Appearing on The Daily Show earlier this week, Bill Cosby gently took Jon Stewart to task for his liberal use of four-letter words at the Stand Up for Heroes event they’d both just entertained. “It wasn’t cursing – it was Yiddish!” joked Stewart, who took his scolding in stride, clearly in awe of the elder comedian. In his later years, Cosby, 76, has cast himself as something of a national scold, as he did in his famously rambling “Pound Cake” speech to the NAACP (which prompted a book-length reply from the commentator Michael Eric Dyson, Is Bill Cosby Right?). But Cosby has always seen himself as a purveyor of folk wisdom, and social commentators who have followed owe him an immeasurable debt. After a decades-long break from televised specials, he’s back tonight with Far From Finished on Comedy Central. In advance of the premiere, here are five highlights from a life spent teaching through laughter.
Coming out of the Greenwich Village club scene of the early Sixties, the young athlete from Philadelphia quickly made a name for himself on The Tonight Show and other TV showcases. One of his first famous bits involved the absurdity of the Bible story of Noah’s ark, with a disbelieving Noah grinning as he listens to the Lord’s commandments: “Riiight.”
Cosby’s prolific string of comedy albums through the Sixties – including I Started Out as a Child and Why Is There Air? – earned a Bill Russell-like run of success: six consecutive Grammys for Best Comedy Album.
While pursuing a movie career during the Seventies (starring alongside Sidney Poitier in Uptown Saturday Night and Harvey Keitel and Raquel Welch in Mother, Jugs & Speed), Cosby was also growing into his role as a pop-culture mentor. He appeared regularly on PBS’s educational show The Electric Company and smuggled his life lessons onto Saturday morning TV with the funky cartoon Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids. Later, while studying for his doctorate in education at the University of Massachusetts, he titled his dissertation “An Integration of the Visual Media Via Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids Into the Elementary School Curriculum as a Teaching Aid and Vehicle to Achieve Increased Learning.”
Cosby’s greatest success came with The Cosby Show, which debuted in September 1984. He was already a household name – in large part due to his commercial work – but The Cosby Show made him a superstar. The show reinvigorated the family sitcom genre and singlehandedly changed pop culture’s portrayal of black families on its way to becoming the highest-rated situational comedy of all time. It also sparked a regrettable fashion trend toward those outrageously designed “Cosby sweaters.”
Cosby also had a huge bestseller with his 1986 book Fatherhood, which kicked off his long run as an author and cemented his place as a father (and now grandfather) figure to the country. “I’m telling you now, I’m not afraid to say it,” he says on Far From Finished. Never has been.