- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Bill Cosby was honored at the Kennedy Center on Monday night in a ceremony for the performing arts center’s prestigious Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.

Coming out to the school song of his alma mater, Philadephia’s Central High School, and a standing ovation from the assembled fans, Mr. Cosby delivered a heartfelt, if sometimes rambling, speech.

“Generally, when a person’s life passes before them …,” he said, eluding to the moment before one’s death, adding: “But this is all right.”

“Tonight is a great, great night for me,” he continued. “Each and every time I plant my feet, if it is to perform for you, you are going to get everything I have.”

Joining a select club that includes renowned performers such as Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Billy Crystal and Steve Martin, Mr. Cosby was surrounded by a who’s who of American comedy.

A-listers and living legends including Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock and Carl Reiner walked the red carpet and delivered heartfelt testimonials to Mr. Cosby during a program devoted to his work as both an iconic television trailblazer and a stand-up comedy giant with an unthreatening, observational style. It is a style that has influenced Mr. Seinfeld, among many others.

While the 1980s sitcom “The Cosby Show” may be the most beloved entry on the comedian’s resume, it represents just one chapter in his long and varied career. Mr. Cosby has released six platinum (and nine gold) comedy albums and authored a number of best-selling books, including “Fatherhood” and “Time Flies.” He’s also a star of the big screen, appearing with Sidney Poitier in a string of films in the 1970s, including the box-office hit “Uptown Saturday Night.” Ever busy, Mr. Cosby still tours the country performing his stand-up routine.

“Cosby is a force of nature,” Mr. Reiner said in an interview before the show. “He’s always had the ability to take a piece of paper off the ground and talk about it for 10 minutes — open a refrigerator and talk about what’s in the refrigerator and make you laugh. I mean, he is just extraordinary.”

Mr. Reiner, himself a recipient of the Twain Prize in 2000, was working as a writer for “The Dick Van Dyke Show” when he first met Mr. Cosby, after his son, Rob, told him about the comedian’s first appearance on “The Tonight Show” in 1963. Mr. Reiner invited Mr. Cosby to the set, where he was introduced to an executive named Sheldon Leonard; Mr. Leonard would go on to cast him in “I Spy,” the first network television show to give equal billing to black and white cast mates.

The three-season run of “I Spy” was pivotal in broadcast television’s history, the first of many groundbreaking achievements for the comedian. Mr. Cosby would take home three consecutive Emmys for his role as Alexander Scott.

That success was just a taste of things to come, however; Mr. Cosby would go on to have the most successful sitcom of the 1980s with “The Cosby Show.” Climbing to third in the prime-time Nielsen ratings in its first season, the landmark sitcom would come in first for the next five seasons.

Former “Cosby Show” co-stars Phylicia Rashad and Malcolm-Jamal Warner were also in attendance Monday night.

“We were just so happy together,” said Miss Rashad of their time on the show. “I looked forward to waking up each morning and rushing into work.”

The importance of “The Cosby Show” transcended mere ratings, however, as it was one of the first programs to show an upper-middle-class black family on television.

“For the younger generation, it changed a lot of attitudes toward African-Americans,” Dr. Alvin Poussaint told The Washington Times in April after Mr. Cosby was announced as this year’s Twain Prize winner.

“It was a show that didn’t resort to cheap or hostile or put-down humor,” said Dr. Poussaint, an adviser on the show and professor of psychiatry at Harvard University. “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.”

In recent years, Mr. Cosby has stirred controversy by raising uncomfortable questions about cultural values among the black urban poor. Always an advocate for the benefits of education, he has grown more outspoken in his criticisms of parenting and educational failures in the inner city.

Speaking in front of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People at a dinner in 2004, he told the audience that “the lower-economic people are not holding up their end in this deal.”

“These people are not parenting. … They are buying things for their kids, $500 sneakers. For what? And won’t spend $200 for ‘Hooked on Phonics.’”

Those feelings were articulated less scornfully in “Come On, People: On the Path From Victims to Victors.” But even that best-selling book, which Mr. Cosby and Dr. Poussaint co-authored, stirred controversy among black leaders, some of whom complained about the comedian airing their community’s dirty laundry for the world to see.

This evolution from pure comedy to social commentary may have weighed in favor of his selection as a Twain Prize winner. 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.”

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