For some, the name Bill Cosby will forever recall the beloved image of Cliff Huxtable outfitted in zany sweaters on The Cosby Show.
For others, it’s the image of the jovial, slack-jawed comedian hocking fat-free pudding that comes to mind. And still others will remember the stand-up comic and the secret agent of I-Spy fame.
In recent years, however, the prolific comedian has been in the public eye for his charged criticism of impoverished black communities, resembling, for some, a cantankerous elder, shaking his proverbial fist at youth culture.
With his latest publication, Cosby: His Life and Times, Mark Whitaker, author of the memoir On My Long Trip Home, tackles the many faces of Bill Cosby, shedding new light through his thorough account of Bill Cosby’s early childhood, adolescence and meteoric rise to fame on the successes, disappointments and failures that have shaped his personal life and his public image.
Striking an uncritical, celebratory chord, Cosby: His Life and Times, marketed as an unofficial biography, draws on interviews with Cosby to construct a portrait of the comedian rich in detail, if somewhat colorless in effect. In Cosby, Whitaker, nonetheless, effectively captures the pressures of being an influential black artist in America.
Interestingly enough, the most compelling parts of Cosby’ biography are not the personal stories from his early childhood, however elucidating in terms of understanding the self-made-man philosophy that informs his social critiques. Nor are the notes on the personal tragedies he’s suffered — nonetheless heart-wrenching as in the case of his son Ennis’s senseless murder — particularly revealing.
Whitaker’s greatest strength as a biographer lies in the way in which he charts Cosby’s life-journey parallel to key moments in the civil rights movement, beyond the facts of his day-to-day existence, situating the criticism of his comedic style — namely his refusal to engage in race-humor — in an important political context.
For instance, in 1963, after a successful set at the Bitter End, a well-known comedy club in New York’s Greenwich Village, Cosby was tapped to appear on The Tonight Show.
After a career-making performance, Cosby’s star began to rise. Whitaker aptly highlights that 1963, of course, was the same year Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his seminal “I Have a Dream Speech,” sparking a seismic shift in the struggle for civil rights. Whitaker’s emphasis on this correlation is important, because with a career as long-sustaining as Bill Cosby’s, it becomes increasingly easy to disassociate his celebrity from time and place. The many faces of Bill Cosby are more readily attributed to hit TV shows so that his syndicated image is almost timeless.
In this way, Whitaker’s framework moves beyond the breadth of the comic’s career to insist the reader engage in deeper questions about how a comic who was at the time described in Billboard as “singular among Negro stand-ups in that he has apparently not given much thought to sit-ins” grapples with his identity as an artist relative to social movements. Moreover, Whitaker’s insights reveal the burden of responsibility facing artists of color throughout history, forced to examine what defines their “art”, what defines “black art”, and ultimately what signifies the difference. For Cosby, the choice to make comedy focused on universal themes offered its own resistance to segregation and racism, appealing to our common ground.
Similarly, Whitaker’s illustration of the creative atmosphere of Greenwich Village in the early sixties as the backdrop for Cosby’s fledging comedy career offers a feast of references to a wide range of other young contemporaries who, like Cosby, were on their way to stardom. Whitaker connects the comic to artists like Bob Dylan and Mama Cass, shedding new light on the long arch of his career and realizing him in a different way.
Whitaker continues exploring Cosby’s relationship in relation to other rising black comics of the time, who, unlike him, performed sets saturated with race jokes, the N word, and profanity — such as the talented and tormented Richard Pryor. Whitaker explains that “the two men first met … when the painfully nervous comic from Peoria, Illinois, arrived in Greenwich Village… Cosby was just becoming a star … and Pryor modeled himself after [Cosby].”
Whitaker goes on to describe a scene in Pryor’s early career when Cosby’s manager accused Pryor of plagiarizing some of Cosby’s material. After the incident, Pryor removed himself to Berkeley, California, and emerged “with a new act as different form Cosby’s as it could be” leading to his own stardom. Whitaker goes on to explain that Pryor’s success was rumored to have damaged their relationship (because, of course, two top-billing black comics can’t peacefully coexist); in fact, the two “never stopped being friends or admiring each other’s work.”
What Whitaker’s biography seems to struggle with, however, is the inconsistencies in Cosby’s own principles and his practices. Seen by American audiences as lovable and “non-threatening” in his comedy, Whitaker recounts numerous instances where Cosby’s formidable temper got the better of him in his private life, including an incident when he sucker punched a contemporary at a cocktail party.
Any exploration into the relationship between these latent displays of aggression and his comedic art feel somewhat short-changed.
In later chapters, Cosby sits down with Dan Rather and confesses to an extramarital affair that led to an extortion case where the daughter of Cosby’s sexual partner threatened to break the story if he didn’t pay up.
Whitaker, without irony, reports that Cosby admitted that he sent money to the mother and daughter over the years “in exchange for their silence, but also with advice about how to improve their lives.”
The glaring hypocrisy couched in such a statement is left unexamined except to quote Cosby from the same interview owning up to his personal fault by stating, “It was my choice.”
And, in the chapters that extol Cosby’s controversial statements about the black community and the lack of personal responsibility many underclass people, in his view, take for their own advancement and home-lives, at times Whitaker seems protective of the legend’s image — seeking to explicate his message and preserve his heroism instead of letting these inconsistencies humanize him to the reader.
Whatever his shortcomings, surely Cosby’s place in the annals of history and his contribution to the advancement of American culture are self-evident. And, after all, to quote another iconic story teller and social critic, Walt Whitman, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.”
Chase Quinn is a freelance writer, art critic, and budding novelist who has worked with several leading human rights organizations in the U.S. and the U.K., promoting social and economic justice. Follow Chase on Twitter at @chasebquinn.