The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 120,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.)
Before Bill Cosby, the television landscape looked very different. In 1965, alongside Robert Culp, stand-up comedian Cosby was cast in the drama I, Spy, a secret-agent adventure series, and became the first African-American to co-star on a dramatic series. Four television markets across the country refused to air the program, but it didn’t matter: Bill Cosby had changed television.
Jumping forward a few years, and three Lead Actor in a Drama Emmys later, on March 18, 1968, NBC gave Cosby his first venue to strike out on his own, in a mixture of music, dance and stand-up called The Bill Cosby Show (not to be confused with the later sitcom of the same name). America was probably already somewhat familiar with Cosby as a comedian, by this point. He appeared on The Tonight Show in 1963, which apparently went pretty well, since it led to a recording contract with Warner Bros. Records. From 1963-1971, Cosby released at least one comedy album a year, sometimes more. Additionally during this period Bill had graduated from occasional performer to occasional guest host of The Tonight Show, filling in for Johnny Carson from time to time.
But now Cosby was on his own on television for the very first time to show America his many talents. The show opens with a shot of a hopscotch board, drawn in chalk on a sidewalk. Suddenly Bill Cosby hops into frame, and welcomes us to Philadelphia, his hometown. He takes us to the abandoned lot that was once his childhood house and then takes us to a plaque that commemorates where Bill Cosby hit Junior Barnes in the face with a snowball that he had saved until his birthday in July (but actually, Cosby confides, the plaque lies, because his mother threw the slushball away, so instead Bill hit him with his fist).
Then Bill jumps in on a game of touch football with some actual kids (by which I mean clearly not child actors). They huddle up and he walks them through the play they should run, which involves them distracting the team, then throwing him the ball, at which point he’ll run and score them a goal. His plan is foiled when a boy on the other team follows him over to the lamppost that Cosby nonchalantly leans against. “Who are you?” asks the boy. “I’m Arnie’s brother,” says Cosby, thinking quickly. “So am I,” says the boy, to which Cosby responds, “I’ll explain later.” The ball is snapped and Bill begins to run down the street, as the kid covers him. Cosby runs around the corner, into a park, while his opponent continues to cover him. Suddenly chase music begins to play, and the scene turns into a Warner Brothers cartoon. Bill pretends to get on a bus, and the boy follows, and as the bus pulls away we see that Cosby didn’t get on at all. Bill runs down the highway, and when he gets to a toll booth, the young boy pokes his head out and starts chasing him again. In a scene that reminded me of Conan’s move from Late Night in New York to the Tonight Show in California, we see this young boy chase Cosby across the country, right into the television studio where the rest of the show is taking place.
The bulk of the show is made up of Cosby telling stories from his childhood, the majority of which appear on what would have been at the time his most current records, Revenge and Wonderfulness. These include some of his most famous bits, including those about having his tonsils removed, stealing a Frankenstein statue to scare his friend Fat Albert, and playing a game called Buck Buck, in which four guys would brace themselves against a lamppost as the opposing team jumps on top of them until they collapse.
Following this bit, Bill Cosby steps aside, and suddenly three guys and three girls, run out and start dancing to the most sixties-sounding song you’ve ever heard, as the dancers occasionally sing/chant “Hey, hey hey! It’s Fat Albert!” I usually try to remain objective with these articles, but I’m making an exception: this song goes on for three and a half minutes and it’s really dumb.
The second thing Bill Cosby does in this show is introduce kids. At the beginning of the show he introduces America to Eddie Hunley, the boy who chased him across the country. He has Eddie demonstrate his acting range as Cosby throws out emotions like excitement, greed, fear, and unbounded joy, as Eddie maintains the same stoic face. Later in the program he brings out Janice Robinson, who plays the jazz trombone, and does a rendition of “Taste of Honey” with a full backing band.
The third thing that Bill Cosby does is sing. In the last segment, Sheldon Leonard, the producer of I Spy, introduces Bill as “the incomparable Silver Throat,” which upon doing some research, I learned was the moniker that he released an actual album of songs under in 1967. The song he performs, “Little Old Man,” which combines a monologue with Stevie Wonder’s “Uptight, Everything’s Alright,” actually went gold and went to number 4 on the US Hot 100 chart. For the curious you can listen to the single below.
Through this hour long special, Cosby’s first, I believe the man did a great job of introducing just who he is to America: a charming, talented, and funny guy, who apparently also sang at one time. While any one of his early records would provide you with his sense of humor from the period, this special is a time capsule, capturing his unique delivery and sensibility in a way that no other medium could. This man was one of the first African-Americans on TV to be embraced by all audiences, and this special shows us why it was impossible not to love the multifaceted Cosby.