Not to just pile on, but this is an article I wrote about Bill Cosby for this blog a couple of years ago that was picked up by Gawker recently, resulting in a lot of traffic. So I thought I would share it again for my regular readers.
I’ve always been a big fan of Bill Cosby. Loved his comedy albums as a
kid, took my wife to Las Vegas to see his stand-up act (more like a
sit-down act. He just sat in a chair, smoked a cigar, and held a giant
audience in the palm of his hand), and admired THE COSBY SHOW (at least
when it started). He was a true original and his comedy came out of
reality. You laughed because you related. He was also a damn good spokesman for Jello. So I respect his work. We’re clear on that, right?
Recently, WRITTEN BY, the WGA’s monthly magazine did an article where
they referred to Bill Cosby as a writer’s mentor. I think they were
being a little overly generous. I wouldn’t call him a mentor.
I’d call him an egotist who worked his writers as if they were pack mules.
I know. You say potato and I say potato.
There’s no question that there was much to be learned from Bill Cosby,
and those writers who survived did take lessons that helped them in
their future work. But what a cost.
The article explains how the process worked on THE COSBY SHOW. The
staff worked out a very rough story area on Wednesday, then wrote an
entire script over the weekend. Cosby would shit on it at the table
reading on Monday. If there were lines he didn’t like he would read
them in funny voices. Rather rude to the writers who killed themselves
all weekend to service you. Then would come the hours of notes, Cosby
would tear the whole script apart. Often, with his big cigar, he would
literally blow smoke into the writers' faces. And then the staff went
back to now write a completely new script and cough. Those rewrites,
even in the article, were termed grueling.
And this went on week after week. Hundred hour weeks were common. Month after month. At least he didn't smoke $2 Tiparillos.
Oh, and did I mention, at the end, Cosby ad libbed stuff? I’m sure it
was funny but why put everybody through that just to ultimately do it
Talented showrunners would understandably bolt after a season or even a
few weeks of this. One writer was so fried after she quit that she
spent six months working at the Coney Island Aquarium.
Are there shows with long hours? Absolutely. Is it difficult to
write for a comedian who has a very strong voice? You betcha. But you
know that going in.
However, to have a star just arbitrarily toss out draft after draft and
force his staff to write around the clock for seven months is unfair and
I don’t know why the staff bothered to do anything for the table
draft. Why work hard crafting jokes and scenes and moments when
everything's just going to be dismissed? Just write down the first
thing that comes to your mind and head for the train. The fact that
the staff didn’t do that (and never did that) says something about how
admirable and professional they were.
Fact: Writers burn out. Fact: Writers do not do their best work at
4:00 AM after being in the room for fifteen hours. How would an actor
like it if he were asked to strenuously rehearse every day from 7:00 AM
until 11:00 PM and then an audience would be brought in and he'd be
asked to perform NOISES OFF for two hours?
The fact that Cosby established this grueling schedule and maintained it
shows, to me, a lack of consideration and compassion. Yes, the show
was a smash hit, and he was the 800 pound gorilla, but I will never be
convinced it would have been any worse had the writers not spent 70% of
their time writing material that everyone knew was gong to get thrown
out. I could however, make an argument that the shows would have been
even better had the staff not been walking zombies. And if some of the better writers had not quit.
But that’s the way they did it. A number of people made fortunes of
money (including sweater manufacturers). And the show is a classic.
Call Cosby brilliant, call him the man who saved sitcoms, call him a
game-changer, a visionary, a titan in the world of comedy. But mentor? I was fortunate that I had mentors who didn’t send me screaming to an aquarium.