- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 2, 2009

As a young child, Bill Cosby would nod off in his crib at night to his mother’s bedtime readings of the Mark Twain classics.

As an adult, he regaled Americans with folksy, homespun stand-up comedy and rewrote the script for how America’s black families were portrayed on prime-time television.

And as an elder statesman of humor, Mr. Cosby challenged Americans to look critically at the missing ingredients of child-rearing that he thought were plaguing the black community.

On Wednesday, his early reverence for the legendary satirist and his lifelong public accomplishments were brought together under the banner of one of American comedy’s highest honors. He was named the recipient of the 2009 Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, joining an elite few such as Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Billy Crystal and Steve Martin.

“After bathing us, dressing us in fresh pajamas, and setting us into the crib together, Annie Pearl Cosby read to my brother James and me ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’, and later, ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,’ ” Mr. Cosby recalled in a press release from the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, adding that he’d “like to apologize to Mark Twain for falling asleep hundreds of times, but he should understand that I was only 4.”

As a comic, Mr. Cosby long embodied the folksier strain of Twain’s popular humor. With his late-career criticism of moral decline and the erosion of the success ethic in the black underclass, though, he emerged as something of a social critic - reflecting the other side of the Twain legacy.

Mr. Cosby is a beloved figure in the nation’s capital. A sign hangs in Ben’s Chili Bowl on U Street in Northwest that reads,”Who eats at Ben’s for free? Bill Cosby, the Obama family (But he paid).”

“This is a historic place for him,” said Fnu “David” Alauddin, a manager at Ben’s. “He deserves [the prize]. He’s our own; he’s like a family member.”

“He deserves any kind of award,” said Mudassar Mohsin, a chef at the eatery, who has cooked for Mr. Cosby. “Even when it is just him - one to one - he is hilarious.”

Best known for TV’s groundbreaking sitcom “The Cosby Show” in the 1980s, Mr. Cosby has had a long and varied career. In the 1960s, he was the first black actor to get equal billing with a white counterpart on the show “I Spy,” and he debuted on “The Tonight Show” in 1963.

Mr. Cosby’s comedy albums have been commercial monsters; six have gone platinum, while nine have gone gold. He’s also a best-selling author, having penned the books “Fatherhood” and “Time Flies.” As an actor, he appeared in numerous films, co-starring with Sidney Poitier in three films (“Let’s Do It Again,” “A Piece of the Action” and “Uptown Saturday Night”) from 1974 to 1977.

Not one to rest on his laurels, Mr. Cosby still travels the country doing his stand-up routine.

His greatest achievement, however, is almost certainly his work on “The Cosby Show” (1984-92). The NBC show was a ratings smash from the start. In its first season, it rose to third in the Nielsens, and finished in the top spot for the next five years.

The show’s success transcended mere ratings, however. As one of the few commercially and artistically successful programs in the history of broadcast television to focus on a middle-class black family, Mr. Cosby’s program sparked a discussion on race and TV that continues to this day.

“For the younger generation, it changed a lot of attitudes toward African-Americans,” said Dr. Alvin Poussaint, an adviser on the show and co-author with Mr. Cosby of “Come On, People: On the Path from Victims to Victors.”

“It was a show that didn’t resort to cheap or hostile or put-down humor,” he said. “We didn’t use violence or slapstick very much. It was a show that appealed to people’s sense and took the high road and tried to communicate certain messages about how to get along with each other.”

“The Cosby Show” attempted to deal with issues near and dear to Mr. Cosby’s heart, like education. “He was constantly on the show talking about education and trying to inspire young people to go to college,” Dr. Poussaint said, adding that he did so in a way that never came off as pedantic.

“Sometimes, we talked about dealing with violence on ‘The Cosby Show,’ but he said, ‘How do you make that funny?’ ” Dr. Poussaint recalled.

In recent years, Mr. Cosby has grown more outspoken in his criticism of what he sees as failings in the black community, especially child rearing. He was not known earlier in his career for diving into controversial social questions whether as a comedian or public figure, but his comments have earned both plaudits and rebukes.

This turn, however, may have made him an even more appropriate choice for the Twain prize. As the Kennedy Center notes, “Samuel Clemens was a fearless observer of society, who startled many while delighting and informing many more with his uncompromising perspective of social injustice and personal folly.”

As Dr. Poussaint notes, bitter pills are sometimes easier to swallow when they are coated in humor, and Mr. Cosby used humor to make serious points in the book they co-authored about problems the pair saw in the black community.

“You can speak a lot of truths with the use of humor and pull people in to agree with you who were resisting what you were saying,” Dr. Poussaint said.

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