Bob Hope's comedy relied on rapid-fire one-liners; Bill Cosby's relies on folksy, sometimes surreal stories about his life, children and the media.
Cosby evoked all of that Sunday at the Emmy Awards when he received the Bob Hope Humanitarian Award.
His eyes hidden behind dark glasses, Cosby kept his emotions in check. In brief remarks, he thanked his wife, Camille, told a childhood story about his murdered son, Ennis, and paid tribute to Fred Rogers ("Mister Rogers Neighborhood"). He said nothing about himself -- that had to come from others in a taped tribute that aired just before he took the stage.
Jerry Seinfeld, Bernie Mac, Walter Cronkite and Ray Romano all were effusive in praising Cosby. Romano got a laugh when he said he remembered listening to one of Cosby's early comedy albums and deciding then he wanted to be an African American stand-up comedian.
Sunday's honor was Cosby's fourth from the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. He won Emmys for lead actor in a drama ("I Spy") in 1966-68 but refused to submit his name for nominations for his acting on the seminal 1984-93 comedy series "The Cosby Show."
Like Hope, Cosby has worked tirelessly for charity, supporting education through donations to colleges and scholarships -- he has a doctorate in education from the University of Massachusetts -- and through the Hello Friend/Ennis William Cosby Foundation, named for his only son, who died in 1997.
Although the Hope award recognized his humanitarian works, the academy's accolade also provided the opportunity to pay tribute to the remarkable career of the funnyman.
"Bill Cosby is one of the most important people in the history of television," said David Bushman, curator of the Museum of Television & Radio in New York City. "I think you can't possibly overstate his contributions to the medium."
Those contributions, he says, started even before Cosby in 1965 became the first African American to star in a weekly drama series, "I Spy."
"When stand-up comedy went from old vaudeville gag routines to the more authentic and real, actual storytelling, he was one of those comedians who really revolutionized stand-up comedy," Bushman says. "He made it much more sophisticated."
The key to Cosby's appeal, Bushman believes, was his ability to appeal to a wide audience.
"There were other African American comedians like Godfrey Cambridge and Dick Gregory. Those guys came up at the same time, but their comedy was edgier. He made his humor so universal, and I think that was even more of an achievement of the man because he had to transcend those racial barriers. If you go back to the variety shows or talk shows of the '60s, you see what he did in terms of stand-up comedy on television. It's just incredible."
"I don't know the key to success, but the key to failure is to try to please everyone." -- Bill Cosby
Even more significant than winning three consecutive Emmys for "I Spy," Bushman argues, was the phenomenal success of "The Cosby Show," which for the first time portrayed an upper-middle-class African American family. "It revived the sitcom at a time when people were basically giving up on that," he says. "It totally reversed NBC's fortunes. It completely transcended race in its appeal and gave opportunity to African Americans behind the scenes and in front of the camera and certainly played a key roll in the whole revival of sitcoms being built around stand-up comics. It was very intelligent and very subtle with quiet humor, which is not the way a lot of things are today."
It was a sign of Cosby's clout that he got NBC to agree to shoot the show in New York, where he lives, at a time when almost every series was filmed in Los Angeles.
The father of five, Cosby has long been a favorite of children. He's been the pitchman for Jell-O and the creator of the animated series for kids, "Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids," and the current "Little Bill." In the early 1970s, he appeared on the PBS kids' series "The Electric Company," and most recently hosted the revival of the Art Linkletter show "Kids Say the Darndest Things."
Says Bushman: "He's a man of integrity and a man who is faithful to his values."
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From cool to icon
Highlights of Bill Cosby's career on television:
1963: Gets his big break doing his stand-up routine on "The Tonight Show"
1965-68: Stars with Robert Culp on the NBC series "I Spy," becoming the first African American in a leading role in an hourlong drama. He wins three Emmys for leading actor in a drama series
1969-71: Stars as a high school physical education teacher in the NBC's comedy series "The Bill Cosby Show"
1970: Host of the Emmy Awards
1971-72: Plays Hank; Al the Milkman; Ken Kane; and the Ice Cream Man on the PBS children's series "The Electric Company"
1972: Goes dramatic in "To All My Friends on Shore," an acclaimed TV movie, which he also executive produces, about sickle cell anemia
1972-73: Host of the CBS comedy-variety series "The New Bill Cosby Show"
1972-79: Creator of the popular children's animated series "Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids" on CBS
1976: Host of the ABC comedy-variety series "Cos"
1984-93: Resurrects the sitcom genre as star and executive producer of the NBC comedy series "The Cosby Show"
1992: Host of the revival of the Groucho Marx game show "You Bet Your Life"
1994: Joins Culp for the reunion movie "I Spy Returns"
1994: Stars in the lighthearted whodunit series "The Cosby Mysteries"
1996-2000: Returns to the situation comedy in CBS' "Cosby"
1998: Receives the Kennedy Center Honors
1998-2000: Host of the revival of "Kids Say the Darndest Things"
1999-present: Executive producer of popular Nickelodeon and CBS children's animated series "Little Bill"