It’s funny how life gives you little gifts and time changes your understanding of things. This morning, I finally watched the American Comedy Awards from last week. Truth be told, I only cared about the fifteen minutes where an idol of mine was recognized with the Johnny Carson award.
That idol is Bill Cosby.
The dark terrified me as a child. I’d constantly leave my room to wake Mom and Dad, telling them about the various monsters in my closet or demons outside my window. To keep Dad from winding up on the news for murdering his child, Mom found a way to keep me in bed.
She gave me her old record player and albums to fall asleep to. Amongst the Bette Midler, Melissa Manchester, and one of my dad’s old Beach Boys records, I found one by Bill Cosby – To Russell, My Brother, Whom I Slept With.
Quite appropriate, that.
My own brother and I shared a bed for about a year while our family transitioned to a new home. Listening to Cosby (also the eldest in his family) talk about he and Russell fighting for their side of the bed, stealing covers, and their father's threats mirrored my own experiences.
In sixth grade, my elementary school held a talent contest. I performed Cosby’s Chicken Heart routine.
At 14, I performed my own three-minute skit, The Truth About Brothers & Sisters, continuing to emulate Cosby’s routines about family. I won my division at the Indiana State Fair talent competition with that act and dreamed of the day I might tell Cosby about it.
Years later, while at Ball State University, I saw a flyer - Cosby coming to town for a show at Emens Auditorium. I skipped class and sprinted over to the box office to inquire about tickets. I saw a few people in the office discussing something. After gaining their attention, one of the ladies informed me all the tickets had already sold out.
“I’ll stand anywhere, lady,” I begged her. “I don’t care if it’s the very back corner of the balcony section, just sell me a ticket. I’ve dreamed of seeing Cosby live since I was a kid.”
She apologized, but of course couldn’t sell what she didn’t have. She did agree to take my number and give me a call if anything came available.
Dejected, I traipsed back to my dorm. I’m dating myself here, but I didn’t have a cell phone at the time. Opening the door, I saw my answering machine blinking - Box office lady calling to say get back here quick.
She said one of the people in the office was part of Bill Cosby’s team. This individual had overheard my groveling. Long story short, this person had a ticket - front row - and told the lady to give it to me for free.
I never had the opportunity to thank them. Never even learned who it was.
They gave the box office lady strict instructions to keep the gift anonymous.
Needless to say, I was on cloud nine come performance night.
Cosby absolutely killed it.
I knew almost every skit he did by heart. Didn’t matter. He was as good and animated as I imagined listening to those records.
I think it’s easy to forget no one starts at the top. Dr. Cosby’s been a famous comic/actor since before I was born. Yet watching him accept the Carson award, I related to his early experiences in a way I never thought possible.
He first told a story about the Carson show paying $340 for a performance. “They had no idea I was four years from the projects,” said Cosby. “That’s a lot of money.”
It made me think back on my experiences living in Chicago. The few friends who visited that dank studio apartment will tell you they had to bring their own air mattress because I slept on the hardwood floor. Or how my fridge was empty until the came and took pity on me. Or how they saw dead cockroaches every morning that I had become accustomed to.
My friends and family were excited when I called to tell them of working on Clint Eastwood’s film, Flags of Our Fathers. They didn’t know I pocketed food from craft services to take home at night, or that I wept upon receiving my check for $218 the next month. Not because I could buy food with it. (I couldn’t). It meant I might pay the rent to keep the dream alive.
Cosby next explained when he was up and coming, he played Chicago, the Gate of Horn. Across the street was another venue called Mr. Kelly’s. “They played big name people,” he said. “And that’s where I wanted to go because that was $5,000/week. I kept looking at that place and saying that’s where I’m going to be. I’m going to eat it up.”
A couple years later, he was asked to play there. Sitting in the dressing room, he mentioned a heavy thought came to his mind. “The people who play this room are real comics…and you’re not.”
When asked how he wished to be introduced, he said, “Ladies and gentleman, one of the fastest rising comedians in America, Bill Cosby.”
Cosby then relayed the feeling he’d had in the dressing room stayed with him. He performed his 35-minute act in 18 minutes.
“I said thank you and goodnight, but the audience didn’t applaud,” said Cosby. “They just said, ‘And goodnight to you too.”
The venue owners came to him. “You go back to the hotel Maryland and you tell Bill Cosby to get back here. We don’t know why he sent you…because you stink.”
Cosby next claimed if it was a movie, he would’ve walked out for the second show and destroyed.
“The feeling (I wasn’t good enough) stayed and stayed and stayed,” says Cosby. “But somehow, I didn’t leave.”
I marvel at those words even now. I’m nowhere near as successful as Cosby, doubt I ever will be. Yet those words resonated. Even when starving and freezing in Chicago, somehow I didn’t leave. Rather, I didn’t give up.
I did eventually move back to Indiana just long enough to marry Karen. Yet even before she and I agreed to date, I mentioned if she wasn’t willing to move to L.A. with me it wouldn’t work. Not because I’d view her selfish if she chose to reject such an ultimatum, but because I couldn’t be whole for her if I didn’t chase these dreams.
Eventually, we did move to L.A. (Thankfully no bugs or starving this time around). Every time I’ve watched into a casting call, or even received the part and been on set, that voice is there. These are real actors here…and you’re not.
I submitted Salted to literary agents. Every one of them rejected me.
The voice grew louder.
Somehow, I didn’t leave.
I’ve been prepping the Salted book tour next week for awhile now. This may surprise some of you, but I’m more than a bit nervous. What if they think I sound stupid? What if I don’t recognize someone and hurt their feelings? What if, what if, what if.
This morning, I felt like my mentor spoke to me again. Helping me chase off those dark, heavy thoughts once more.
“I’m telling you this because many of you listening tonight…” said Cosby. “You have to show up. You cannot talk yourself into being so scared of who you are. Because you are the only person who can represent who you are.”
Another lesson noted.
Thank you, Dr. Cosby.
Author. Actor. Rascal.