By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 2, 2009
Bill Cosby, the enduringly familiar funnyman, has been selected to receive this year's Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, the Kennedy Center announced yesterday.
Cosby, 71, has been in showbiz for 50 years, with hit stand-up recordings, sitcoms, Saturday-morning cartoons and best-selling books to his credit. His wide-ranging television work includes "The Electric Company" to "I Spy" to "Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids" to "The Cosby Show."
In accepting the honor, Cosby, celebrated as a sharp storyteller, issued a remembrance:
"After bathing us, dressing us in fresh pajamas, and setting us into the crib together, Annie Pearl Cosby read to my brother James and me 'The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,' and later 'The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,' " said Cosby. "I would like to apologize to Mr. Twain for falling asleep hundreds of times, but he should understand that I was only four."
In his statement, Cosby also cited Twain works that inspired him: "The Mysterious Stranger," "The Story of Jim Blaine's Grandfather's Old Ram," "How to Cure a Cold" and "How to Tell a Story."
The prizewinner is selected ultimately by the Kennedy Center board, following recommendations by center committees and former Twain winners.
"What Bill offers us is the opportunity to look at so many different things -- his stand-up, his appearances on late-night television, his movies, his TV show. Our show in every way will be diverse," said Mark Krantz, a co-executive producer of the Twain salute, which will be taped in front of a live audience at the Kennedy Center on Oct. 26 for future broadcast.
The tribute runs two hours but the televised version is usually trimmed to 90 minutes. "With Bill it will be challenging to get the show into a real 90 minutes. In the case of Steve Martin, we did two hours," said Krantz.
Past winners include: Richard Pryor, Jonathan Winters, Carl Reiner, Whoopi Goldberg, Bob Newhart, Lily Tomlin, Lorne Michaels, Martin, Neil Simon, Billy Crystal and last year's recipient, George Carlin.
Cosby was a Kennedy Center Honors recipient in 1998 and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2002.
"Over the course of his extensive career as a stand-up comedian, writer, actor, and social activist, Bill Cosby has earned countless accolades for his groundbreaking brand of humor. He is truly one of America's most beloved comedians, a favorite of television audiences around the world," said Kennedy Center Chairman Stephen A. Schwarzman.
Throughout his career, Cosby has used his life experiences as fodder for his monologues.
Born in Philadelphia, Cosby served in the U.S. Navy and returned home to attend Temple University. In college he was a member of the football team and track and field team. He has said he was always the class clown but found his audience and honed his humor while working as a bartender. In 1962, he made his first appearance at the Gaslight in Greenwich Village, a hotbed for comedians. Carl Reiner saw the show and soon Cosby was getting national attention. In 1963 he made his debut on "The Tonight Show."
His role in the television drama "I Spy," with Robert Culp, marked the first time an African American actor was given equal billing and prominence with a white actor. Cosby won three Emmys for the 1960s series.
Hollywood beckoned, and in the 1970s Cosby teamed with Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte for the film "Uptown Saturday Night" and again with Poitier for "Let's Do It Again."
During the 1960s he kept working on the concert circuit. His comedy albums from 1964 to 1969 won Grammy Awards. His routines always returned to his family. "Because of my father, I thought my name was Jesus Christ," he has said. When he wrote about his own experiences in "Fatherhood," the book sold 2.6 million copies in hardcover.
Besides Groucho Marx and other comics, Cosby credits jazz greats Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and Betty Carter, who provided a road map on innovation that has informed his own timing, delivery and interpretations.
From 1984 to 1990, "The Cosby Show" dominated Thursday nights, before ending in 1992. It's often credited with three achievements: It showed a large, boisterous upper-middle-class black family, with two working parents, handling everyday struggles with humor and love; it revived the said-to-be-dead sitcom genre; and is said to have saved its struggling network, NBC.
" 'The Cosby Show' changed sitcoms, and took it away from 'The Brady Bunch,' " said Krantz.
The show won six Emmys, three Golden Globes and 10 People's Choice Awards.
That success was followed by "A Different World," which Cosby co-produced and which showcased life on a black college campus. Not as widely successful as its predecessor, it nonetheless was a hit and was credited with increasing enrollment at historically black colleges.
Although social commentary was never far from Cosby's goals, he didn't pointedly do racial or political bits. In recent years, on other platforms, Cosby has spoken about the condition of black communities, what he sees as the breakdown of family values and the need for black self-responsibility. His most recent book, "Come On People: On the Path From Victims to Victors," written with psychiatrist Alvin F. Poussaint, offered solutions, which the authors discussed in a "Meet the Press" session.
Like many veterans, Cosby still makes frequent appearances at nightclubs, concert halls and casino rooms. And usually he chooses to do it the old-fashioned way, with two shows a night.
Comedians who cited Cosby as an inspiration include the late Richard Pryor, Billy Crystal, Jamie Foxx, Eddie Murphy and Jerry Seinfeld.
"I don't think there is a comic out there that hasn't been influenced by Bill," said Krantz.