I love Mark Twain. He was an astute observer of the human condition. He once noted that "Man is the only animal that blushes - or needs to." He also said, "God made school boards for practice, and then made idiots."
Don't get mad at me. I didn't say it. Mark Twain did. And, of course, he is noted for remarking, after learning that his death had been erroneously been reported back in America while he was touring Europe, "The reports of my demise have been greatly exaggerated."
Mark Twain, of course, was a Southerner, born and bred along the banks of the Mississippi. He was also a novelist, an adventurer, a Confederate soldier, a lecturer and a newspaper columnist. Above all else, Twain is noted for being a humorist. Someone once asked me the difference between a comedian and a humorist and I answered, "The best I can determine, about 40 years of living."
Now I told you all of that to tell you this. In 1998 the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, in Washington, D.C., created an award called the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. Each and every year since then an individual has been recognized that has had an impact on society similar to that of Mark Twain. That would be a person in pretty high cotton, indeed, and, quite frankly, some of the award winners might cause one to raise an eyebrow.
Not this year, though. This year the folks at the Kennedy Center got it just right. This year they gave the award to Bill Cosby. Bill Cosby is one of my heroes.
Like Mark Twain, Bill Cosby has taken keen note of the human condition and has, throughout his life, used his wry and accurate observations about life in America to make us think a little bit and to make us laugh a lot. I used to listen to Bill Cosby on my eight-track (ask an old person if you don't know what an eight-track was) as he told stories about growing up on the streets of Philadelphia with his brother Russell and Fat Albert and Old Weird Harold.
Fat Albert, you remember, loved to play "buck-buck," and I still laugh when I think about Cosby's voice coming through those speakers, "Come on out, Fat Albert" followed by "Hey, hey hey!" See, you are laughing, too. If you aren't, go find one of Cosby's old albums and give a listen. You will be.
Although Cosby was a television pioneer, playing in roles as diverse as a spy and a high school gym teacher, comedy was his real forte and his stories about his childhood were later turned into a long running Saturday morning cartoon show for kids. Some of his greatest work, of course, was in The Cosby Show, which became a television staple in the 1980s and was one of the first television sitcoms to portray black folks as educated, upper class professionals (Cosby's character was a doctor who was married to an attorney) without the usual stereotypes and shucking and jiving.
Cosby became an icon, and if certain generations remember him most for his Jello commercials, well, so be it. Some say that Bill Cosby is one of the very best role models for African Americans. I say that is nonsense. I say that Bill Cosby is one of the very best role models for Americans, period - regardless of ethnic background. He is also a very funny human being (did you ever hear his bit about the woman giving birth? Morphine!!!!!!!) and he is well-deserving of any honors that might be bestowed upon him.
Now here is something that you might not know. The Kennedy Center had twice before attempted to award the Mark Twain prize to Bill Cosby and he turned them down flat, because of the profanity that was thrown around so carelessly by entertainers at the first such awards presentation in 1998. The third time was the charm and this year, after receiving assurances that this year's show - a two-hour extravaganza featuring Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock and many others - would be conducted with the dignity that Mr. Cosby deserved, he agreed to appear and receive the much-deserved honor.
The show will be aired this week on PBS and once again we will all be exposed to the comic genius that is Bill Cosby. I feel about him the way Dodger owner Branch Rickey felt about Jackie Robinson - "He's a credit to his race. The human race."