Bob Hope's comedy relied on rapid-fire one-liners; Bill Cosby's relies on folksy, sometimes surreal stories about his life, children and the media.
Cosby evoked all of that Sunday at the Emmy Awards when he received the Bob Hope Humanitarian Award.
His eyes hidden behind dark glasses, Cosby kept his emotions in check. In brief remarks, he thanked his wife, Camille, told a childhood story about his murdered son, Ennis, and paid tribute to Fred Rogers ("Mister Rogers"). He said nothing about himself — that had to come from others in a taped tribute that aired just before he took the stage.
FOR THE RECORD:
'All the King's Men': A review of the remake of "All the King's Men" in Sept. 22's Calendar section said that the 1949 film adaptation of Robert Penn Warren's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel was one of only two movies, along with 1939's "Gone With the Wind," to win a best picture Oscar "to go along with the Pulitzer." Only two best picture winners have been based on Pulitzer-winning novels, but Oscar winners "You Can't Take It With You" (1938) and "Driving Miss Daisy" (1989) were based on Pulitzer-winning plays. —
Jerry Seinfeld, Bernie Mac, Walter Cronkite and Ray Romano all were effusive in praising Cosby. Romano got a laugh when he said he remembered listening to one of Cosby's early comedy albums and deciding then he wanted to be an African American stand-up comedian.
Sunday's honor was Cosby's fourth from the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. He won Emmys for lead actor in a drama ("I Spy") in 1966-68 but refused to submit his name for nominations for his acting on the seminal 1984-93 comedy series "The Cosby Show."
Like Hope, Cosby has worked tirelessly for charity, supporting education through donations to colleges and scholarships — he has a doctorate in education from the University of Massachusetts — and through the Hello Friend/Ennis William Cosby Foundation, named for his only son, who died in 1997.
Although the Hope award recognizes his humanitarian works, the academy's accolade also provides the opportunity to pay tribute to the remarkable career of the funnyman.
"Bill Cosby is one of the most important people in the history of television," said David Bushman, curator of the Museum of Television & Radio in New York City. "I think you can't possibly overstate his contributions to the medium."
Those contributions, he says, started even before Cosby in 1965 became the first African American to star in a weekly drama series, "I Spy."
"When stand-up comedy went from old vaudeville gag routines to the more authentic and real, actual storytelling, he was one of those comedians who really revolutionized stand-up comedy," Bushman says. "He made it much more sophisticated."
The key to Cosby's appeal, Bushman believes, was his ability to appeal to a wide audience.
"There were other African American comedians like Godfrey Cambridge and Dick Gregory. Those guys came up at the same time, but their comedy was edgier. He made his humor so universal, and I think that was even more of an achievement of the man because he had to transcend those racial barriers. If you go back to the variety shows or talk shows of the '60s, you see what he did in terms of stand-up comedy on television. It's just incredible."
"I don't know the key to success, but the key to failure is to try to please everyone." — Bill Cosby
Even more significant than winning three consecutive Emmys for "I Spy," Bushman argues, was the phenomenal success of "The Cosby Show," which for the first time portrayed an upper-middle-class African American family. "It revived the sitcom at a time when people were basically giving up on that," he says. "It totally reversed NBC's fortunes. It completely transcended race in its appeal and gave opportunity to African Americans behind the scenes and in front of the camera and certainly played a key roll in the whole revival of sitcoms being built around stand-up comics. It was very intelligent and very subtle with quiet humor, which is not the way a lot of things are today."
It was a sign of Cosby's clout that he got NBC to agree to shoot the show in New York, where he lives, at a time when almost every series was filmed in Los Angeles.
The father of five, Cosby has long been a favorite of young children.
He's been the impish pitchman for Jell-O and the creator of popular animated TV series for kids, "Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids," and the current "Little Bill."
In the early 1970s, he appeared in several roles on the PBS kids' series "The Electric Company," and most recently hosted the revival of the old Art Linkletter show "Kids Say the Darndest Things."
Says Bushman: "He's a man of integrity and a man who is faithful to his values."
A stand-up guy
A reserved Bill Cosby receives the Humanitarian Award, an honor named for Bob Hope.
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