Cosby was the first comedian I fell in love with. As a child, I loved The Cosby Show -- everyone did. But what really floored me, and what first gave me the notion that maybe I could be professionally funny too (the jury is still out on that, by the way), was his standup work. My first exposure to solo stage comedy was on cassette tapes made from three of his classic albums: Bill Cosby is a Very Funny Fellow -- Right!, When I Was a Kid, and Bill Cosby Himself. To this day, it's a body of work that few comics have equalled and none have surpassed.
Today, of course, Cosby is a cultural icon, an institution. He is now so associated with his sociological and humanitarian work that it's easy to forget he was the king of the sitcom, and when he was the king of the sitcom, he did that so well that it was easy to forget he was the world's greatest standup comic. Critics of Cosby sometimes dwell on what he didn't achieve -- for example, he never really made a great movie -- obscuring the point that few comedians have achieved more.
Today at the Comedy Palace: Vintage Cosby, beginning with some of his earliest television appearances -- long before The Bill Cosby Show, The Cosby Show, and Cosby. His first national exposure was on the original Tonight Show with Jack Paar, as in this appearance (I'm not certain of the date, but by educated guess I'm placing it in 1959):
In the next clip, an interview from 1963, Cosby talks about his early career, and addresses his approach to the subject of race in his comedy. Since he first appeared on the scene, Cosby has been both praised and attacked for rarely confronting race head-on in his act. He has argued all along that by not highlighting race he was confronting it:
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 was correct about this; I'm sure I'm not the only caucasian-skinned person who idolized him long before thinking about race. This approach also shows his tremendous faith in the power of laughter, in the ability of comedy to reveal our common humanity.
Before Cosby's sitcom reign, he was an expert sketch comic, employing the rubber-faced takes and precision timing which would later serve him so well on The Cosby Show. In this late-Sixties sketch from The Dean Martin Variety Show, he appears with Rowan and Martin, and Martin:
By the early Seventies, although his greatest achievements were still years away, Cosby was already one of the top comedians in the country. You would never call him "a comedian's comedian" -- his appeal was too broad -- but other comedians loved him, and comedy's aging legends seem to have regarded him, along with Woody Allen, as the new vanguard. In this 1973 clip from The Dick Cavett Show, Cosby talks about his love of music, while Jack Benny looks on:
And finally, from the same year, here is Cosby's interview with Groucho Marx. Cosby was 36; Groucho was 83. This is one of those rare and beautiful occasions when two legends meet on common ground and mesh perfectly. Groucho was one of Cosby's greatest heroes, and in the early Nineties, Cosby revived Groucho's quiz show, You Bet Your Life, with himself as host.