Readable, thoughtful life of the brilliant comedian and entrepreneur.
Later generations of comedians have made a good living from portraying Bill Cosby (b. 1937) as a milquetoast unwilling to court controversy. They’re unfounded, suggests Whitaker (My Long Trip Home: A Family Memoir, 2011), who was the first African-American editor of Newsweek. Cosby may incline toward a kind of meritocratic conservatism, but when he was at the peak of his game, he was always bending and breaking the rules, “stubbornly dispensing with all of the usual ingredients.” He was also a pioneer, the Jackie Robinson of popular entertainment, the first black comedian to find true superstardom among a predominantly white audience, using that renown to subtly advance the civil rights agenda—the operative word being subtly, for vehicles such as the 1960s TV hit series I Spy were phenomenally influential in simply depicting the possibility of black and white people working together and enjoying friendship without reference to race at all. Nonconfrontational but earnest, Cosby also made a fortune for NBC—so much so, as Whitaker chronicles, that at one point, Cosby came close to buying the network. The author traces Cosby’s rise, drawing on elements of his own life for comedic material; as Whitaker charts Cosby’s growing success and elevation to one of the richest men in show business, he turns up episodes in which the eminently avuncular, cardigan-wearing comic exercised a steeliness and rough temper that “could flare suddenly and sometimes violently, particularly when he thought he was being disrespected.” (For an example of Cosby’s brawling capacities, see his encounter with mild-mannered liberal icon Tommy Smothers, Whitaker’s account of which is worth the book’s cover price alone.) Whitaker closes this lucid, often entertaining biography with a pointed look at the oft-mooted question: Did Bill Cosby make Barack Obama possible?
The answer is yes, and in more ways than one. An eye-opening book and a pleasure to read.