Bill Cosby is awarded the Twain Prize for humor at the Kennedy Center

Stars inspired by Bill Cosby celebrate the comedian's acceptance of the Mark Twain Award, the nation's top humor prize, on the red carpet at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Monday night.
By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Well, this doesn't happen very often. Wynton Marsalis, sax legend Jimmy Heath and . . . Willie Nelson played a boogie number together on the Kennedy Center Concert Hall stage Monday night in tribute to Bill Cosby, a would-be blues drummer himself.

It all made a kind of weird sense. In his long and eclectic career, Cosby, who received the 12th Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, has collected a varied set of friends. A few of them -- comedians, actors, dancers, folk singers, athletes -- turned up to pay tribute to Cosby as he took his official place on comedy's Mount Rushmore.

Cosby, 72, took it all in, amused and delighted, from a mezzanine box, with his wife of 45 years, Camille, by his side, his extended family surrounding him. Accepting the prize, Cosby said, "This is the first time I've enjoyed myself." After two hours of great Cosby highlights -- everything from a vintage clip of him doing his "Noah" routine on "The Jack Paar Show" to "The Cosby Show" itself -- Cosby declared, "Even my wife said I was funny!"

The Twain Prize was long in coming for Cosby, but only by choice. Cosby said he turned down the honor twice before because he objected to the profanity surrounding the first Twain ceremony honoring Richard Pryor in 1998. "Too much foul mouth. Too much n-word," he declared on the red carpet beforehand.

Fortunately, Cos mellowed (maybe he missed last year's posthumous award to George Carlin, who knew something about profanity), which gave his friends a chance to tell stories, roll vintage clips and offer tribute to Cosby's 45 years as a TV star, philanthropist, comedic raconteur and America's Dad.

One of Cosby's oldest friends, comedian-activist Dick Gregory, said Cosby's breakthrough, a co-starring role on the mid-'60s TV show "I Spy," permanently changed racial perceptions. For years, comedians like Gregory, now 77, were billed as "Negro comics." After "I Spy" became a hit, he said, "they dropped the word 'Negro' from our name."

Jerry Seinfeld, who succeeded Cosby as NBC's biggest star, recalled listening to Cosby's album "Why Is There Air" as an 11-year-old in 1965. "I completely lost my mind," Seinfeld said. "It was the single most powerful event of my childhood." Seinfeld confided that he has Cosby's record albums on display in his home. He called Cosby "the guiding light of my entire career."

Members of Cosby's TV family -- the Huxtables -- came, too. Phylicia Rashad, who played Cosby's loving but indomitable wife in two sitcoms, said Cosby "protected" the cast and crew of "The Cosby Show" from the network, the media and the public during the show's top-rated heyday. "If we had pressure, we didn't know about it," Rashad said before the show. "It was a happy set. I never realized it until I made guest appearances" on other shows.

Several speakers noted the parallels between the Huxtables and the Obamas (as a clip from "The Daily Show" put it: Both patriarchs are married to hot lawyers, both work in an office in the western part of their house and both have impossibly adorable daughters). Fiction and reality crossed over on Monday before the show when Cosby, Rashad and other presenters met privately with first lady Michelle Obama.

Cosby's acceptance speech was a 30-minute survey of his life and times, from his early days as a mediocre high school student to his early success as a Greenwich Village stand-up comic to his career peak on "The Cosby Show." He came decked out in a brown blazer displaying lapel pins marking the Kennedy Center Honors he received in 1998 and his 2002 Presidential Medal of Freedom. He remarked that he'd have a hard time finding a suitable place to wear the Twain Prize, a bronze bust of Mark Twain.

More reminiscences: The comedian Sinbad, who starred in "The Cosby Show" spinoff "A Different World," remembered growing up "in awe" of Cosby when he was on "I Spy." "He broke all the rules," Sinbad said. "A black spy! And he was playing tennis!"

(Local connection: Cosby met his wife while performing in Washington in the early 1960s and she was a student at the University of Maryland.)

The ceremony, taped before a full house, will be broadcast on PBS stations on Nov. 4.

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