Washington Bill Cosby still thinks America is funny — like the name-calling over health care and the way we drink so much water from plastic bottles that could be toxic — even though he says the nation has some serious problems it needs to tackle.
The 72-year-old who has long drawn laughs for his wisecracks and deadpan observations will receive the nation’s foremost humor prize Monday at the Kennedy Center in Washington. Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, Sinbad and other top entertainers will line up to honor him with the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.
It’s a prize Cosby has turned down twice before because he said he was disgusted with profanity and N-words thrown around by performers honoring Richard Pryor, who was the first recipient in 1998.
“I told them flat out no because I will not be used, nor will Mark Twain be used, in that way,” he told The Associated Press from his home in New York.
The profanity bugs Cosby. He always kept it clean with the family laughs on “The Cosby Show,” portraying a middle-class black family and everyday life, from 1984 to 1992. And he’s not impressed with today’s comedians who can’t help but curse.
It took a chat with Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser this year at Sen. Edward Kennedy’s birthday celebration for Cosby to accept the award this time.
“What I wanted was to associate my work with why I do what I do,” he said.
For a man with a master’s degree and doctorate in education, his life is about more than laughs.
So Cosby helped craft the tribute show — airing Nov. 4 nationwide on PBS — to capture his overarching emphasis on taking education seriously and telling stories that teach something in the process. He’s planned a special nod to his beloved Central High School in Philadelphia, with fellow alumnus James DePreist conducting their alma mater.
Producers of the show are worried it won’t be funny, Cosby said. But he said there will still be plenty of entertainment.
Cappy McGarr, one of the show’s executive producers, said they’re thrilled with the lineup, which also includes Carl Reiner, Wynton Marsalis, and “Cosby” co-stars Phylicia Rashad and Malcolm-Jamal Warner. The producers shape each show around the honoree and have had Cosby on their list for years. McGarr explained the tribute to Pryor aired for a different audience on Comedy Central and wasn’t meant to be offensive, but the show has aired on PBS ever since.
The comedian who kept NBC viewers laughing on Thursday nights after “Cosby” went to reruns will salute the man he says reinvigorated the sit-com.
Seinfeld said he started buying Cosby’s comedy albums when he was 11 years old. He was watching as Cosby made the jump from nightclubs to television with the “I Spy” series and as physical education teacher Chet Kincaid on “The Bill Cosby Show” in 1969.
“Watching him do those things showed me the right way for a standup comedian to play himself on television — how you kind of transform your standup persona into a character persona,” Seinfeld said. “I think only comedians know and understand that this guy has reached like a virtuoso point of command over this form that most people, even the big star comedians, don’t get anywhere near.”