Sunday, November 15, 2009

Bill Cosby and the Goal of True Comedy
by David Gilfix

Update on this article:  I wrote this before the recent accusations by several women of sexual assault became public, and had I been aware of those charges at the time then it would have been a very different article.  Still, I believe that the article accurately portrays Bill Cosby's comedy and his positive influence on American culture.  For that reason I have left this article online.  That being said, those of us who appreciate Cosby's artistry must still decide for ourselves the following:  Does a person's imperfections, or 'crimes,' in their personal life discredit their public accomplishments?  If there were overwhelming evidence that the charges against Cosby are accurate (which does seems to be the case) then would we still want to view his performances?  For me the answer is easy:  No.

Of all the things performing artists do, the hardest is making people laugh -- especially the way Bill Cosby does it.

It’s easy to make people clap.  If you play music decently, the audience will clap, even if they don’t really like the performance.  I’ve clapped at some performances that I hated – because they were over.  It’s also easy to make people cry.  Just feature an adorable kid in a low budget film and kill him off in the end.  Better yet, have an adorable dog that saves the adorable kid but dies in the process.  Everybody cries at that; the movie is sure to become a hit, as will its country music soundtrack.

Laughter, on the other hand, is harder to evoke.  People don’t laugh when they’re sad, bored, distracted, or angry.  They laugh when they truly believe in their gut that something is funny.

There is one exception: people laugh when they feel uncomfortable.  And comedians know it’s a lot easier to make audiences feel uncomfortable than to be truly funny.   For example, if you pick on certain members of the audience, everyone else will laugh in relief that they aren’t targeted.   Then there are the tried and true methods of getting cheap laughs (and cheap laughs are better than no laughs), such as telling jokes with swears, crotch jokes, sexual mishap anecdotes, and amusing tales about public figures.

Bill Cosby uses none of those tricks.  In fact, he doesn’t even tell jokes.

The first time I heard Bill Cosby do his routine, “To Russell, my brother, with whom I slept with,” I was nine years old.  The last time I heard it was with my daughters, also nine years old.  There isn’t a single swear in Cosby’s routine; there are no jokes, no shock effects, no barbs at the audience -- just Bill’s true-to-life boyhood memory of staying up way past bedtime with his brother.  The brothers jump on the bed until it breaks then conspire on a story, but when Russell wants to tell Dad the truth, Bill threatens that he will have Russell “shipped back,” adding, “You aren’t really my brother anyway.” Dad barges in their room for the third time to order the boys to go to sleep.   Fearful he will use the dreaded belt which has never actually been revealed, the boys tell him that a man climbed in through the window, jumped on the bed until it broke, and climbed back out.

Another brilliant routine, “Natural Child Birth,” recounts the confusion and excitement over the birth of Bill Cosby’s first child and his wife’s attempt to deliver without the use of painkillers.  When his wife goes into labor, Bill drives like a maniac from the garage to the front door to get her.   At the hospital, Marx brothers-like characters bring her into the delivery room where a doctor is sitting in front of the bed like Johnny Bench.   On the second contraction, his wife grabs Bill’s lower lip and screams, “I want morphine!” When the baby is finally delivered, it is the greatest moment in their lives, the fulfillment of their prayers.  However, Bill has never seen a newborn baby before.  He goes over to his wife, lovingly kisses her, stares at the baby, and softly says, “Darling, I love you very, very much.  You just had … a lizard.”

Many years ago I taught acting and improvisation at a school for gifted children in New York.  After three years, I decided it was time for me to actually learn something, so I took a course with the late great Tamara Wilcox-Smith, creator of the National Improvisational Theatre and teacher of comedians and actors like Jerry Seinfeld, Griffin Dunne, Allyce Beasley, and Rita Rudner.  Tamara eschewed off-color humor, not because she was a prude but because she believed real comedy should flow naturally from a story.  Off-color humor usually is a crutch for a bad story.

Tamara believed that improvisation and comedy should be used to uplift people.  She and her husband Chris Smith adapted their improvisational teaching techniques for the New York schools to help special education, handicapped, and English-as-a-second-language students.  They also founded programs that were used at Paul Newman's Hole in the Wall Gang Camp for children with cancer.  For them, the highest goal of comedy was not simply entertainment but also positive change.

I never got to discuss Bill Cosby with Tamara, but my guess is that she highly respected him because he personified so much of what she espoused. Cosby never panders for laughs; his humor is organically interwoven within the story line and usually appeals to our higher values.  And then there is Cosby’s incredible comedic technique:  his musician-like ability to slow down or speed up tempo, and to increase or decrease his volume for maximum effect; his virtuosity with voices and microphone sounds; his amazing facial expressions and body language.  Lastly, Cosby understands like Tamara that comedy can be a transformative medium, as demonstrated by his most enduring work, The Cosby Show.

Debuted in 1984, The Cosby Show portrayed the Huxtables, a successful, functional, educated, intelligent, upper middle class black family.  The father, Cliff, played by Bill Cosby, is an obstetrician; his wife, Claire, is a lawyer.  The three children are normal kids, with normal behavior, and normal problems; they study hard but not always.   If all this seems unremarkable, it’s important to realize that until 1984 black characters on television shows were normally depicted as lazy, irresponsible, and uneducated.  They spoke in television-writers’ versions of black slang and were perennially scheming to get ahead rather than studying hard to get an education.

Cosby’s presentation of a successful black family was not without its critics. In the book, Enlightened Racism: The Cosby Show, Audiences, and the Myth of the American Dream, authors Sut Jhally and Justin Lewis argued that by portraying a black family that succeeded through hard work and education, the show actually reinforced beliefs that unsuccessful blacks are lazy rather than the victims of discrimination. 

Jhally and Lewis had a credible thesis.  However, in focusing on the unintended negative repercussions of the Cosby Show, they missed by a mile the positive influence that The Cosby Show had on the image of blacks in contemporary American culture.

Great comedy arises when an artist looks at a situation we’ve seen many times and discovers a new way to bring out the irony, absurdity, or silliness.  Influential comedians like Richard Pryor and Lennie Bruce often confronted bigotry by presenting exaggerated versions of common racial stereotypes.   Through laughter, we somehow saw the irrationality of a stereotype more clearly, as if the laughter itself was a lens cleaner for our own perceptions.

Bill Cosby does something completely different; he doesn’t confront stereotypes at all.  He doesn’t try to persuade his audience that blacks are as capable as whites; rather, he befriends his audience by dramatizing the humor in common human experiences and depicting an image of capable, successful, African Americans.  Abraham Lincoln once wrote that if you want to persuade someone about a cause, first convince him that you are his friend.   To Cosby, friendship is the ultimate weapon against bigotry, and nothing wins friends as easily as evoking true laughter.

Cosby has defended his choice not to confront racial topics directly since his early I Spy television series (for which he won three consecutive “Outstanding Lead Actor” Emmy Awards).  In the book, Cosby: The Life of a Comedy Legend, author Ronald Smith includes this early Cosby observation, "A white person listens to my act and he laughs and he thinks, 'Yeah, that's the way I see it too.' Okay. He's white. I'm Negro. And we both see things the same way. That must mean that we are alike. Right?  So I figure this way I'm doing as much for good race relations as the next guy."

Cosby’s image of racial equality has been so influential that some in the media, including show consultant Dr. Alvin Poussaint, have talked about the “Huxtable Effect” on the Obama presidency -- that Cosby’s television family actually helped prepare Americans for a real life Obama family.

Of course, all this might be putting the cart before the horse:  Cosby isn’t a funny comedian because he influences people; he influences people because he is funny. However, his level of funniness extends beyond true laughter.  The genius of someone like Bill Cosby is not only his ability to make us laugh hysterically without sophomoric tricks but also his ability to help us grow in the process.  His transformative influence on comedy and society as a whole prove once again that often the best way to make a point stems not from what you say but how you say it.

Comments are below:


agnosticcynic said...

A very insightful and marginally provocative essay by Mr. Gilfix. I hadn't thought about Bill Cosby in quite some time, but this reminded me how, as a child growing up in an all white, racially isolated town in central NH, I saw Bill Cosby as a funny guy who just so happened to be black, whereas most other blacks I was even aware of were black first, and just so happened to be known for other reasons as well. Bill Cosby bridged a racial divide as few others had been able to do, and I agree with Mr. Gilfix that The Cosby Show helped to open America's eyes to the possibility of a more integrated, tolerant, and respectful society.

Anonymous said...

Cosby isn't necesarily the perfect person. He made money with all of this and can be preachy some of the time. Maybe he did some good, but some times you gotta know the real person behind to know the truth.

John said...

Seems to me that Cosby made an honest living and has had a positive influence on this country. Why does he have to be the perfect person?

solovaye said...

Thanks Dave. Another eloquently written piece about something very timely and useful to think about.

Scott Axelrod said...

Thanks for a very human and insightful piece. I scribbled down the line you quote from Benjamin Franklin, "if you want to persuade someone about a cause, convince him that you are his friend." You are a good friend.