- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Bill Cosby was announced as the 2009 recipient of the Mark Twain Prize for Humor, the Kennedy Center’s annual honor celebrating the career of a renowned comedian.

Already awarded the Kennedy Center Honor in 1998 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2002, Mr. Cosby joins previous winners of the Twain Prize such as George Carlin, Steve Martin, Richard Pryor and Billy Crystal in receiving one of the highest honors an American comedian can receive.

As a comedian, Mr. Cosby has embodied the folksier side of Mark Twain’s popular humor, while as a public figure he has emerged, late in his career, as something of a social critic, reflecting the other, more biting side of the great American writer’s legacy.

In a press release from the Kennedy Center, Mr. Cosby recalled his early exposure to the work of the award’s namesake.

“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 said, adding that he’d “like to apologize to Mr. Twain for falling asleep hundreds of times, but he should understand that I was only four.”

He also pointed to other works by Twain, ne Samuel Langhorne Clemens, that have influenced his own comedic stylings.

“There are many Twain stories that have inspired me. Four works in particular, not necessarily in order of brilliance or genius, are most important: ‘The Mysterious Stranger,’ ‘The Story of Jim Blaines Grandfathers Old Ram,’ ‘How to Cure a Cold,’ and ‘How to Tell a Story.’”

Best known for the groundbreaking sitcom “The Cosby Show,” 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.” He also has appeared in numerous films, co-starring with Sidney Poitier three films 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.” Running from 1984 to 1992, the program was a ratings smash from the start. In its first season it rose to third in the Nielsens and finished first for the next five years.

“The Cosby 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 television that continues to this day.

“The Cosby Show” spawned the spinoff “A Different World,” which he co-produced. “A Different World” focused on life at a historically black college and ran for seven seasons, from 1987 to 1993.

In recent years, Mr. Cosby has grown more trenchant in his criticism of what he sees as failings in the black community, specifically with regard to the raising of children. Not previously known for diving into controversial social questions, whether as a comedian or public figure, his outspoken comments earned both plaudits and rebukes.

This turn may have made him an even more appropriate choice for the Twain Prize. As the Kennedy Center’s press release 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.”

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