No winner of the Mark Twain Award has been more in tune with Twain than Bill Cosby. He not only feels an affinity for the giant of American literary comedy. He also knows the underlying principles of Twain's oeuvre. Over the phone two weeks ago, when I ask him what he feels about winning the award, he asks me if I know what Twain said about the difference between American humor and English and French humor.
Twain's definition of our native genius for yarn-spinning pinpoints what's distinctive about Cosby's achievement.
Twain said, "The humorous story is American, the comic story is English, the witty story is French." Although "the comic and witty stories must be brief, the humorous story may be spun out to great length, and may wander around as much as it pleases, and arrive nowhere in particular."
Cosby might be the purest living practitioner of the American humorous story.
Twain would have regarded most of the jokers who act as town criers on our late-night talk shows as closer to the British. As Twain said, "The teller of the comic story tells you beforehand that it is one of the funniest things he has ever heard, then tells it with eager delight, and is the first person to laugh when he gets through. .... It is a pathetic thing to see." (Think Jay Leno).
"The humorous story," Twain went on, "is told gravely; the teller does his best to conceal the fact that he even dimly suspects that there is anything funny about it." For an illustration of this art, just see the long quote at the end of this article.
At age 72, Cosby is a lion in winter who still can be as playful as a cub. He's generous to his peers and fiercely loyal to his friends. He's delighted to hear, for example, that I'm a fan of his and Robert Culp's work in the offbeat 1972 detective movie "Hickey & Boggs," directed by Culp from a Walter Hill script. Followers of Culp and Cosby's smart, smooth escapism in the groundbreaking "I Spy" series weren't ready to see them as maritally maladjusted gumshoes, sleuthing their way through a world of radical chic and unabashed perversion. But the film should have opened up new vistas for both men, and Cosby is justly proud of it.
When I mention that he was building a comedy act out of characters and narrative years before Richard Pryor, he interrupts, "I wasn't the first - there were a lot of people who opened the doors for me. If you came up in the early '60s, you'd hear agents saying, 'You have to get to them in the first 20 seconds.' But you could watch Lenny Bruce ... or Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks doing the 2000-Year-Old Man, or Hal Holbrook [channeling] Mark Twain, and learn that it was all about storytelling."
The streetwise (and street-foolish) genius Pryor was the first winner of the Twain prize, in 1998. Cosby turned down the prize twice because of all the profanity and racial epithets used on that initial Twain award show. But Cosby loved Pryor's routines and doesn't begrudge bawdy language so long as it has a point.
"You've got to have the content that should go with it - go back to Lenny Bruce. Pryor used it with characters who were right on the bull's-eye."
Early in his career, Chris Rock, a fervid Cosby fan, discussed his use of expletives with Cosby. Fittingly, he and Jerry Seinfeld shared the hosting slot on this year's Twain show (which airs Wednesday on PBS).
Whether you watch Cosby in his 1983 concert film "Bill Cosby: Himself" or talk to him about his life and career, what you see and hear is what you get - a comedian who not only creates characters, but also puts his own character on the line, night after night. (Cosby was scheduled to perform at the Hippodrome Theatre this Saturday, but that show has been canceled.) On the comedy stage, he rarely proves as sweeping and blunt in his observations of African-American responsibility and white prejudice as he is in recent speeches, publications and conversations. But he presents a full self-portrait of a man facing every complication of modern childhood and adulthood. Cosby argues that it would be redundant for him to tell his audience that he's black. Even a blind person would recognize that from his references and his inflections. He's proud of evoking "identification" in white and black audiences equally - he says he can "destroy" an all-white audience as soundly as an all-black audience on any given night.
What's often taken for arrogance might just be the pride of a man who's labored hard at the crucial task of knowing himself. And he says he won much of that self-knowledge in Maryland.
"Working at the Bethesda Naval Hospital and Philadelphia Naval Hospital and becoming a physical therapist made changes in my philosophy of what human beings will do and won't do," Cosby says. He had dropped out of high school and joined the Navy, which taught him discipline. Becoming a hospital corpsman forged his alert, empathetic personality.
He confronted his own reflex responses when compelled "to deal with the stereotypes of the Southern accent." A white Marine Corps major from Mississippi became his patient and his friend. This man had been sitting in Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia in 1958 when a hatchet-wielding mental patient on a weekend pass hit him four times in the head. By the time Major Riggins was brought to Cosby for treatment, "the nerve damage had settled in so that the left side of his face sagged, his eyelid drooped, though he had clear blue eyes, cold blue eyes. He couldn't grow his hair properly because of the dents in his skull, and his speech was altered, also because of his nerve damage. He walked very much like a stroke victim hit hard on one side. The other side was OK.
"In the Philadelphia Naval Hospital, I got Major Riggins - he was assigned to me - and when I heard that sound, the Mississippi drawl, much slower because of the neurological damage, and that look and those clear blue eyes - the hairs even where I didn't have hairs just stood up."
As they sweated through Riggins' therapy, Cosby got to know the man beneath the accent. "No one was subservient. We never talked about race. And there were times when I was working with him he would say 'Yes, sir!' I'd say, 'Major, you can't say that to me, because I'm a noncommissioned person.' And he said, in his drawl, 'Well, if you are, how come you are giving me these orders?' And I said, 'Because I'm the therapist and you're the patient.' And he said, 'Yes, sir!' and we laughed.
"I took him to football games, driving him in an ambulance. We saw George Marshall's all-white Washington Whiteskins football team play the Chicago Cardinals. Ollie Matson had been an Olympic runner, was one of the biggest black stars of the day. I never had such a terrific time at a game, watching this black man running all over this all-white team. And that's the way it was set up! And you can't make me a racist for looking that way at a team that is deliberately all-white when people are integrating!
"Major Riggins was watching, and I don't know who he was rooting for, but he didn't use any derogatory names. He said, 'That guy [Matson] is tearing these people up, Bill!' And I said, 'Yes, and I'm happy to see it!' I think the only slip he made - and it's not really a slip, it's just funny - is that at one point he asked, 'Bill, do you know him?' "
"Bill Cosby: The Mark Twain Prize" is at 8 p.m. Wednesday on MPT, Channels 22 and 67.