, drugs, anti-intellectualism, etc. There is a significant following for the idea that this led to the mainstream media, which lionizes criminals emblematic of these traits (sometimes in adjacent segments), pushing very hard to invoke Convicted by Public Opinion.
- Post his 2018 conviction, this rings naturally of hypocrisy.
- Theme Naming: Cosby gave all five of his kids names beginning with E, supposedly for "excellence".
- This Is My Side: Figures prominently on the title track of To Russell, My Brother, Whom I Slept With.
- Unishment: The "Chocolate Cake for Breakfast" routine. Bill screws up making breakfast so badly that his wife sends him to his room. Seeing as how it was six in the morning, and she had woken him up to make breakfast in the first place, Bill was more than happy to go. In fact, Bill even suggests he did that on purpose.