Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Bill Cosby -- mentor?

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 yourself?

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 highly disrespectful.

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.


Anonymous said...

thanks for the insight. How would you say Cosby compared in this regard to, say, Roseanne?

MikeK.Pa. said...

One thing I've learned in life is that celebrities have a public face and a private face. Cosby's private face is being exposed and given the number of allegations, I don't think he'll be able to buy his way out of it. He chastised comics like Eddie Murphy for working "blue" yet profanity wasn't foreign coming out of his mouth in private settings. I know from people who were around him when it happened.

Jack Benny was a TV star who valued writers and would work with them to make sure the best script was cranked out without beating them up. Clint Eastwood is a director I admire, not only because of the prolific work he's done late in life but also the respect he gives to the written word. He didn't change a word of Gran Torino, a script that had its genesis on the back of napkins in a Minneapolis bar.

Well done piece BTW and I'm sure you received a lot of kudos from writers for having their backs.

Hamid said...

Call Cosby brilliant, call him the man who saved sitcoms, call him a game-changer, a visionary, a titan in the world of comedy

I've never thought of him as any of those. This has nothing to do with the current headlines, I've just never found him funny. The Cosby Show was one of the most bland sitcoms ever made and, to be completely honest, what I would call very gentle/simple humour. I'm not just saying this because it's Ken's blog but when I was growing up, the sitcom of choice we watched was a little show called Cheers that was broadcast every Friday at 10pm on Channel 4. Whenever I did tune into The Cosby Show, I found its comedy to be very, very basic.

I read a hilarious interview years ago with Paul Weiland, the poor guy who got lumbered with the unenviable task of directing Leonard: Part 6, the movie that Columbia thought would bust many blocks. I can't remember all the details but he basically agreed to direct it without really knowing much about Cosby. What was amusing is that Weiland recounted that after he signed to direct the film, he went to watch Cosby's old films and listen to his albums and found to his horror that he didn't think any of them were funny. I think his actual quote was "Had this guy ever been funny?" But it was too late and he was locked in to direct the movie.

I actually haven't seen Leonard: Part 6. But then, who has?

Matthew said...

We do have one thing to thank Cosby for. Married With Children was conceived as an anti-Cosby (original working title "NOT THE COSBYS"), and that in my opinion is one of the best, funniest, sitcoms ever.

Hamid said...

By the way, I'm very jealous you guys in the States and Canada will get to see the first teaser for STAR WARS EPISODE VII this weekend at selected cinemas! I won't lie, I'm excited as hell for this movie and can't wait to see the first glimpse at the footage.

Gary said...

The Cosby Show was the opposite of every other sitcom, because its pilot show was the funniest episode in the entire series. After that it just got steadily worse. Toward the end, when every guest role was filled by retired jazz singers instead of actors, it was just about unwatchable.

Anonymous said...

MikeK.Pa. said...
"One thing I've learned in life is that celebrities have a public face and a private face."

I think you meant to say SOME celebrities. While the nature of the job attracts qualified psychopaths, there are many who arrived not primarily as fame seekers, but as craftsmen and artists who became successful, remain craftsmen and artists, and are some of the best people you could ever hope to meet.
I'll bet you Ken knows a few.

Pat Reeder said...

I'm with Hamid. When "Cosby" was the big dog of NBC's "Must-See" Thursday line-up, I seldom bothered to tune in until after it and "A Different World" were over. Both were too simplistic (I categorize them with "Saved By The Bell" rather than "Cheers" or "Friends") and too preachy for me. I hate sitcoms that are so obvious about their "social message of the week" that you can figure it out just from the ethnicity/sexuality of the guest star and whether he/she faced bullying, prejudice or temptation to sin before the first commercial. I do fondly recall the economics lesson with Theo from the pilot, but I can't remember much else about the series except sanctimoniousness and ugly sweaters.

John Levenstein said...

Usually it's the writer/showrunner making people work all night. When a showrunner does it, it is equally crazy but more likely to be treated as a serious business decision.

Roofie Huxtable said...

Cosby's comedy was always thin, thin broth, and his "uplift the race" persona was a chore to endure. I didn't need Hannibal Buress to remind me of decade-old stories that the media & public decided it didn't wanna hear about. Seeing Cosby's image shatter and his career crater like Arthur Godfrey's (times 100) is long overdue.

Dan Ball said...

Ken, maybe this is a Friday question, but it's a follow-up to today's entry:

How bad would conditions on THE COSBY SHOW need to be in order for the WGA to intervene on behalf of the writing staff? Would the WGA ever intervene in a situation like that?

Scooter Schechtman said...

And all this time I've been standing outside my "I Hate Cosby's Eighties Sitcom" museum and wondering why nobody wanted to come inside. Now with the...allegations...going around I'm sure I'll see some foot traffic, which I'll angrily send packing because the Museum does not encourage gloating.

John Levenstein said...

I have discussed this with the WGA. They will never intervene because then they would have to intervene when writers overwork their own staffs, which is usually the case.

Lud said...

One thing I love about this blog is the utter predictability of the comments. Whenever Ken writes something critical of something or somebody, the sycophants are inevitably there to pile on with the "yeah, me too" remarks, always amping up Ken's criticisms to cartoonish proportions, everyone working to see who can get the meanest and most hateful about whatever the bitch du jour may be, being careful to take a moment to assure Ken that MASH, CHEERS and FRASIER are the only sitcoms that ever mattered and the only sitcoms they've ever watched.

Anja said...

>> shows, to me, a lack of consideration and compassion

There you are.

Hamid said...

Lud, I can't speak for the others but maybe you should re-read my comment in which I began by quoting what Ken said, followed by my comment disagreeing with him and that I've never thought of Cosby as brilliant, etc. Not exactly "amping up Ken's criticisms to cartoonish proportions".

Jim said...

Is it wrong to have liked Saved By The Bell?

Eric J said...

I think this blog on Cosby answers all the questions I hear on the news directed at the women involved. "Why didn't they just leave?" "Why didn't they bite his dick?" Etc.

The Cosby Show writers were in exactly the same position as all those women accusers.

Apparently, Cosby was consistent in his dealings with men and women.

They had almost reached their dream, if only they could endure this one thing. Their decision to endure doesn't shift the blame to themselves. They are still victims. Their tormenter is still guilty.

Very sad. I loved his comedy albums. I enjoyed him on I Spy as Robert Culp's sidekick. He did have talent. He might have been a genius. But somewhere along the way, and long ago, he lost it.

Bill Cosby is a Very Funny Felon! said...

Lud: "...whatever the bitch du jour may be"

Hasn't that been Bill Cosby's sedation/dating strategy for decades?

C Flavin said...

As one of the writers on the last season, I just want to say it wasn't like that in year eight. We only worked a couple of weekends, only worked until the early hours of the morning one time when a script had to be tossed (freelance writer, not her fault), only lost one other script so that Cosby could bring in some more of his friends to be on the show), and -- I think this was a first in the history of the show -- the writers were treated to a first class meal at an actual restaurant by Cosby shortly after we went into production. (He was not present, however.) I am not defending Cosby or even defending most of the episodes of the last season, which didn't, in my opinion, turn out as well as we had hoped. I just wanted to say it didn't stay as bad as it was the first few seasons, and the writer who had bailed out to the aquarium came back for a while.

We knew going in that hardly any of the lines that we wrote for Cliff would end up in the final script, that we were just providing a base for him to riff. (if you could make Cosby laugh at the reading, that was considered a triumph.) We had two hours after the table read for Cosby to give notes, and I don't remember that he was ever mean about it. If the script was in good shape, we had two hours of Cosby entertaining us, trying out material, and that was pretty great.

However, recent alleged events have taken all the fun out of having written for "The Cosby Show."

Touch-and-go Bullethead said...

"The Cosby Show writers were in exactly the same position as all those women accusers."

Eric J, you really should reconsider that line before you repeat it anywhere.

You might also want to look up the definition of "exactly."

Mike said...

C Flavin, is it possible that your episodes' not being as good was related to the better treatment?

Anonymous said...

So when will people notice that there are fewer hits on Google for Hannibal Buress than Bill Clinton rapist?

AP plays its tapes of Bill Cosby saying repeatedly 'not going to comment.' When Sam Donaldson asks Bill Clinton about the piece that NBC News aired calling him a rapist, 'There's been a statement made by my attorney. He speaks for me, and I think he spoke quite clearly."

The footage of Bill Cosby and wife even reminds one of the Gennifer Flowers interview with Bill Clinton and wife.

Other enablers, one who hands out money orders in his own name, or feminists who invent a one free grope rule.

RockGolf said...

Scooter: Can I still visit the gift shop of your museum? What's the best selling items?

Charles H. Bryan said...

I've developed the personal belief that every famous person -- entertainment, politics, whatever -- has done something horrifying or shameful that they daily hope won't become public. This way, when it does become public, I'm not surprised or disillusioned.

Tom Hanks? Covered up that he ran over an Apollo astronaut at a Veteran's Day parade.
Sofia Vergara? Actually a guy from Joliet, Illinois. Also, not his actual accent.
Tina Fey? White supremacist.
Oprah Winfrey? White supremacist.
Anderson Cooper? Extraordinarily white supremacist.
Taylor Swift? Remember that show "V"?

The only celebrity we can trust is Keith Richards, because he ain't hiding anything. Oh, and Jose Canseco.

C Flavin said...

Re Mike's question whether the shows in the eighth season not being as good as previous shows being related to the writers being treated better, I would have to say I don't think so. We worked hard; we just weren't mistreated. We tried to make them good. I remember we didn't allow one episode to be shown until we could fix it and it took us a long time to figure out how. (It involved cutting a bunch out and writing a new ending.)

All the ideas had to be approved by Cosby; most of them came from him. He said at the end of the season in an interview with the New York Times that the only regret he had was that he did an eighth season! So I think he was tired, the rest of the cast and crew were tired, and the writers were often puzzled how to make Cosby's ideas work. And I will say that on one occasion, we had written some really funny stuff for one of the regulars, who killed at the reading, and Cosby gradually got rid of all those funny lines (not jokes, but character-driven lines) during the rehearsal. So there was that.

I don't know if Ken approves of cross-talk like this, so I'll stop.

Mike said...

I think Ken would give you your own post to talk about it.

I was thinking not of burnout, but along the lines of something he has posted, about how you shouldn't settle, see how things can be funnier.

Nixon said...

I never watched The Cosby Show for whatever reason but I thought his records were great...Noah, little tiny hairs all over my face, Fat Albert...all that stuff. We listened to it over and over when I was a kid. He came to my college and, like you said, sat at a classroom-type desk up on stage with his big cigar and just talked. He was great!
When these take downs of our heroes happen-sports people, entertainment people...another one recently was Jimmy Saville in gives me a huge feeling of sadness. It's like, piece by piece, big sparkling chunks of what was the magical part of childhood keep getting chiseled away. I don't want to not trust people. I don't want these people to be different from the person we respect and enjoy. It's not supposed to be this way.

Klee said...

Funny, both Roseanne and Cosby were produced by Casey-Warner and you only heard how horrible Roseanne was to the staff.

Canda said...

Unless people have forgotten, before The Cosby Show came on, people said the sitcom was dead.

Cheers, Night Court and Family Ties weren't even in the top 50. Once they were put on behind The Cosby Show on Thursday night, they were all in the top 10. And ran for years.

If the Cosby Show hadn't come along, there's a chance the other shows would NEVER have been hits. And remember, Seinfeld became a hit after it was placed behind Cheers on Thursday night.

There are a lot of very wealthy people who should be thanking Bill Cosby every day.

D. said...

Mine is an old story. I grew up on Cosby's records, loved them, watched him on I, Spy, loved him. Met him when I had him on a radio show I produced, and was impressed with him. Saw his live stage show in 1974, thought it was hilarious, and that was pretty much about it.

I don't know what went on backstage at The Cosby Show, and very little of what went on in front of the cameras. I watched one episode. It was about a kid's pet dying,a goldfish or a turtle, I don't know which, and the family having a funeral for it, and I found the entire thing so cloying and and annoying that I never watched it again, ever.

And then the Jello commercials became more nauseating, the high-handed role of Comedy's Moral Arbiter more offensive (He's lost that position), and his talk show appearances more regal. In and I imagine everyone, felt horrible for him when his son was brutally murdered, but that slack he was cut has all worn off now.

Perhaps the worst thing is, I don't find the charges unbelievable. And as they mount, the photo of myself and Cosby that's been on my dining room wall for decades has come down and gone into a drawer.

Shame, Bill, shame.

IMHO said...

Jim said...
Is it wrong to have liked Saved By The Bell?

Yes. Yes it is.

D. McEwan said...

Sorry, my comment posted as "D". It should be "D. McEwan."

C Flavin said...

Mike, in both "The Cosby Show" and "Roseanne," the power was with the stars. In the case of "Cosby," there were a lot of non-writers who had a big say in what ended up being shot. In other shows, there's network or studio interference. There are a lot of reasons shows don't turn out as well as intended, and they are not that the writers settled.

Albert Giesbrecht said...

I have been a fan of Mr. Cosby since I was a child, even if my name is Albert, and the kids used to call me Fat Albert, One of the local radio stations played his comedy records overnight, and enjoyed his subtle humour. I enjoyed the Cosby Show, up until Theo Graduated and became a teacher (what was up with that). Family Ties was floundering in the ratings until Cosby helped boost it. I saw Cosby perform in Vancouver, and I enjoyed the show, even at the beginning, when he embarrassed a guy for having his cell phone on, and took the guys phone and talked to the person on the line and called the dude with the phone a drug pusher.

Yes, he came across as arrogant on talk shows, most notably Aresnio, but then a lot of Aresino's guests came off as arrogant for some reason.


Mike Barer said...

When I was growing up in Walla Walla, Cosby did a show at Coordiner Hall, which was at the college. It was one of the first times that I saw a celeb in person. I guess during his time in town he made some friends and he would often return to Walla Walla to play tennis with them. Anyway, the point of this isn't that he is guily or innocent, but just something to relate.

Lorimartian said...

Cosby experienced the most exteme example of karma when his only son was murdered, a loss he must live with every day. Although it was officially classified as a random attempted robbery, during which nothing was stolen and to which the perpetrator subsequently confessed, what if it was retribution tied to Cosby's appalling behavior?

The women bringng these allegations should be taken seriously, and if their claims are proven to be true, Cosby should be held accountable in a manner that gives them some peace.

A prison sentence or monetary settlement may give the women some comfort, but those judgments pale in comparison to the punishment handed down by the death of a child, especially under such violent circumstances. Cosby has to suffer that tragic loss every day of his life and perhaps contemplate how he may have unwittingly contributed.

Hamid said...


Unless you're aware of credible information pertaining to the murder, your speculation is phenomenally offensive. The idea that his son being killed was "extreme karma" for Cosby's own behaviour is bonkers, let alone the far fetched theory that it was revenge. Karma, if one believes in such a thing, is visited upon the person concerned, not an innocent party. And since when do victims of rape or those close to the victims seek revenge by killing someone who had nothing to do with it? Good grief. This is reality, not CSI or Murder She Wrote.

On a lighter note, my TV quote of the week has to go to Tracy Letts of Homeland for his brilliantly delivered line: "What the fuck? What the fucking fuck?"

Hamid said...

A link for the Homeland scene in question.

Jason said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jason said...

"Retired jazz singers"

I think the worst episode is one where his father "comes out of retirement" as a pro jazz trombonist to play again with his old combo. I assume the rest of those guys were real musicians, but the father gets up there and does the worst fake trombone playing in the history of TV. He actually holds the instrument BACKWARDS. all that focus on jazz, and they couldn't even find someone who had even a first-year student's knowledge of the instrument? The actor playing the father cared so little for his craft that he never even asked how to HOLD IT?

Jim, Cheers Fan said...

He said at the end of the season in an interview with the New York Times that the only regret he had was that he did an eighth season!

I vaguely remember an interview with Cosby when the show was the biggest thing on TV, so IIRC the first three years, when BC said he would pull the plug after five years, which he thought was the natural lifespan of a sitcom.

I thought the show was great the first few years and then went through Cousin Oliver syndrome about eight times, back and forth across the shark tank. Letterman, a Cosby fan and friend, did a brutal parody of the late Cosby Show, riffing on how all of Sondra and Elvin's friends were Ivy Leaguers who had decided to become plumbers and dog walkers. "Theo tried to flush the ham! Why, that scamp!"

Anonymous said...

So when you posted this before, were you aware of the allegations?

Mike said...

Looking at the older thread, there were may comments about Cosby being a terrible person, only 3 referring to rape allegations.

Lorimartian said...


For the record, I have no information at all about the murder, and my "what if" scenario, not totally out of the realm of possibility, is pure speculation. While it may be far-fetched, I certainly didn't intend it to be offensive, and I'm sorry if you found it objectionable.

Anonymous said...

The offensive part is where you suggest it is just that the son gets killed.

By Ken Levine said...

Can we drop this thread, kids? It's Thanksgiving. Let's over-eat.

Erich617 said...

I hate to revive this thread (I do remember reading it the first time it was published, and I have mentioned it to people recently, so I'm not some Johnny-come-lately), but I made the same connection that a few other readers did to ROSEANNE. The difference seems to be that the discord on ROSEANNE was much more public, both when the show was being made and now. This is one of the only really negative accounts I have read of working on THE COSBY SHOW.

I am sure that Roseanne would argue that this was because of bias against her, and I also assume that a lot of it has to do with Roseanne being so outspoken. However, it does make me wonder why Cosby's behavior was handled more discretely.

The same goes for the current charges being leveled against Cosby. Woody Allen would be the most comparable celebrity case that I can think of, and he certainly received a lot more negative publicity for fewer charges.

Is there some reason that Cosby would be able to cover these things up when others couldn't?

Mike said...

Who says others couldn't? Roman Polanski is applauded by Hollywood and he only raped a girl.

Unknown said...
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