Show Business: He has a hot TV series, a new book - and a booming comedy empire

He has a hot TV series, a new book -- and a booming comedy empire

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Unlike Fatherhood, which felt obliged to interrupt the jokes for a few passages of banal "advice" to parents, Time Flies makes no claim to great significance. That job, as in the earlier book, is left to a plodding introduction by Alvin Poussaint, a Harvard psychiatry professor who is a consultant on Cosby's TV show. And if the kvetching starts to grow wearisome, Cosby manages to end on a note of uplift: " 'Dee-fense!' I am crying to joints that need 3-in-One Oil, to intestines that are begging for custard, and to eyes that are proud of their ability to distinguish day from night. However, I am also counting my blessings and not my time with a pointless pining for yesterday because I keep telling myself, 'The older I get, the luckier I am.' "

Cosby has a lot to feel lucky about, starting with the amazing resiliency of his career. While still a student at Temple University, he got his first taste of performing by doing jokes and impressions at parties. Soon he was picking up nightclub gigs in Philadelphia and New York. Juggling comedy stints with school and sports grew more difficult, and the inevitable clash came during his junior year. The football team (for which Cosby played second- string fullback) had to travel out of town for a Saturday game; Cosby had booked himself into a $225 club engagement on Friday night. He sought permission to join the team late, but the school's athletic director refused. Forced to choose between comedy and college, Cosby opted for laughs and dropped out of school. Within a year he had landed a guest spot on the Tonight show, and by early 1964 he had recorded the first of what would eventually be more than 20 comedy albums.

Cosby emerged at the peak of the 1960s civil rights ferment, and he was unique among black comedians of the time (such as Dick Gregory and Godfrey Cambridge) in not using race as a subject. That was not always the case, however. "Racial humor was about 35% of my act when I first started," recalls Cosby. "But I realized that it was a crutch. What brought it home was when another comedian said to me, 'If you changed color tomorrow, you wouldn't have any material.' He meant it as a put-down, but I took it as a challenge." Ever since, a color-blind approach has been a basic tenet of Cosby's comedy philosophy: "I don't think you can bring the races together by joking about the differences between them. I'd rather talk about the similarities, about what's universal in their experiences."

Cosby developed his style by studying such comics as Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks, whose 2,000-Year-Old Man routine "taught me that if the audience knows you can be funny when you want to be, they will be willing to wait for that payoff." Among his early routines was a famous bit in which God tries to convince a skeptical Noah that he should build an ark. But Cosby soon gravitated toward a more fertile subject: his childhood. In vivid, richly textured narratives, he told of cutting up with neighborhood characters like Old Weird Harold and Fat Albert, sharing a bed with his younger brother Russell, going to the hospital to get his tonsils out. No comic has ever entered a child's mind with so much empathy and gusto.

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