January 2015
Volume 35 No. 1

January 2015
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TV Critics Association Up From a Bumpy Past

Book Review: The (Nice) Life And (Hard) Times of Bill Cosby

Bill Cosby has been in the news a lot lately… and not for anything good. A growing number of women have come forward alleging that the comedian either raped or otherwise sexually assaulted them over the years. Why these accusations are only coming to light again now remains unclear, but what is clear is that they paint a different picture of the entertainer, whose avuncular image had remained squeaky clean for decades.

What’s also unclear is why Mark Whitaker, author of the otherwise comprehensive biography Cosby: His Life and Times (Simon & Schuster, 532 pages, $29.99) published in September, doesn’t make any mention of these allegations, instead depicting the comic legend as a virtually spotless performer whose wholesome brand of family comedy had a hand in changing many an antiquated racist view in the U.S. and abroad and helped pave the way for America’s first black president. Whitaker has since been criticized widely for his omission and has apologized.

While Whitaker writes in the Acknowledgments that he “remained wary of gossip” during the book’s writing, that doesn’t fully explain why he’d leave out so many claims of sexual assault. Perhaps he didn’t want to risk angering the powerful man. Or perhaps he just didn’t think there was enough evidence to back up the claims. Either way, even a brief mention of the accusations against Cosby would have gone a long way to show that Whitaker was committed to a fair and honest portrayal of Bill Cosby the man, and not merely a sycophantic depiction written by a longtime fan who grew up fascinated by Cosby’s fatherly appeal and refreshingly nonracial comedy.

Other than those glaring omissions, Whitaker — a television executive who previously served as a managing editor for CNN and as Washington bureau chief for NBC News — takes great pains to detail every aspect of Cosby’s life, from his humble beginnings as a poor youth growing up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to his decision to drop out of college to pursue his dream of becoming a comedian to his improbable rise to fame in action series I Spy to the tragic loss of his only son to his controversial late-in-life stance on race relations in this country.

Whitaker spent years researching Cosby’s life, interviewing more than 60 of his closest friends, reading articles on and interviews with the comedian and finally, interviewing the man himself. Whitaker was granted unprecedented access to the very private Cosby, and spent roughly 15 hours alone with the stand-up comic, mostly in airports, on planes and in cars while en route to some of Cosby’s many yearly comedy concerts. What he came away with is a portrait of a man driven to perfection who rose from the depths of the Philadelphia projects to the top of the proverbial heap.

Growing up with an alcoholic father and a mother who worked herself to the bone cleaning houses to provide for her family, Cosby vowed that he’d be the complete opposite of his dead-beat dad. While he was never a natural student, he was a dedicated son and wanted to make his mother proud. He just didn’t think he could do that when it came to academics.

So he dropped out of high school in his late teens and joined the Navy, where he finally found the discipline he needed to buckle down and get serious about his future. When he was discharged, he got a track and field scholarship to Temple University and was on his way to a degree in physical education when he got sidetracked by the life that he would eventually lead — the life of a journeyman comedian. He started performing his act in small clubs, eventually making his way to New York, where he perfected his singular brand of cuss-free, family-friendly observational comedy. He did away with easy punch lines and simply drew stories from his daily life.

He was an almost instant hit, and eventually dropped out of college to pursue dreams of stardom that actually appeared to be at his fingertips. In doing so, he horribly disappointed his mother, who had hoped and prayed that Cosby would be the first college graduate in the family. He would eventually go back — even going so far as to earn a doctorate in education from the University of Massachusetts — but not before first finding a fame and fortune that had to have been unimaginable to someone from his modest background.

First, in 1965, to the amazement of well, everyone, he was cast in NBC’s I Spy espionage series, becoming the first African American to star in a U.S. drama.

It was a gamble, but one that ultimately paid off. Although a few TV stations in the south banned the show, the rest of America, it seemed, was finally ready for a black leading man. The show ran for three seasons and earned Cosby three consecutive Emmy Awards for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series.

After I Spy, Cosby would remain a television mainstay, but he wouldn’t find another hit for quite some time. He returned in 1969 with NBC’s The Bill Cosby Show, a sitcom starring Cosby as a Los Angeles gym teacher. Cosby repeatedly clashed with the network over their insistence and his refusal to use a laugh track, and the show only ran for two seasons.

He then launched the PBS children’s show The Electric Company, teaching kids reading skills. In 1972, he switched to CBS for The New Bill Cosby Show, a variety series that lasted only a season. That same year, he began hosting Saturday morning’s Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids — a cartoon based on Cosby’s comedy act — also for CBS. The show was a success, and ran for more than a decade.

Cosby followed those up with a slew of film roles, including Uptown Saturday Night and Let’s Do it Again. But his heart was in television. In 1976, he launched ABC’s Cos, another variety show, but it lasted just nine episodes. Cosby was starting to lose faith in his ability to carry a show, and focused his attention elsewhere — on finishing his schooling, recording comedy albums and performing. But all that would change in 1984 with the debut of NBC’s The Cosby Show, a family comedy that starred Cosby as the happily married father of a brood of five kids. The show was an immediate hit and would go on to air for eight seasons.

America, it seemed, was once again ready for a shift in race relations. Cosby’s upscale black family — with its obstetrician father and lawyer mother — was the only black family that many Americans knew. Whitaker notes that this “Cosby effect” was ultimately partially responsible for the “seismic political shift” that would usher Barack Obama into the White House.

The comedian followed up with You Bet Your Life, a short-lived game show, and The Cosby Mysteries (NBC), an even shorter-lived mystery series. Then, in 1996, he was again ready for the comedy game, and started a new show Cosby, for CBS, in which he played an elderly recently downsized man who is now home getting on his wife’s nerves. While not quite the success that his NBC sitcom was, the show was a modest hit, lasting four seasons. It was while filming this show that Cosby learned that his only son, Ennis, had been murdered during an attempted robbery in Los Angeles. The killer was eventually caught and brought to justice, but Cosby would never be the same.

And neither would his comedy. But by then the comedian had already made his mark. Younger comics, including Jerry Seinfeld and Ray Romano, credited Cosby with influencing their acts when they were starting out. And although Cosby’s initial I Spy stint on TV was banned in certain locales because of the color of his skin, nowadays, African American actors are everywhere on television.

Is that all thanks to the work of Bill Cosby? No, but he played a major part in helping to change views on race relations in this country. His squeaky-clean comedy and focus on family was popular among almost all viewers — white and black. Whitaker does a remarkable job laying out the many details of Cosby’s life — the comedy and the tragedy — making this a should-read for fans of the older comic. If only he’d bothered to even make mention of the rape allegations against Cosby, this would surely be a must-read for all.

By Leah Hochbaum Rosner