Bill Cosby’s job titles, over the last 50 years, have included comedian, actor, writer, producer and director.
Yet during a phone interview last week, we asked Cosby if he considered himself something a little meatier: an educator.
“Yes,” he said. “Period. Day one. From the classroom at Temple University to the coffeehouses in Greenwich Village in 1963, all the way through. Everything I have ever done through the TV set has to do with education.”
After all, Cosby is in fact Dr. William Cosby, having earned a doctorate in education in 1976 from the University of Massachusetts.
Yet he also is one of the world’s best known comedians, able to command audiences of millions because he never forgot rule No. 1: Be funny.
He’s the man who once famously pondered the scientific question “Why is there air?” and concluded that the answer was: to inflate volleyballs and basketballs.
Cosby’s interest in using humor to educate is often easy to detect, as it was in his 1984-1992 sitcom “The Cosby Show.” This show made a conscious effort to be a blueprint for raising a happy, productive, functional family.
Alvin Poussaint, a Harvard Medical School psychiatrist, was a script consultant. The result was one of the most beloved sitcoms of all time.
On other shows, the “educational” part has been more subtle.
“One example was the series I did called, ‘The Cosby Mysteries,’ ” said Cosby, referring to a 1994-95 NBC series. “I played this forensic doctor … and I had this annoying teenage kid who didn’t want to study and said that if he could just hang out with me, he could learn all of this.
“So here’s this man who has his doctorate and the kid who’s saying, ‘Well, if you just show me.’ ‘No! You can’t do that.’ We were always at each other.”
Cosby’s influential “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids” animated shows also contained plenty of lessons for a young audience.
For instance, the character of Fat Albert was “the opposite of what we used to do with fat people,” said Cosby. He was “this Falstaff, who, in my invention, was very warm, very intelligent, very loving and understanding and patient with people.”
Education was the explicit central theme of one other Cosby-created sitcom, “A Different World,” which ran from 1987 to 1993. It was about a group of students at a historically black college.
“I don’t know how many African-American kids who are now in grad school, and maybe 40 years old, who have said, ‘It’s because of that show that I went to college,’ ” said Cosby. “Many of these kids say, ‘I didn’t know what college was like, but watching that program, I began to like college.’ ”
Cosby’s newest endeavor, a series of online shows titled “OBKB,” appears to be just for fun. These short web episodes (look for them at www.billcosby.com) show him talking to a group of 7- to 9-year-olds about various Cosby-esque topics.
Here’s an example from one “OBKB” episode:
Cosby: “Why don’t they call the game It?”
Little girl: (exasperated) “Because the game’s name is Tag.”
Cosby: “I know that, but why do they call it Tag if what you’re giving people is It. … So there! It should be called – ”
Little girl: “It? (Long pause) But the name’s Tag.”
Yet Cosby sees this as being educational as well. It’s about the “fun that one can have” with an honest, respectful discussion between the generations, he says.
It’s similar to what Cosby did with “Kids Say the Darndest Things,” his 1998-2000 version of the old Art Linkletter show.
Cosby began his comedy career tending bar and making his customers laugh in a Philadelphia club. He moved out from behind the bar and onto the stage, and was soon working clubs in Greenwich Village and San Francisco.
By 1963, he was appearing on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and the “The Tonight Show.” He had a string of eight hit comedy albums from 1965 to 1968.
At age 73, he still performs dozens of stand-up shows a year; he did 10 in October. He returns to Spokane on Sunday where he will deliver his distinct brand of humor about marriage, kids and the world.
Listen carefully. You might learn something.