Today’s comedian is Dr. Bill Cosby.
William Henry “Bill” Cosby Jr. (born July 12, 1937) is an American comedian, actor, author, television producer, educator, musician and activist. A veteran stand-up performer, he got his start at the hungry i in San Francisco and various other clubs, then landed a starring role in the 1960s action show I Spy. He later starred in his own sitcom, The Bill Cosby Show. He was one of the major performers on the children’s television series The Electric Company during its first two seasons, and created the educational cartoon comedy series Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, about a group of young friends growing up in the city. Cosby also acted in a number of films.
During the 1980s, Cosby produced and starred in one of the decade’s defining sitcoms, The Cosby Show, which aired eight seasons from 1984 to 1992. It was the number one show in America for five straight years (1985–89). The sitcom highlighted the experiences and growth of an affluent African-American family. He also produced the spin-off sitcom A Different World, which became second to The Cosby Show in ratings. He starred in the sitcom Cosby from 1996 to 2000 and hosted Kids Say the Darndest Things for two seasons.
In 2002, scholar Molefi Kete Asante included him in his book The 100 Greatest African Americans.
In 1976, Cosby earned a Doctor of Education degree from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. His dissertation discussed the use of Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids as a teaching tool in elementary schools.
In 1965, when he was cast alongside Robert Culp in the I Spy espionage adventure series, Cosby became the first African-American co-star in a dramatic television series, and NBC became the first to present a series so cast. At first Cosby and NBC executives were concerned that some affiliates might be unwilling to carry the series. At the beginning of the 1965 season, four stations declined the show; they were in Georgia, Florida, and Alabama. Viewers were taken with the show’s exotic locales and the authentic chemistry between the stars, and it became one of the ratings hits of that television season. I Spy finished among the twenty most-watched shows that year, and Cosby would be honored with three consecutive Emmy Awards for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series.
During the run of the series, Cosby continued to do stand-up comedy performances and recorded a half-dozen record albums for Warner Bros. Records. He also began to dabble in singing, recording Silver Throat: Bill Cosby Sings in 1967, which provided him with a hit single with his recording of “Li’l Ole Man”. He would record several more musical albums into the early 1970s, but he continued to record primarily stand-up comedy work.
In June 1968, Billboard reported that Cosby had turned down a five-year, US$3.5 million contract renewal offer and would leave the label in August that year to record for his own record label.
Tetragrammaton Records was a division of the Campbell, Silver, Cosby (CSC) Corporation, the Los Angeles based production company founded by Cosby, his manager Roy Silver, and filmmaker Bruce Post Campbell. It produced films as well as records, including Cosby’s television specials, the Fat Albert cartoon special and series and several motion pictures. CSC hired industry veteran Artie Mogull as President of the label and Tetragrammaton was fairly active during 1968–69 (its most successful signing was British heavy rock band Deep Purple) but it quickly went into the red and ceased trading during 1970.
Fat Albert, The Bill Cosby Show, and the 1970s
Cosby pursued a variety of additional television projects and appeared as a regular guest host on The Tonight Show and as the star of an annual special for NBC. He returned with another series in 1969, The Bill Cosby Show, a situation comedy that ran for two seasons. Cosby played a physical education teacher at a Los Angeles high school. While only a modest critical success, the show was a ratings hit, finishing eleventh in its first season. Cosby was lauded for using some previously unknown African-American performers such as Lillian Randolph, Moms Mabley, and Rex Ingram as characters. According to commentary on the Season 1 DVD’s for the show, Cosby was at odds with NBC over his refusal to include a laugh track in the show (he felt that viewers had the ability to find humor for themselves when watching a TV show). He was originally contracted with NBC to do the show for two seasons, and he believes the show was not renewed afterwards for that reason.
After The Bill Cosby Show left the air, Cosby returned to his education. He began graduate work at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. For the PBS series The Electric Company, Cosby recorded several segments teaching reading skills to young children.
In 1972, Cosby received an MA from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and was also back in prime time with a variety series, The New Bill Cosby Show. However, this time he met with poor ratings, and the show lasted only a season. More successful was a Saturday morning show, Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, hosted by Cosby and based on his own childhood. That series ran from 1972 to 1979, and as The New Fat Albert Show in 1979 and The Adventures of Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids in 1984. Some schools used the program as a teaching tool, and Cosby himself wrote a dissertation on it, “An Integration of the Visual Media Via ‘Fat Albert And The Cosby Kids’ Into the Elementary School Curriculum as a Teaching Aid and Vehicle to Achieve Increased Learning”, as partial fulfillment of obtaining his 1976 doctorate in education, also from the University of Massachusetts. Subsequently, Temple University, where Cosby had begun but never finished his undergraduate studies, would grant him his bachelor’s degree on the basis of “life experience.”
Also during the 1970s, Cosby and other African-American actors, including Sidney Poitier, joined forces to make some successful comedy films that countered the violent “blaxploitation” films of the era. Uptown Saturday Night (1974) and Let’s Do It Again (1975) were generally praised, but much of Cosby’s film work has fallen flat. Mother, Jugs & Speed (1976), costarring Raquel Welch and Harvey Keitel; A Piece of the Action, with Poitier; and California Suite, a compilation of four Neil Simon plays, were all panned. In addition, Cos (1976) an hour-long variety show featuring puppets, sketches, and musical numbers, was canceled within the year. It was during this season that ABC decided to take advantage of this phase of Cosby’s career by associating with Filmation (producers of Fat Albert) in creating live-action segments starring Cosby for the 1964/1971 animated film Journey Back to Oz, which made its network premiere at Christmas 1976, and aired subsequently in syndication. Cosby was also a regular on children’s public television programs starting in the 1970s, hosting the “Picture Pages” segments that lasted into the early 1980s.
These endeavors created a bridge in Cosby’s career that led to his greatest success that would save a faltering television network from the ratings cellar.
The Cosby Show and the 1980s
Cosby’s greatest television success came in September 1984 with the debut of The Cosby Show. The program aired weekly on NBC and went on to become the highest ranking sitcom of all time. For Cosby, the new situation comedy was a response to the increasingly violent and vulgar fare the networks usually offered. Cosby is an advocate for humor that is family-oriented. He insisted on and received total creative control of the series, and he was involved in every aspect of the series. The show had parallels to Cosby’s actual family life: like the characters Cliff and Claire Huxtable, Cosby and his wife Camille were college educated, financially successful, and had five children. Essentially a throwback to the wholesome family situation comedy, The Cosby Show was unprecedented in its portrayal of an intelligent, affluent, African-American family.
Much of the material from the pilot and first season of The Cosby Show was taken from his video Bill Cosby: Himself, released in 1983. The series was an immediate success, debuting near the top of the ratings and staying there for most of its long run. The Cosby Show is one of only three American programs that have been #1 in the Nielsen ratings for at least five consecutive seasons, along with All in the Family and American Idol. People magazine called the show “revolutionary”, and Newsday concurred that it was a “real breakthrough.”
In 1987, Cosby attempted to return to film with the spy spoof Leonard Part 6. Although Cosby himself was producer and wrote the story, he realized during production that the film was not going to be what he wanted and publicly denounced it, warning audiences to stay away.