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.)