Playboy: Both fans and critics often call your humor "color-blind." Do you think that's an accurate description?
Cosby: Well, I think there are some people who are disappointed when I don't tell my audiences that white people are mistreating black people. White critics will write about Cosby not doing any racial material, because they think that now is the time for me to stand up and tell my audiences what color I am and what's going on in America. But I don't see these people knocking the black elevator man in their building just because he isn't doing anything for civil rights by running that elevator; it wouldn't sell newspapers or interviewss. The fact that I'm not trying to win converts on stage bugs some people, but I don't think an entertainer can win converts. I've never known any kind of white bigot to pay to see a black man, unless the black man was being hung. So I don't spend my hours worrying how to slip a social message into my act; I just go out and do my thing.
Playboy: How would you describe it?
Cosby: My humor isn't jokes as much as situations. I tell stories and play the characters in those stories, like the one I wrote for you guys. This isn't something that came to me overnight. I don't think I hit my stride until my third album; up until then, I'd been doing what amounted to cartoon ideas. Some of my humor comes straight out of the newspapers, in a way. Take Noah and the ark. I once read about a mass murder; and when they captured the guy and asked him why he did it, he said, "The voice told me to do it." You'd be surprised at how many killings there are where a guy hears a voice that says, "Take up thy rifle, go out and slay!" Now, this is a country built on Christianity; if a guy sees a bolt of lightning, hears a crack of thunder and then a voice saying, "Go and smite thine enemies!" -- which was always happening in the Bible -- how many cats do you know who wouldn't go along with it? So I started to think about what would happen today if a guy was told by the voice to go build an ark. First of all, he'd doubt that the voice was real. So there's got to be conversation between him and the voice. Second, what are the neighbors going to think? And third, no rain has been falling and it's hard to build an ark, so Noah, who's a totally rational man, is going to be angry at himself for doing it. As he's hammering away, he's going to be thinking, "What the hell am I building an ark for?"
Playboy: The recorded version of your Noah story is a tightly constructed and highly polished comedy routine; yet during nightclub performances -- as with so much of your material -- you vary the dialog and often the plot from night to night. Why?
Cosby: Well, I think I'm similar in my comedy to the way jazz musicians work. After you play a song through once, the solos start. I treat each of my characters as a song, and I start soloing when the character comes into the plot. I have certain notes to follow, but I can do different things with them -- like chord changes. For instance, in my LP To Russell, My Brother, Whom I Slept With, there's a scene where the kid lies to his father about how his bed broke. On the record, the kid cries when he does it. But there are nights when the kid doesn't cry. It all depends on how I want the kid to explain it to his old man. And also, to an extent, I want my live performances to be different from my records. I can't stand to have somebody sitting out there with his lips moving with mine.
Playboy: Most of your humor has to do with your childhood. Was it as happy as you make it seem?
Cosby: Are you kidding? The thing I most remember about being a kid was being poor. I remember the eviction signs, especially; they were doubly hard to take. I had buddies who'd tell me, "Hey, man, like, you're really poor; you didn't pay your rent." Now, I'm not saying my life was harder than anybody else's; I'm just telling you the way it was. I remember a Christmas when we had no Christmas tree, and you just can't get lower than that. We had an orange tree and there weren't any presents. And I remember taking a girl to the junior high school prom and I didn't have money to cover cab fare; I was hoping she'd ride the trolley car with me, in her gown. But something great happened: Her mother gave me $6 to help with the cab fare, because somehow she knew I didn't have any money. Maybe it wasn't all that tough to guess; I was wearing a blue double-breasted suit coat and a pair of black slacks. I wanted to keep my raincoat on, because I knew when I took it off, I'd be the only guy there who hadn't been able to come up with the bread to rent a tux. One house we lived in had no bathtub; my mother used to take out this big tub, put water in it and put it on top of the stove to heat up.
But when you're young, you have all kinds of energy and you forget the bad things and get on with the good: playing ball, going downtown with your friends to shine shoes and sell shopping bags, making $2 and coming back home. In that neighborhood, we never had an image to look up to, aside from a minister. Anybody else who came around was either the white insurance man or the white bill collector who was looking for his $2 for the plastic lamp he sold that was shaped like a cat with sparkling red eyes and a pink bottom. I know Ididn't look up to any grownups. I would envy certain guys whose fathers had a sense of humor, whose fathers showed they cared for them.
Playboy: What about your own father?
Cosby: Well, I love my father and he loves me, but the old man wasn't the outstanding part of my life. My parents got married in Philadelphia and my father started out with a middle-class paying job. But he was a heavy drinker when they married, and through booze and his own particular personality, he cared more about his buddies and what they thought of him than about taking care of his wife and kids. Somebody always seemed to rob my father on paydays between work and the house. So when he got home, I heard these terrible arguments between my mother and my father about where the money was. He'd say, "Well, you better take this, because that's all I have." And my mother would say, "But, Bill, you got paid today." And then he'd say, "Well, this is all I have, so don't ask me for any more." Then there were times when he'd come back the next day and say, "Gimme $10." And Mom would tell him she needed the money to buy food. And then an argument and maybe a fight. I remember my father beating my mother up three times. I was too small to do anything about it. These things are very, very painful to think about today.
Playboy: Do you have any pleasant memories of those years?
Cosby: Well, I dug cars, and still do. But I didn't actually have one until I was 24 years old, when I bought an old Dodge for $75, and I loved it, loved it. It had the baldest tires in the world. A cue ball has more grip than those tires did. I called it the Black Phantom. I did everything with that car! When I was a teenager, it was a big thing when one of the guys in the neighborhood got a set of wheels. There was a guy named Charley Wades, whose father gave him a car. Now, Charley was almost like a cab driver; if you wanted to go to a party with him, you had to have some money to chip in for gas. Charley would say, "You can bitch about me charging you for the gas, but that's the only thing I'm charging you for. You're only giving me a quarter for gas, but what about my tires and my sparkplugs? What about my seats that you're rubbing your ass on? Where were you when I had to reline my seats? I didn't charge you nothing for that. So you're getting away clean, man."
And then there was the time Andy Patterson's father gave him a 1946 Olds, which, by the time Andy got it, was the saddest and slowest thing in north Philly. One night we double-dated and Andy had put old Army blankets over the car seats. I don't know what kind of rodent eats foam rubber, but Andy had two of the biggest holes I ever saw in his front seat; and when he forgot to tell a chick about them, she just about disappeared when she sat down. The covers went over her head and her can hit the bottom of the car. We all laughed about it, pulled her out and then drove into a gas station. It's raining and cold and the gas-station guy is sitting in his little office when Andy honks the horn. The guy gets up, puts on his raincoat and hat and comes around the car, slips and falls flat on his behind. And we start laughing again. The guy gets up, soaking wet, and limps up to the window. Andy rolls it down and says, "Gimme 19 cents' worth of regular." And the guy walks away, goes back into his office and just sits there, shaking his head, just shaking his head. Those were the days when, to us, almost nothing mattered except cars.
Playboy: Did you continue your romance with cars when you became successful?
Cosby: Three years after I bought the Black Phantom, I started appearing in big nightclubs and on TV shows, and the first thing I did was go out and buy a 1955 Mercedes-Benz 300SL for $5000. I put a down payment on it and drove across country, from Philadelphia to San Francisco. I figure I paid about $6000 in garage bills to keep it going, because each mechanic I met would say, "Umm, the car don't sound right, Bill," and I'd say, "OK, fix it." And I would ride the buses again, waiting for the car to be fixed, because parts had to be flown in from places like Egypt and San Diego and Mars.
One night, I was playing the Crescendo in Los Angeles and Theodore Bikel came to see me -- we'd been good friends in Greenwich Village -- and he invited me to go out for coffee. So Theodore's car comes up and it's a Corvette with We Shall Overcome and Freedom Now bumper stickers plastered all over it -- so many you couldn't even see the chrome. Then up comes my Mercedes and he says to me: "What the hell did the Nazis ever do for you?" The next day, I sold it for $2500 and bought a Chrysler Imperial. But that was too heavy a car, so I went to a Chrysler station wagon, then a Plymouth station wagon, and I didn't like either of them. Finally, I said to my wife, Camille: "Every car we get, we're trying to get away from the stereotype of the Negro with the Cadillac; but I don't care what anybody says, the Cadillac is the best car in the world, and I'm buying one." So I went and bought an Eldorado and it was great.
But it so happens that most of my friends are either entertainers or athletes, and Bill Russell came to the house when we had this two-door Eldorado, a $7500 car. My wife and I are up front and Russell and his girl are like two pretzels in the back. So we decided to get rid of it and I bought a Rover, which has a little more room in the back. Later, I owned a Rolls-Royce limousine for a while and drove it myself; but I got rid of it pretty quick, because a Rolls looks weird without a chauffeur up front and I didn't want anybody driving me around. I've always loved Ferraris, so I have one of those now. I gave my wife an Excalibur, and I also have a 1934 Aston Martin, but I wouldn't take that car out on the road. I got rid of the Rover, so now I own only three cars; I think I'm starting to come out of it.
Playboy: Your success came quickly. Did you spend the bread as fast as it came in?
Cosby: When I really started making it, I did. Everything had to be gold -- tie clips, cuff links; I even went through the diamond-ring bit -- the whole thing, but only for a couple of months. That's all it takes to take the edge off your desire to own things. I don't think this is necessarily a phase for most people who start earning a lot of money; but if you've come from a poor neighborhood, you tend to start buying like there's no tomorrow. There are stores that thrive on that kind of thing, stores that challenge you to walk in. It's almost like that store is saying, "I don't think you can afford it." So a guy goes in and he says, "I can too afford it." Dunhill's is that kind of store. I bought ice buckets, all kinds of expensive ashtrays, a humidor, lighters and a clock that tells the time all over the world; it takes me about an hour to find out what time it is in California. I put most of that stuff in one room, which my wife calls Cosby's Dunhill.