Bill Cosby continues to perform before sold-out audiences all over the world. He has earned the respect of comedians decades younger. Bruce Hills, president of the world’s largest comedy festival Just For Laughs noted in a recent interview; “It’s rare for a stand-up comic to be as prolific as Bill Cosby. Even after all these years, he continues to write new material and to influence the comedy business.” Continuing, Bruce illustrates; “When Jerry Seinfeld was writing his film Comedian, he consulted with Bill. Chris Rock also talks to Bill.”

Bill Cosby is very much like many of the characters he has portrayed on television and in film – a person who has worked hard to advance himself, corrected his mistakes and moved towards self-improvement. He sought out education and has enjoyed the rewards of his efforts. – A realization of The American Dream.

However, being a black performer in the United States of the 1960’s wasn’t always easy. I Spy, Cosby’s first television show with co-star Robert Culp debuted in 1965. This was the first time an African-American had co-starred in a prime-time television drama.

(Bill Cosby-01)Bill Cosby: photo taken by his daughter Erinn Cosby

Even with his solid reputation as a comedian preceding him, four NBC affiliates in Florida, Georgia and Alabama refused to carry the show – which went on to be one of the top 20 shows for the year. Cosby himself was honoured with three consecutive awards for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series for the three seasons that I Spy was on the air. However, mainstream audiences had become familiar with Bill Cosby from both his television work and his comedy albums, and he would go on to enjoy a multi-faceted career than would make him a multi-millionaire. A long way from his early life as one of four brothers in a working-class Philadelphia family.

William Henry Cosby Sr. was a cook in the US Navy, and was often away from home for long periods of time; including several years fighting during WWII. Bill Cosby’s mother worked as a maid and filled the parenting role the brothers during her husband’s extended absences. It was a positive household, and young Bill excelled at all sports in addition to filling the role of class clown. In high school he played football, basketball, baseball and ran on the track and field team. He also worked a variety of jobs before after school in order to bring some extra money into the household. His schoolwork declined and he failed Grade 10. Rather than repeat – Bill got a job in a shoe repair shop; and then joined the Navy. He would soon learn the value of an education by not having one.

(Bill Cosby-02)Bill played football for Temple

In the Navy, Cosby served in Virginia, Newfoundland and then four years at the Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland. Working as a Hospital Corpsman with the wounded veterans; Bill realized that he would need to get an education. He finished high school by correspondence courses, and then in 1961 won a track and field scholarship to Temple University in his hometown.

While always quick with a joke or humorous anecdote, it was a bartending job that played a significant role is launching Cosby’s comedy career. Working nights in a bar – Cosby found that his ability to make people laugh earned him extra tips. He soon began lining up stand-up performances in Philadelphia. His formal education was about to take a back seat – again.

By 1962 Bill was appearing in New York City at the Gaslight Café; acting as his own agent, he booked engagements in Chicago, Las Vegas, San Francisco, and Washington DC. In the summer of ’63 he made the first of what would become many performances on The Tonight Show, including regular appearances a guest host. His first comedy album – one that would have high school kids repeating the routines verbatim to each other – was released in 1964.

A reminder that all this took place in a country that still had segregated schools until landmark Brown vs. Board court decision in 1964 that officially desegregated US schools.

Moreover, in a time when many entertainers and comics were pushing the boundaries with risqué and controversial material, Cosby based his stories on humorous recollections of his childhood. Today, he is openly critical of the violent and demeaning content of rap and gangsta rap. “Dr. Martin Luther King and his fellow Civil Rights activists didn’t take all those whuppings so that our kids could call each other ‘nigger’”. He is critical of the lack of family cohesion and leadership within too many families in the Afro-American community, and has established foundations to make a meaningful difference.

After the success of I Spy and positive ratings as a regular Tonight Show guest host, NBC signed him in 1969 for The Bill Cosby Show; in which he portrayed a high school phys ed teacher. The show ran for two years, and Cosby then returned to focus on his education.

Qualifying for graduate studies at the University of Massachusetts based on his impact and contribution to society, Cosby received a Master of Arts in 1972. And then it was back to television…

The New Bill Cosby Show was a failure, and went off the air after just one season. However, as Saturday morning kids’ show titled Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids was a huge success and ran from ’72 to’79. Based on Cosby’s childhood friends, there was a genuine quality to the characters, and perhaps re-visiting his childhood kept the show fresh for Bill. Subscribing to the theory that if some is good – more is better… NBC repackaged the show as The New Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, and the show continued from 1979 to 1984. Many schools have used the Fat Albert series as a teaching aid; and Cosby himself used the series for his dissertation to obtain his Doctorate in Education from the University of Massachusetts. Not to be left behind, Temple University in Philadelphia recognized his educational accomplishments and granted Cosby his unfinished Bachelor’s Degree.

Bill Cosby’s greatest professional achievement would come with the launch of The Cosby Show on NBC. Based largely on Cosby’s real life marriage to Camille and their 5 children, the show portrayed an educated and financially successful couple and their family. The show went on to become the highest ranking sitcom of all time. A recent Father’s Day survey revealed that Cosby’s character Cliff Huxtable is the all-time favourite television father figure, followed by Ward Cleaver (Leave It To Beaver) and Jim Anderson (Father Knows Best).

The Cosby Show would run until 1992, with the Huxtable children literally growing up with the children and families who tuned in on a weekly basis.

Editor’s Note: Our then 6 year old son Andy was in an aisle seat the first time we took our children to see the Montreal Jubilation Gospel Choir. As the choir sang and danced past Andy on their way down the aisle to the stage, Andy turned to me and exclaimed – “This is just like being on the Cosby Show!” A powerful endorsement for the fruits of Trevor Payne’s labour and dedication from a 6 year-old.

Cosby appeared in a variety of films (some forgettable) during the ensuing years; including an interview in Spike Lee’s documentary 4 Little Girls, about the 1963 bombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama.

Using the personal chemistry he established with Phylicia Rashad, his on-screen wife from The Cosby Show, Bill returned with a successful show on CBS called simply Cosby in 1996. His character Hilton Lucas was a somewhat irascible character that had been “downsized” and tries to find new employment. The Cosby/Rashad ‘formula’ worked and the show aired until 2000. During the same 4 years, Cosby hosted Kids Say The Darndest Things.

While performing stand-up comedy in Washington DC, Cosby met Camille Hanks, then a student at the University of Maryland. They married in January 1964, and had five children; Erika Ranee, Erin Charlene, Esna Camille, Evin Harrah and Ennis William who was tragically shot while changing a flat tire in Los Angeles.

Bill and Camille have established a foundation in Ennis’ memory; Hello Friend/Ennis William Cosby Foundation so that “no one with learning differences be denied the lifelong joy and fulfillment of learning”. (‘Hello Friend’ was how Ennis greeted people – even complete strangers.) The Foundation has provided a 2-year training program for over 240 New York City teachers working from kindergarten to second grade, providing them practical skills to help at-risk children so that they don’t fall behind in their ability to read and learn. Similar programs for inner-city schools have been established in Chicago and Philadelphia. Additional reading programs and books have been provided in 588 cities in 48 states.

Bill Cosby, the man who made all of this happen, who has used his talent and fortune to give back to society will entertain Montrealers with 2 shows on July 25 as part of Just For Laughs, the world’s largest comedy festival. For information about tickets to Bill Cosby and other comedy fest performances, please visit: or call: 514-845-2322

Bruce’s Best Bets

Here are some recommendations for readers of The Montrealer from Just For Laughs President Bruce Hills.

Mommy Queerest with Judy Gold is a very, very, funny show! Her previous show debuted here at Just For Laughs, and went on to a long run Off Broadway in New York. This one about a single mom who is a lesbian is absolutely hilarious.

Whoopi Goldberg Gala Show: Whoopi is both an Oscar winner and an Oscar Show Host. What more can you want? A must-see.

Martin Short Gala Show: Martin always gives 110% and is a multi-talented performer who can sing, dance, act, and is a very fine comedian.

Reverie with Second City: The Company has gone into their archives and selected the best sketches from the past 50 years. They’ve developed a non-verbal presentation that is both very entertaining and sophisticated.

For information about these and other shows, please visit: or call: 514-845-2322