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There are not many performers living that could be labeled as bona fide legends, but Bill Cosby is one that stands in his own class. Performing for over 50 years, he has the unique ability to appeal not only to the legions of fans who have followed him over the decades, but also to still reach the youth of our day. He has a passion for students and education and in fact, still regularly performs in the campus market. He gives an exclusive interview to Campus Activities MagazineŽ just before his show in Columbia, South Carolina at the Koger Center For The Arts on the University of South Carolina campus. We also hear first hand from an activities board director at Nova Southeastern University about how successful his performance was on their campus.
After serving in the U.S. Navy and spending some time studying at Temple University, Bill Cosby released his first comedy album "Bill Cosby Is A Very Funny Fellow... Right!" in early 1963. This year would mark it's 50th anniversary for those of you paying attention. He says despite finding success quickly in live performing, he learned early on that higher education was an extremely important factor in his and all young people's lives, and he continues to believe that to this day. Not only does he heartily support young people and higher education (how about a $20 MILLION dollar donation to Spelman College) but also makes a concerted effort to have his shows remain accessible to students by keeping his ticket prices affordable for them, when clearly he could demand a premium if he so chose. Dr. Cosby (he earned a Doctorate of Education from the University of Massachusetts and has multiple honorary degrees) tells us about why this focus on young people and education are so important to him.
"In 1960, I entered Temple University as a freshman, with a 500 SAT Score, TOTAL. It was important to me, because I had mismanaged my life for at least 14 and a half of my 19 and a half years in terms of the value of an education and what it could do to lift a person up towards a goal. The work that goes into problem solving, working with a teacher, working on projects and taking things seriously and understanding that this is not a punishment; education is not a punishment. To accept formal education is not a punishment but a gift and a privilege. I found all that out when I was in the United States Navy. I realized I could have done better and the position that I was in with the Navy was a place from which to work my way up. But, I knew I couldn't become a career Navy person and I knew that I had a message to carry to young people who might have been mismanaging their lives in the same way I had. In all seriousness, I was the happiest I have ever been in my life because I finally had a goal and with the goal I had these thoughts of changing young people and making them understand the value of education. I knew that I would always have a job and I also knew that I was never going to do what I had been doing prior to my epiphany."
This is a lesson that has never left him and he has continued to want to impart it to others. "At age 76, it has remained important all through my life to use the television set as an example and a means to speak to the viewer. I don't use it to teach; to truly teach you have to get a response from the student. So all this does is places an example before them."
This translates not only from his years on television in programs like "The Cosby Show" which had the 7th highest rated finale with 44.4 million viewers or "Little Bill" which reached an entirely new generation of kids not even born by the time the previous show finished airing, but also to his live performances, of which just in this year he will do dozens. "When it comes to my live show, that message is always there. Whenever I address a total college audience, my comedy is always directed to the following: humanities, philosophies and projection of the idea that they are THIS age, they used to be kids, they are about to be full fledged adults, their time for true enrichment is now. The focus on the importance of this concept really brings the comedy to a head where the students are very much enjoying what I am talking about and they are laughing."
For a firsthand account of just how big a draw and how much of an impact Dr. Cosby is on students, we speak with Christina Rajkumar, Assistant Director of Special Events & Projects at Nova Southeastern University and two of her graduate assistants, Jennifer Vogel and Michelle Canales. "The capacity for our theater is a maximum of just over 500 and we sold out in under four hours," Christina says. "Out of that 500 capacity, almost 400 of that were students versus faculty and staff."
Jennifer tells us a little bit about what made Dr. Cosby such a draw. "On our campus, 80% of our population are graduate students, so we do have a little bit of an older population that might remember 'The Cosby Show,' but even our younger students turned out very well because of the syndication of the show on Nickelodeon and with Little Bill (not to mention his books), and were very familiar with him. There was actually a running joke for a while that one student on our campus said 'Oh, who's Bill Cosby?' Everyone else was well aware," she says laughing.
This particular show was for a program NSU hosts called "Life 101" and fit very well into the message Dr. Cosby delivers. "We bring different celebrities from the entertainment, business and athletics worlds to speak about their life experiences and the lessons they have learned along the way. Dr. Cosby was the perfect choice for this program and he did a wonderful job not only entertaining our students, but motivating them as well," Christina says.
Dr. Cosby describes a turning point for him that he imparts to students and sees a clear affect on them when he does. "My defining day was in remedial English and makes me who I am today. That defining day was when I took home the assignment to write a composition. I wrote about pulling my tooth." He says he never set out for this assignment to be a funny one, but it set him on the path for being the enchanting storyteller we have seen on stage for over 50 years. "The professor read and approved of my paper and I have been that same thinking person ever since. I write (or speak) about my experience, that which is in me, the way I see things and I bring it out for other people."
While Bill Cosby has for years been a great influence for many comics and artists, he too had his own personal inspiration. "My hero is Mark Twain. I did not copy from Mr. Twain, I wrote the composition without knowing him to his fullness and to the extent of his beauty with the American English language. I had no intention of being funny, my intention was to be direct and tell my story. It wasn't until after the second composition 'Procrastination Or, The Perfect Point' that happened. I wrote about how when I didn't want to get started writing the paper I continued to sharpen my pencil, blaming the point on not being perfect for my procrastination, so I had to sharpen it some more. So the composition took me to the point where there was nothing left but the metal and rubber eraser.
"In doing these two papers, I got two A's, and this gave me tremendous confidence and I began to work with myself. I realized some of these thoughts that I have are good thoughts and I wanted to write them down. I wasn't trying to be funny because I didn't have an audience to be funny for. But then again, I didn't know; did Mark Twain write because he knew he had something funny, or did he write because he thought he had a clever idea and wanted to get it out?"
He began to take his ideas and develop them, still never really trying to be funny. "I was just addressing the humorous idea, and it was wonderful." We all know now where this inspiration eventually went, into one of the most prolific and successful standup comedy careers of all time. "There was a non-blood cousin I had who's name was Del Shields, he was foremost in influencing me to become a performer. By this time I was playing football for Temple, running track and was a Dean's List student, but I began to see that I wanted to be funny and Del had his own TV show and radio show. He allowed me to warm up his audiences. I didn't know what I was doing, I just knew that I wanted to be funny with these people. In those days you couldn't use vulgarity or profanity or even innuendo. That is something that has stuck with me to this day."
Some comics have no material at all, and use shock value and vulgarity to get a laugh. When Dr. Cosby performs, he usually does two solid hours of material without uttering a single profane or offensive word. That's one thing that has carried his success such a long way, if you can "work clean" (a phrase he doesn't like), you can work anywhere. "There are many people who perform in a 'party' atmosphere and that is what the people pay to come see. I don't perform like that, what I do is based on the standards of my day, where you come out and you do what you think will cause them to smile and laugh. It is the same as the party people, just the attitude is different. I was brought up that you don't use that kind of language in the presence of women and children, but times have changed drastically (laughs)."
You can be sure that no matter who your audience is, Bill Cosby can entertain and not offend. He will use the demographics of the audience to dial in and entertain and enlighten them beyond a measure that most performers could ever hope to attain. Bring this true American legend to your campus for an experience your students will never forget.