First rock albums I ever bought were Let it Bleed and Are You Experienced?. I was in the fifth grade. My mom took me to Caldors I bought them on cassette. She dug rock n roll but wasn't an avid record buyer. She had albums by Simon and Garfunkel and Judy Collins and her favorite, Jacques Brel, but it was my dad who bought records. Only he didn't care for rock—Help! and A Hard Day's Night was as far as he was willing to go (unless you want to count George Burns Sings and we probably shouldn't). But he had dozens of Original Cast Recordings as well as records by The Weavers and Harry Belafonte.
My sister gravitated to the musicals. What caught my eye were the handful of comedy records. First one I remember, I must have been six or seven, was Bill Cosby's 3rd album, Why Is There Air? Seemed like a good question to me. I played that record over and over as well as another Cosby one, I Started Out As A Child. They were my favorites along with Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner's 2000 Year Old Man (the others, The First Family, The Best of Peter Sellers and a Tom Leherer record I didn't appreciate until later).
These three albums were seminal for me. We listened to them with my father—I studied when he laughed, memorizing what jokes broke him up—and by ourselves.
Thought about this last night as I tried to fall asleep after reading a 1969 Playboy Interview with Cos:
Cosby: ...Now, when I meet a guy in the ghetto, of course he's going to be envious, but he doesn't necessarily resent me for it; there's a whole lot of cats in the ghetto to whom I Spy was something to be proud of, in a way. I certainly was, and I can only thank one man for making it happen: Sheldon Leonard.
Playboy: How did you meet him?
Cosby: It was really funny, man, and it wasn't funny. I went into this business after hearing Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner do their 2000-year-old-man routine. I loved their flow of humor, the looseness of it and the fact that any second, a piece of greatness could suddenly be created. So I decided to go into show business to do this kind of comedy. I figured I'd eventually need a partner, but then I go on television, do two or three guest shots, and suddenly I'm playing at the Crescendo in Los Angeles. Remember, now, I'm in show business for two years, and Carl Reiner comes by to see the show and afterward he says, "I loved your show, man." Well, of course, I'm stunned. Like, Carl Reiner — one half of the 2000-year-old-man thing — came to see me! Now, this is before militancy and Watts and Detroit, when it was still something else for a white star to come see a black man. And he says, "My producer, Sheldon Leonard, wants to see you. He couldn't be here tonight, but he loves your work."
The next morning, I went to Sheldon's office, hoping that perhaps he would give me a guest shot on The Dick Van Dyke Show. Now, mind you, I couldn't act at all; I'd never done any acting, except a couple of lies to my mother. So I walked into Sheldon's office and he talks to me, not about doing a Van Dyke Show but about a new series that would co-star a black man and a white man. They're going to be spies and they're going to travel to Hong Kong. Now, here I am, my first time in California, only the third time I've ever been out of Pennsylvania, and this guy is talking about Hong Kong. That knocked me out of my chair more than the series. I said, "Travel to Hong Kong? This program is going to pay my way to Hong Kong?" And Sheldon is telling me he thinks I've got the particular personality that will work for his show and that all I have to do is put the same thing on TV that I do in my stand-up act, and that'll be my job. Then he says, like, "Can you act?" And I say, "You must be high. You didn't see me when I did Othello in Central Park last year, did ya?" And he smiles and all I'm thinking about is, "Hong Kong, Hong Kong, man. I'm gonna see the original Chinese people, the ones I've read about." So I get back to my manager, Roy Silver, and I tell him, "Don't let this cat off the hook, 'cause if he's blowing smoke, we're not letting him get out of it." Well, Sheldon said he'd get in touch with me a year later. And he did.
There's not much about Cosby's technique as a comedian in the interview but a whole lot about his politics:
Playboy: If the world is ready to passively witness genocide in the U.S., doesn't black violence, as preached by militants like Rap Brown, strike you as ill advised, to say the least?
Cosby: Rap and the other militants all speak the truth when they let America know that the black man is not going to take any more bullshit; we've been here for 300 years and we've had it with waiting. But when Rap makes a speech and says we should get guns and use them on Whitey, it doesn't strike me as a cool move tactically. I, for one, would never let people know I was planning to shoot at them. If you mean it, you just don't talk about it. This goes back to my street-corner days. Unless he's got another card to pull out, it's not the brightest cat in the world who stands around telling a guy, "I'm gonna get a gun and blow your head off." When the guy sees you don't have that gun yet, he pops you right in the teeth or, if he's got a gun, he uses it on you.
Playboy: Do you think the easy accessibility of firearms in America heightens racial tensions?
Cosby: The way I look at it is that guns are sold to protect whites against blacks. The leaders of bigotry have got to keep the poor, ignorant white cat really upset and nervous, so that their friends the gun manufacturers can sell him some guns and maybe even some bazookas as well.
Playboy: But you'd have to admit that the black militants' threats are at least one of the reasons whites are buying guns.
Cosby: Yes, and you have to admit that every time the black man has made a nonviolent move to gain acceptance, he's been laughed at or cursed or hosed down or killed.
Worth checking out.