In an excerpt from Mark Whitaker’s new bio of Bill Cosby, he quotes some of the comedians who gave tribute to Cosby when he was given the Mark Twain Award For Humor in 2009:
Dick Gregory recalled what it had been like to be the first black comedian to perform in a white nightclub. It was 1961, and Gregory was a 29-year-old post office worker moonlighting at a black club in Chicago called Roberts Show Bar. Hugh Hefner came in one night and liked Gregory’s “That‟s okay, I don’t eat colored people” routine so much that he booked him at the Playboy Club. Gregory’s career took off, but for years he was invariably referred to as a “Negro comedian.”
“My brother,” Gregory said as he looked up at Cosby’s box, “I came out here tonight to thank you for what you was able to do… When Bill broke through with I Spy and all of the brilliance, all of the wisdom, from that day on they dropped the word ‘Negro’ off my name!”
Jerry Seinfeld remembered his first Bill Cosby album. It was 1966, and he was another 12-year-old Jewish kid growing up in the Long Island suburbs. Like countless other boys in Massapequa, he had a crew cut and wore Keds sneakers and T-shirts with horizontal stripes. Then one day he bought Why Is There Air? and brought it home to play on the portable turntable in his room. Legs crossed, he sat on the floor and listened to the album over and over again.
“I completely lost my mind,” Seinfeld said. “In comedy, people very casually use the word hysterical. They don’t mean it literally, because the real meaning of the word hysterical is not something a person wants to be. It means an out of control, almost convulsive state of emotional breakdown. I became hysterical listening to Why Is There Air? It really was the singular, most powerful event of my entire childhood.”
Chris Rock told the story of being turned on to Bill Cosby by none other than Eddie Murphy, the same Murphy who later turned imitating and mocking Cosby into one of his trademarks. It was the mid-’80s, and Rock was a high school dropout from Brooklyn starting to perform stand-up in Manhattan comedy clubs. Murphy took him under his wing, and one day he gave Rock To Russell, My Brother, Whom I Slept With.
“He said, ‘If you really want to be a comedian, you need to listen to this album,’” Rock said. “And to this day, whenever I meet a comedian I like, I make sure that they have that album.”