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Bill Cosby's gift of gab: In his genes via a sock
Twain Prize recipient learned the art of storytelling at his grandfather's knee

By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 26, 2009

Where does the gift come from? For Bill Cosby, it begins in a housing project in North Philadelphia. He's 6, maybe 7 years old. He's sitting at the knee of his father's father, hoping for a quarter. But first he has to listen.

Samuel Russell Cosby Sr. read the Bible, and told his grandson the stories. Young William didn't exactly listen -- "To this day, I don't know the names he said" -- but he sure enough heard. The details of the stories, of course, weren't as important as the way his grandfather told them -- his tone, his pace, the look on his face. It was how you told it, not what.

All of it stuck with the kid. A couple of decades later, when he was honing his own brilliant stories on a nightclub stage, Cosby would hear it again in his own voice.

"You learned storytelling from a man like this," Cosby says. He's on the phone from Los Angeles, and he's in career-reminiscence mode. He'll be in Washington on Monday night to receive the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor at the Kennedy Center. There's a big to-do in his honor, with celebrity presenters (Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld, Carl Reiner). It's basically a comedy Hall of Fame induction ceremony. So Cosby, 72, is reflecting.

"So [granddad] says, 'This is from the book of something, and then he'd start telling it. Telling it." Not preaching, just telling. "Somehow it pertained to my life, some wonderful lesson."

Little Cos absorbed it, but he was mostly focused on the quarter. Granddad kept his change in a sock, which he kept tucked into his belt. If the boy sat still and listened long enough, his grandfather would pull a coin from his sock-purse.

"He'd say, 'Take this quarter, put it in the bank. Save it. Don't go wasting it on ice cream!' "

So the boy diligently squirreled away Grandpa's quarters and then one day he . . .

"What?! Are you drunk?" Cosby sputters. "I went and got some ice cream! It was five cents a dip in those days. With a sugar cone."

In Cosby's retelling, Granddad Sam takes on mythic proportions. He's practically John Henry and Paul Bunyan. Worked for 60 years in a foundry! Walked five miles to and from work, even in the driving snow! Never stopped to eat lunch during the workday! "He just kept right on working," Cosby says.

In fact, Cosby considers his grandfather, who died in 1977 at age 95, a "savior for me in my life," almost a surrogate father. Despite the semi-idealized stories of childhood that would propel his career, despite his later criticism of inner-city youth and absentee fathers, Cosby's relationship with his own father was troubled. William Henry Cosby Sr. joined the Navy soon after Bill was born and left his mother, Anna, a domestic worker, largely on her own with their three sons. Bill still speaks bitterly about him. "My father was not to be found," he says. "He gave me very little information. He did not want any responsibility. He never got the memo about life."

* * *

Cosby doesn't remember his grandfather as a particularly funny man. But he could speak a certain kind of humorous truth. He recalls a dinner party for the old man when he was in his mid-80s. At this point, Samuel Cosby had lost both his legs and was confined to a wheelchair ("I think it was some kind of circulatory problem, but he may have walked them off"). At the party, the old man sat in his chair, wearing "a size 17 shirt on a size 14 neck." Bill said, " 'Granddad, what kind of shirt is that?' And he said, 'When you get past 80, they don't buy nothin' new for you.' "

Among his legacies, Samuel left his grandson with the joy of storytelling. His lessons would stick with Bill as he began to develop his art in the early 1960s. After his own stint in the Navy, Cosby worked his way through Temple University as a bartender. He found that his tips were better if he told his customers a joke. So Cosby began collecting jokes. Soon enough, he was telling them onstage.

"In the beginning, I went for the knockout," he says. "Hit 'em hard and straighten 'em up. Left, right, bam!" But over time he learned to pace himself, to draw out situations and embroider them with characters. His style became more relaxed, more conversational. Soon he was "painting," creating mini-plays in which he played all the parts. Three-minute bits evolved into seven-minute tales, and the seven-minute stories became full-blown epics.

One of Cosby's most famous stories, "Noah," imagines the biblical figure's conversation with God before the Flood. Memories of Cosby's impoverished childhood became "To Russell, My Brother, Whom I Slept With," a 27-minute spoken-word classic. "The Dentist" is about . . . going to the dentist.

The nightclub acts and albums inevitably led to television. Cosby won three Emmys for "I Spy," the lighthearted espionage series, in a breakthrough role for an African American actor. He made cartoons based on childhood characters ("Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids"), movies, Jell-O pudding ads, and wrote best-selling books about fatherhood and family life. And of course there was Dr. Cliff Huxtable and "The Cosby Show," the defining sitcom of the 1980s.

The root of all his storytelling, Cosby says, is "identification." Situations must be familiar, accessible, universal. His material has never been idiosyncratic, shocking or "racial" in nature. Cosby used to be criticized for that -- he wasn't "black" enough, some said, especially in the 1960s. But Cosby always believed his comedy made all kinds of people see what they had in common, which was a considerable racial achievement in itself.

Cosby still performs -- avidly, in fact. He does as many as four 90-minute shows in a weekend. The stand-up is mostly sit-down these days (Cosby typically settles into a big comfy chair for his shows), and the subjects reflect his age. They range from his grandchildren ("Hilarious!" he declares his routine) to his niece ("Hilarious!") to cooking the Thanksgiving turkey ("Hilarious!"). He also riffs on his aging body and his 45-year marriage to his wife, Camille. The most risque he gets is a bit in which he warns men about how much time they'll have to spend in the bathroom as they get older.

"I wouldn't have been able to do that piece through the '60s and '70s," he says. "Now I can. I'm 72! It's not naughty. It's not dirty. But the men are wiping their eyes and the women are tearing up the seats laughing.

"I'm more spontaneous now," he judges. "I'm not pressured by the inner ego. I know exactly where I'm going, exactly what I'm doing. I still come off with ad-libs. What's great about it is, when I ad-lib on my own material, the writer doesn't get pissed."

* * *

Cosby is not much different in conversation. He digresses plenty, hopscotching from topic to topic and strewing opinions like confetti. But it's a bit like jazz (one of Cosby's lifelong passions). Sooner or later, all the verbal improvisation yields something memorable.

"What kind of name is that?" he asks his interviewer at one point. Before he gets an answer, he's free-associating. Soon, he imagines how immigrant names were mangled and mauled in the passage through Ellis Island a century or more ago. " 'Listen up, people!' " he says, assuming the voice of a bossy immigration clerk. " 'These are the rules. If your name is more than eight letters long, you can forget it! We'll let some of you end on a vowel, or maybe a "k" or "t." All right, now, everybody line up over here. . . .' "

The length and breadth of Cosby's career presents the producers of the Twain Prize ceremony with a happy circumstance. There's so much to choose from that "inevitably you're going to leave a lot of good stuff out," says Peter Kaminsky, an executive producer and writer of the show, which will be broadcast on PBS stations on Nov. 4. One must-have, he said, was a 1973 clip from "The Dick Cavett Show," in which Cosby told a story that made fellow guest Jack Benny fall out of his chair with laughter. On the other hand, Cosby's mediocre movie career ("Leonard, Part 6," anyone?) won't get much play. "We wouldn't be giving Bill the award for that," Kaminsky says.

On the phone, Cosby closes with one more story, perhaps inevitably about childhood. He's older, 14 or 15, and wants to try out for his high school football team. He knows making the team will please his father, but his grandfather is against it. You'll get hurt, he tells Bill. Wait until you're 22.

Cosby ignored his grandfather's advice and signed up to play freshman ball. And promptly broke his collarbone.

One day soon after, Cosby was lying immobile on the couch at home when his grandfather came by for a visit. Hushed conversation with his mother ensued.

Cosby braced for an I-told-you-so lecture as the old man walked over to him. Instead, Samuel Cosby kissed the boy on the forehead, and pulled his sock out of his belt.

" 'Go get yourself some ice cream,' " Samuel said, handing Bill a quarter. " 'It's got calcium in it.' "

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