The Genius of the Cos and Other Comedians

Seems like everybody and zer cousin has written somethin about Bill Cosby's statements at the NAACP dinner last week. I'm not above adding my voice to the rest, but I want to see if I can get a complete transcript first. At any rate, here you can read LaShawn,Ambra, Cobb, and Clarence Page. For now, I'm more interested in looking at Bill Cosby's stand-up work. Not necessarily trying to come up with a ranking, but just positioning him among his peers. In reality, he's in the pantheon, but in the interest of giving myself something to talk about, I'll probably include some people on the very next strata. When I think of the great comedians, I have to start with Richard Pryor, primarily because the people that came before him are a little before my time. I have some Redd Foxx records and I've heard Pigmeat Markham and Moms Mabley, but if you've ever been to a comedy show, then you know the dynamic at a show is very different from what you get on a record. I think the comedy record that best gives the feeling of being at the artist's show is Robin Harris' Bebe's Kids. I should also be careful to include Flip Wilson and Dick Gregory in this group, even though I've never actually heard Dick Gregory tell a joke. I've read/heard some funny things from him, but I've never heard him doing a set. Of course, as I was coming of age, Eddie Murphy was killing it and then courtesy of the Def Comedy Jam, I came across Bernie Mac and Cedric. Robin Williams used to be up there for me too, but it's not quite the same for me any more. I don't know if because he's gotten older or because I have, though. Same thing with Steve Martin. Then by the late 90's it was all about Chris Rock and now Dave Chappelle is getting a lot of attention, but he's been gettin' it in for a while. Now that I've done my obligatory name dropping and bias disclosing, here's the deal: any historical look at Black comedians has to include the element of protest that informed much of their work. Not so much for the ones before Richard, although there may have been some overtly social material in their acts too, but definitely after Richard, that was almost an expected part of any Black comedian's routine. (Because I'm not so familiar with his act, I don't know if Dick Gregory comes before Richard or after...I'm thinking before, but I don't know) Bill never really got down like that. I remember reading back in the 80's that when Cosby initially started off along that route but then another comedian told him, derisively, that if he lost his color, he wouldn't have an act. That's when he started to focus his material on childhood. Some people I know think that in centering his material on a non-confrontational topic like childhood, and by being particularly non-confrontational about it, Cosby was accommodating the "powers that be." For them, the Richard paradigm is in full effect: give 'em (white people) hell every time you step to the mic, even if you just sneak it in as an aside. While I think there's enough fodder there for an interesting discussion, I think it misses what seems to be an existential sort of Blackness. That is, Bill Cosby never had to put his Blackness in the audience's face because it was already in the audience's face. When he did the "Fat Albert" routines, I don't think there's anybody who has ever imagined that Fat Albert or Weird Harold was not Black. What's more, he wasn't apologizing for his Blackness or downplaying it, so much as he just presented it like it was a given. I think it's similar to Zora Neale Hurston's use of the Southern Black vernacular, esp. in Their Eyes Were Watching God. To the extent that she was making a political statement (and knowing her politics, if she was at all, it was to a very limited extent), it was the implicit statement that these people's lives were valid and worth talking (reading) about, as did their manner of speech. I would argue strongly that that does not make him an accomodationalist, even if it does not mark him as a radical. (For any lit majors out there, there's a pretty good paper topic in there to be fleshed out-- Cosby's apolitical comedy : the overtly political Black "establishment(?)" comedians of the time, esp. Richard Pryor :: Zora Neale Hurston's stories, in which white racism gets minimal ink : other Harlem Rennaisance writers, esp. Richard Wright. Got your Black lit in there, plus you get to listen to a whole lot of Richard Pryor. I wish I had thought of something like this when I was in undergrad.) Another interesting element of Cosby's routines is that his style is primarily storytelling. This doesn't separate him from anybody, but I think it is definitely one of his strengths. One difference between Bill and Rich is that Bill generally narrates the stories, sometimes speaking in character, whereas Rich was good for going into character and staying there for the entire routine. Think "Mudfoot" and "Wino and Junkie." Speaking of voices, does that "white guy" voice start with Richard? I have to go back and check out my Redd Foxx collection, but I think the "white guy" voice, as well as the whole "Black people v. White people" as a routine staple starts with Richard Pryor. Looking at Bill and Richard together is interesting because even though I think Richard was on a whole different level for a lot of reasons, more people tried to imitate him than they did with Bill, whose work and stylings are a lot more accessible. Not saying that just anybody could do what Bill did, but nobody could do what Richard did. It's not uncommon, though. There are more imitators of Prince than Michael Jackson, and far too many young Black people would rather be athletes than engineers. The irony here is that Bill Cosby, outside of being a stand-up comedian, is much more widely revered than Richard; I think it's safe to bet that he's richer than Richard, too. I don't think it's hard to understand why, though. It's the cussing. As anybody of some age knows, Lenny Bruce is the Curt Flood of cussing on the mic. Redd Foxx did it first, but he didn't get suffer the political repercussions that Lenny Bruce did. Redd Foxx just couldn't get work. (Don't know who Curt Flood is? Take a break from this and google him. He's an important figure, whether you care about sports or not.) After him came George Carlin and Richard. Okay, so Richard didn't invent cussing on the mic, but he was very profuse with it. And even though Bill tried to separate Richard from his imitators by saying that Richard's cussing was a function of his speaking in character, it's not accurate. To tell the truth, Richard's cuss volume decreased in character. When he was speaking in his own voice (figuratively), he cussed a lot more. In the same way that the basketball players who have come come after Jordan have lessened the quality of the game by focusing so much on the spectacular things he did that they lack the fundamentals (Kobe & KG obviously excepted, the Def Comedy Jam era comedians did much the same thing. (Except, and I hafta vent this here: one time there was an old dude on there who basically bit Richard's whole routine. I forget which routine it was, and I don't remember the dude's name, but as he was up there talking, I was finishing his punch lines. I was about to go off, but I didn't want to hear Butterscotch's mouth. Or maybe it was Redd Foxx he was jacking, but the point is, I knew the routine and I was mad he got up there acting like it was new.) It seems that many of the more recent comedians kept the cussing but forgot the jokes. They're topically limited to "Black people v. White people" (with the requisite "white guy" voice) and sex, maybe expanding it to relationships. I ain't gon' front, sometimes it's funny, but most times, it's not. One of the last brothers who cussed a lot but had ridiculously solid fundamentals was the late Robin Harris. I don't know if I would go as far as calling Robin Harris a genius, but he was at the very top of the next tier. He was certainly the king of comedy once Eddie went off to be a movie star. Robin Harris was solid. He did something comedians rarely do any more: he told jokes. Nowadays, most comedians' acts consist of observations highlighting ironic elements, sometimes using excessive hyperbole. Robin Harris did that too, but he told actual jokes with a beginning, middle, end, and details that held the joke together. To this day, I can't think of an isolated joke that is better than his Piccolo Player. Now, Robin cussed a lot. He cussed a whole lot, and it was not always integral to the joke, but his material was so solid that it didn't even matter. (At the same time, if you really break down the way people talk like I do sometimes, you'd have to admit that Robin Harris said the word "motherfucker" the way it's supposed to be said. He popped it like a bath towel.) He also had incredible "dozens" game. Vulgar as he wanted to be, but when it came to squelching hecklers, he was ruthless. Like that time he was like, "Somebody put somethin' in his mouth, cuz my zipper's stuck." Now that's ruthless. Unfortunately, he passed away just as he was about to come into his own. Stepping into Robin's place is Bernie Mac, whose act seems like a cross between Bill Cosby and Robin Harris. (In fact, Bernie Mac played Robin Harris' brother in House Party 3. I don't like admitting that I actually saw that piece, but I thought it was tremendous casting that had him playing Robin Harris' brother. They're both dark-skinned, got similar beetle eyes, cuss like it's going out of style...that's a match. I could definitely imagine them sharing a bedroom when they were younger, capping on each other all night.) Not the same lasting impact of either, I don't suspect, but he is very, very good.