Bill Cosby & the Bible

Bill Cosby was awarded the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor last night, a much-deserved tribute for a true humorist in the Mark Twain tradition. Notice that Cosby doesn’t tell funny jokes. He tells funny stories. How did he learn how to tell them so well? He tells The Washington Post:

Where does the gift come from? For Bill Cosby, it begins in a housing project in North Philadelphia. He's 6, maybe 7 years old. He's sitting at the knee of his father's father, hoping for a quarter. But first he has to listen.

Samuel Russell Cosby Sr. read the Bible, and told his grandson the stories. Young William didn't exactly listen — "To this day, I don't know the names he said" — but he sure enough heard. The details of the stories, of course, weren't as important as the way his grandfather told them — his tone, his pace, the look on his face. It was how you told it, not what.

All of it stuck with the kid. A couple of decades later, when he was honing his own brilliant stories on a nightclub stage, Cosby would hear it again in his own voice.

"You learned storytelling from a man like this," Cosby says. He's on the phone from Los Angeles, and he's in career-reminiscence mode. He'll be in Washington on Monday night to receive the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor at the Kennedy Center. There's a big to-do in his honor, with celebrity presenters (Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld, Carl Reiner). It's basically a comedy Hall of Fame induction ceremony. So Cosby, 72, is reflecting.

"So [granddad] says, 'This is from the book of something, and then he'd start telling it. Telling it." Not preaching, just telling. "Somehow it pertained to my life, some wonderful lesson."

Little Cos absorbed it, but he was mostly focused on the quarter. Granddad kept his change in a sock, which he kept tucked into his belt. If the boy sat still and listened long enough, his grandfather would pull a coin from his sock-purse.

"He'd say, 'Take this quarter, put it in the bank. Save it. Don't go wasting it on ice cream!' "

So the boy diligently squirreled away Grandpa's quarters and then one day he . . .

"What?! Are you drunk?" Cosby sputters. "I went and got some ice cream! It was five cents a dip in those days. With a sugar cone."

Once again we see the influence of the Bible on a deep structure, cultural level. (Yes, I know it isn’t the purpose of the Bible to teach storytelling but to convey Law & Gospel! That’s not the point right now. Just as Luther’s translation of the Bible had the additional cultural effect of standardizing the German language, and just as the King James translation can be heard in the background of much of English and American literature, and just as the Bible’s portrayal of time as having a beginning, a turning point, and an end shaped our culture’s sense of time, its great stories and a grandpa’s impulse to tell them to his grandson shaped Bill Cosby’s comedy.)

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

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  • Bryan Lindemood

    The vocation of grandfather. Any grandfather could do this. You don’t have to be a Cosby. The $5.00 bills (adjusting for inflation) in the sock on your belt might help though…

  • Bryan Lindemood

    The vocation of grandfather. Any grandfather could do this. You don’t have to be a Cosby. The $5.00 bills (adjusting for inflation) in the sock on your belt might help though…

  • http://theoldadam.wordpress.com/ Steve Martin

    Who knows what effect that Word, in those stories, had and is having upon the life of Mr. Cosby.

    The Lord truly does work in mysterious ways.

  • http://theoldadam.wordpress.com/ Steve Martin

    Who knows what effect that Word, in those stories, had and is having upon the life of Mr. Cosby.

    The Lord truly does work in mysterious ways.

  • Anne Sheill

    I used to be able to e-mail your insightful thoughts to friends. There is no longer this option, that I can find.
    Are you going to change this or should I copy and paste what I want to share.
    Anne

  • Anne Sheill

    I used to be able to e-mail your insightful thoughts to friends. There is no longer this option, that I can find.
    Are you going to change this or should I copy and paste what I want to share.
    Anne

  • http://www.pagantolutheran.blogspot.com Bruce Gee

    On one of Seinfeld’s post-Seinfeld standup dvd’s, he and Chris Rock are discussing how particularly hard it is to put together twenty minutes of really good comedy. Rock told Seinfeld, “I just heard Bill Cosby the other night. He did ninety minutes without a stop, and just blew the audience away.” Seinfeld couldn’t believe it. “Ninety minutes?!! How does anyone DO that??!”

    Of course, it isn’t ninety minutes of one liners or little comedy vignettes, but a rather short span of simply excellent story telling. I’m happy to see that my favorite boyhood comedian is once again getting his due. Fat Albert,and smearing jello on the kitchen floor!

  • http://www.pagantolutheran.blogspot.com Bruce Gee

    On one of Seinfeld’s post-Seinfeld standup dvd’s, he and Chris Rock are discussing how particularly hard it is to put together twenty minutes of really good comedy. Rock told Seinfeld, “I just heard Bill Cosby the other night. He did ninety minutes without a stop, and just blew the audience away.” Seinfeld couldn’t believe it. “Ninety minutes?!! How does anyone DO that??!”

    Of course, it isn’t ninety minutes of one liners or little comedy vignettes, but a rather short span of simply excellent story telling. I’m happy to see that my favorite boyhood comedian is once again getting his due. Fat Albert,and smearing jello on the kitchen floor!

  • Anne

    I have always thought that the book of Esther is an example of some masterful storytelling, in addition to being the inspired Word of God. And, yes, I love to hear Bill Cosby tell a story! I always appreciated that I could let my children listen, too. Great stuff.

  • Anne

    I have always thought that the book of Esther is an example of some masterful storytelling, in addition to being the inspired Word of God. And, yes, I love to hear Bill Cosby tell a story! I always appreciated that I could let my children listen, too. Great stuff.

  • EGK

    A Cosby story that is etched in my memory: In April of 1968 I saw him perform at the University of Kansas. He had just released the album “To Russell, My Brother, Whom I Slept With.” It was the funniest performance I had ever seen in my life. This was his second show that evening. Afterward he briefly mentioned something about “events in Memphis” that he had heard about between shows, and how he refused to cancel his second performance. Only as I was driving home did I hear that the “events” involved the assassination of Martin Luther King. How he had the strength to be absolutely hilarious in those circumstances was amazing.
    Also, I expect we have his grandfather to thank for his classic “Noah” routine.

  • EGK

    A Cosby story that is etched in my memory: In April of 1968 I saw him perform at the University of Kansas. He had just released the album “To Russell, My Brother, Whom I Slept With.” It was the funniest performance I had ever seen in my life. This was his second show that evening. Afterward he briefly mentioned something about “events in Memphis” that he had heard about between shows, and how he refused to cancel his second performance. Only as I was driving home did I hear that the “events” involved the assassination of Martin Luther King. How he had the strength to be absolutely hilarious in those circumstances was amazing.
    Also, I expect we have his grandfather to thank for his classic “Noah” routine.

  • dave

    Bill Cosby is a genius. I grew up watching him on Saturday Mornings and Thursday nights as well as his comedy anywhere I could find it. He’s a terrific observer of human nature.

    With respect to the Bible, I continually marvel that our human brains seemed to be wired to recognize right and wrong and to watch right be proven and to watch people be redeemed through the truth or through personal repentance of sorts. These are common themes and plots in all kinds of literature and entertainment and there certainly is a parallel in the Bible. I’m sure it’s no accident.

  • dave

    Bill Cosby is a genius. I grew up watching him on Saturday Mornings and Thursday nights as well as his comedy anywhere I could find it. He’s a terrific observer of human nature.

    With respect to the Bible, I continually marvel that our human brains seemed to be wired to recognize right and wrong and to watch right be proven and to watch people be redeemed through the truth or through personal repentance of sorts. These are common themes and plots in all kinds of literature and entertainment and there certainly is a parallel in the Bible. I’m sure it’s no accident.


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