Bill Cosby to Receive Mark Twain Prize for American Humor

By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 21, 2009

An all-star cast of comedians -- including Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock -- has lined up to salute Bill Cosby, the recipient of this year's Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.

The Kennedy Center announced Thursday that the Oct. 26 gala will include Dick Gregory, Sinbad, Carl Reiner and George Lopez. Cosby's broad taste in music will be represented by jazz artists Wynton Marsalis and Jimmy Heath, as well as country legend Willie Nelson, folk and protest musician Len Chandler and symphonic orchestra conductor James DePreist.

Also attending will be veterans of "The Cosby Show," the weekly sitcom that dominated the ratings for most of its eight-year run. Phylicia Rashad and Malcolm-Jamal Warner have agreed to appear. The acting world will also be represented by Rita Moreno and Danny Glover.

The Cosby tribute is the 12th installment of the Twain Prize, established by the center to underscore the contributions of comedy writer and performers. Previous recipients include Billy Crystal, Neil Simon, Steve Martin, Lily Tomlin, Whoopi Goldberg, Jonathan Winters, Richard Pryor, Bob Newhart, Lorne Michaels and George Carlin. Reiner, who is credited with introducing Cosby to late-night television audiences after he saw him at the Gaslight Club in 1962, was the winner in 1999.

The format for the evening includes dozens of clips from the honoree's career, some current jokes and stories from those who count the honoree as an influence, and musical selections.

Finding evidence of Cosby's groundbreaking career won't be hard. Cosby is now 72 and has been a mainstay of American entertainment for 50 years.

He started as a stand-up comedian. His early recordings were bestsellers and introduced audiences to his precise storytelling form. Many of the stories were drawn from his childhood experiences in Philadelphia.

In the 1960s he made history as the first black male lead in a network drama in "I Spy," in which he was paired equally with a white partner, Robert Culp. Cosby won three Emmys for that role.

He also moved into film, appearing with Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte in madcap urban adventures. A number of animated and other shows followed until 1984, when his "Cosby Show" became appointment television on Thursday nights. The show won six Emmys, three Golden Globes and 10 People's Choice Awards.

Cosby keeps up a vigorous schedule of concerts but also has written several best-selling books on parenting, urging self-responsibility in African American communities.

In 1998 he received the Kennedy Center Honors and in 2002 the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

The event in the Concert Hall is sold out, according to the Kennedy Center, but PBS plans to broadcast the concert Nov. 4.

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