Comic Crusader Bill Cosby Comes to Detroit

Bill Cosby can still leave them rolling in the aisles, but he’s on a serious mission to inspire people to be more socially and politically responsible
Photographs by Erinn Chalene Cosby

Bill Cosby is on the phone, dropping F-bombs like a drunken rap star.

Let’s pause a moment while you recover from that sentence. That Bill Cosby — our Bill Cosby, America’s Dad, our most beloved living comedian, Fat Albert’s best bud, author, actor, Presidential Medal of Freedom honoree. The man who singlehandedly rescued a television network in the ’80s with The Cosby Show, who built a six-decade career of clean, universal, family-friendly humor is cussing up a blue typhoon? Somebody spike his pudding pop? Senility sneaking up at 73?

Hardly. In his guise as educator William H. Cosby Jr., Ph.D., he’s merely attempting to make a point. He’s reminded of a one-on-one encounter with a young journalist years ago, shortly after Eddie Murphy’s X-rated debut-concert stop in Detroit incited a jeering, shoe-hurling audience, prompting Cosby to fervently articulate his philosophy of comedy. Now comes the refresher course.

“Not until maybe 1970, when Richard Pryor broke, then later when George Carlin came along and clubs opened up, comedians were allowed, and encouraged, to curse,” Cosby asserts in that oh-so-familiar baritone. “Like Bart Simpson turns 40. Profanity is a security blanket, because you know the audience is going to laugh when they hear profanity. If I take profanity away from you, you will feel like you don’t have anything to say. You have to have style, you have to have material, and that’s not good for someone who just has timing. So you listen to a lot of these guys, they will pretend they have some material that has a subject.

“Recite to me, from childhood days, the poem ‘There was a Crooked Man,’ ” he suddenly requests. “Now I’m going to show you how, just using profanity, you can make people laugh. I will read the poem, and I will replace the word ‘crooked’ with ‘m—–f—–g.’ ‘There was a m—–f—–g man, who walked a m—–f—–g mile…’ You see what I mean? You will have people on the floor.

“I can out-curse every one of these people. Cursing means nothing to me. But I don’t need it, man. Because I can m—–f—–g write!”

Cosby is making many points these days. In between his comedy engagements, like the one bringing him to Sound Board in MotorCity Casino Hotel for 7:30 and 10:30 p.m. shows May 20, he crisscrosses the nation making public appearances as a sort of solo crusader for the betterment of black America. His controversial comments, especially regarding urban teens and pregnancy, have sparked anger in segments of the black community, but Cosby doesn’t seem to care. It’s as if he realizes his hourglass has more sand at the bottom than the top; age brings the freedom to speak without contrition, and he desperately wants the condition of his people to improve before he departs. “We’ve got to embrace valuing ourselves,” he puts it. “Just work your mind and come on.”

Perhaps it’s the messenger more than the messages. After a generation spent skillfully making us laugh, Cosby may not be perceived as the ideal candidate to make us think. Just be funny, funny man. Yet Cosby is passionate about this mission. A scheduled 15-minute interview becomes a 45-minute polemic — without further cursing — as he reflects upon multiple visits to Detroit on behalf of the city’s beleaguered public schools and their emergency financial manager, Robert Bobb. Although Cosby acknowledges he hasn’t contacted Bobb since his last trip in August “with the T-shirts and parade and Jesse Jackson,” the troubles of Detroit haven’t strayed far from his thoughts.

“Dr. Bobb has gone knocking on doors again to reinforce things, talking to parents about giving public schools a chance, and this is wonderful,” Cosby says. “But it seems to me he’s got enemies who are wishing for failure, because it works against educating these kids. There are criminals, people with criminal minds, working against that. People who have their own greed, and they’re black. They’re black!

“How can you have a city like this? Black mayors, black councilwomen, black councilmen, and it’s a mess. Do you think nobody’s laughing? When are you going to look around, wipe your brow, and say, ‘OK, that’s enough laughing at me.’ You think Bill Cosby is the only person who ever brought up that you’ve got to do something about yourselves?”

With critical issues swirling around him, does Cosby still enjoy doing comedy? “I love it, you fool,” he cracks. “I love it, man, because it’s the way I think. But I ain’t gonna confuse the two. Funny is funny, and getting healthy and strong and supporting the mayor you’ve voted in to get rid of the scandals you voted in, to believe you can change things, is something else.” In fact, Cosby fanatics may want tickets to both Detroit gigs. “I have been known to change [material] between shows, but I didn’t know I was going to do it,” he says. “The reason is, I’m entertaining myself as well. There’s no way I’m going to get bored, because I respect my job.”

Cosby, who recently launched his own smartphone app, also turns his thoughts to veteran actor Robert Culp, who died a year ago last March. Culp was Cosby’s co-star when he broke TV’s color barrier in the 1960s as the first African-American performer to headline a dramatic series on NBC’s I Spy. “People would say, ‘Bill Cosby is the Jackie Robinson of TV’; I would smile, point to Bob and say, ‘Then there’s the Pee Wee Reese,’ ” he remembers. “In our lives, we cannot allow ourselves to be embarrassed by the white people who prove themselves to be more forthright, more gung-ho about us getting our equality, than some black people who are just sitting around blocking things. A lot of people will see things in you that you cannot see. The point is, white people, just like black people, some you know you can trust, some you can’t come within miles of.”

He pauses. “Hey, what did you call me for in the first place?”

Michigan native McFarlin is a freelancer based in Champaign, Ill. Email:

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