Bill Cosby was listening when Katie Couric suggested last year that a "Muslim Cosby Show" could help combat Islamophobia in America, and he agreed. After all, didn't the series prove to a lot of people that (surprise!) black people had families, careers, senses of humor and ugly sweaters, just like the rest of America?
In response to The Root's response that the idea was oversimplified, that perhaps finding a cure for hatred toward Muslims was a little outside his area of expertise and that The Daily Show's spoof of the limitations of the idea was hilariously on point, Cosby picked up the phone and called us from backstage at a comedy show where he was about to perform.
Sounding exactly like Cliff Huxtable giving a fatherly lecture that was at once rambling and wise, passionate and lighthearted, in-your-face honest and insightful, he let us know exactly where he was coming from. Casually. Warmly. While audibly eating dinner. (We could only imagine it was one of those sandwiches or cakes Cliff used to sneak from the kitchen, against Clair's healthy-eating orders.)
The bottom line: No, the show wouldn't be a perfect solution. But yes, it would be a good idea. Like The Cosby Show, it would have to start off by tiptoeing around people's prejudices by keeping things comfortable and familiar. No caricatures, no George Lopez-style, in-your-face, everything-is-about-our-differences jokes. (How about like Tyler Perry's stuff? Oh, scratch that — Cosby has basically no idea who the guy is and won't comment on him.)
By leveraging the universal appeal of family, he says, the program would force people who have unfounded bitterness toward Islam to stop and ask themselves, "Have I been a hater?" And, all criticism and snark aside, we must admit, that's a start.
He also had words for pundits — black and white — who have criticized President Barack Obama. Read on:
"I want to talk to you about the Jon Stewart thing because I was … just honored by the Museum of the Moving Image, and it had to do with television on NBC, and they ran a segment from I Spy — are you hip to that? The next day, a black man who had seen it said to me that as he was exiting the museum, a white fellow told him that he was born and raised in Alabama and that that show I Spy had turned his father from a bigot into a white man who allowed his son to have black friends and bring them into the home and have dinner with them, and he could go to their home. Now, that's only one story, but that is a story.
"When I get into taxicabs and/or limousines — and you know the taxicab situation in Washington, D.C.; that's little Africa — every time I take the cab and I go to the hotel — the Madison, the Jefferson — the guy will look in the rearview mirror with recognition. And then I say, 'How is the family?'
"That's when [the cab drivers] will break out pictures of the children. These are people from different countries in Africa, all of 'em males — I've not met the females yet. But they talk about the family, they talk about what the children are doing, what they themselves are doing. They work 16 hours a day, and they all echo the same thing: You know why I like that [Cosby] show? Because it's about family.
"But if you did it the right way … [He trails off.]
"[As for things we could learn,] for example, a woman in Detroit said to me — we were talking about apathy — she said, 'I was dating a black Muslim for 13 years, and he said to me, "Trust in Allah, but tie up your camel." ' Now, listen to the wisdom of that statement. So many people leave things, hoping and thinking nothing bad will come, but knowing that bad things come when you don't take your keys with you, when you don't lock the door."
The Root: How much impact could a "Muslim Cosby Show" really have on its own, separate from other cultural changes and education?
Bill Cosby: Way before you were born, they had Jews on [TV] who actually had the accents, and they spoke English. And we learned about what their favorite food was. The show was called The Goldbergs … and then of course the Jews slowly but surely began to put things out that put a mark on being Jewish. There are shows that put a mark on being Italian.
My point is to bring on the culture of the people who are living in America. It would be magnificent, because a Muslim is not the bogeyman, any more than a person who says, "I'm sorry, I don't eat meat"; any more than when I was in high school during a Jewish holiday at Central High School in Philadelphia, my high school had a substitute teacher and there were four of us in class [because the teacher and a lot of the classmates were Jewish].
This is the United States of America. And as long as we have people who want the bogeyman, and people who are very, very lazy [are] making up [a list of] all kinds of people who don't count — and helping Americans to continue to act unfairly and create a debacle — it's not gonna be right.
TR: Who would play the lead in a "Muslim Cosby Show"? Are there any good Muslim comedians who could be up to the job (they asked this on The Daily Show spoof)?
BC: A Cosby actor wouldn't be a comedian. It's not comedy; it's in the writing. This is something you're going to start out with — not like George Lopez — and say, "Here's the family. We live in America, and we adhere to our religion and our culture." We're not going to start out right away with people not wanting to watch it because of anger, et cetera. We don't want them singing and dancing and acting in a "caricature" way.
What was Little House on the Prairie about?
BC: Right. Now, when you go into a hospital and you look around, and you see doctors who are from Pakistan, from India, from Africa, you don't say, "What is your religion?" …
It's important that this person [in a "Muslim Cosby Show"] can be on a reality show or a situation comedy, but they'll have to emulate what some writers would want, [such as] to sound quote-unquote funny, to have intelligence and to do exactly what those cab drivers have said to me when they said, "You know why I like this show? Because it's about family."
TR: Would having such a show be enough to change people's minds about Muslims?
BC: It will put the truth out, and it will [get] each individual, if they watch the show, [to ask]: Am I a person who needs to change my attitude about [someone]? Was I a hater, and enjoying hating, and enjoying the fact that I really did not understand? That like an awful lot of racists, I didn't care to know the truth, I just enjoyed hating? In the Muslim religion and culture, it can be different [from what we believe], but it's what they believe in. If we take the good [from it] and the good works, it's all there and it's all about the same thing: Do good unto others. The strength of oneself.
Now, where we may go wrong in terms of the treatment of women — it's in Christianity … [He trails off again.]
TR: What do you think are the best and worst shows for the image of African Americans on TV? What do you think of Tyler Perry?
BC: Supposedly he has a large, religious, female fan base. I‘ve never seen his show. Does he still have a show on TV? I'm not familiar, so I can't comment.
TR: Given the Obamas and all the hate toward them and people's insistence on making them outsiders, despite the fact that they project the image of a healthy, happy, all-American family, why are you so optimistic about the potential of a TV show to open people's minds?
BC: When the votes came in, did the United States of America elect Obama because nobody voted for McCain? No. Now look at those numbers — how close were they?
TR: Very close.
BC: Right. He is the winner, but you have to accept opposition, and you have to accept in these United States, there's a whole lot of foolishness, and it depends on how the president plays or acts, and it depends on how long the president will try to be quote-unquote fair with some of the hooligans — Tavis Smiley being one of them. I'm calling out a man of color because I don't want everybody to think about white only, as in Joe "You Lie" Wilson. I think someone needs to come out and spill the truth about how much liquor Wilson might have had in him.
So, the disrespect of color is what is there. When the man came into office, intellectuals started talking right away about "this post-racial" thing. Michael Eric Dyson, one of the "great geniuses of our time" — yeah, right — wrote an op-ed that white people gave him permission to write, despite the fact that when Obama won, he won by a very small margin.
So what did one think when one saw on TV, before Obama was even elected, people talking about everything against him, all the things you could line up, and bringing on poor Joe the Plumber and setting up fake things. It was sad to watch ignorant people delving into it that way. And to watch an ignorant person who, when the president wouldn't talk to him, behaved unlike someone who is supposed to be a journalist.
I am here, working with people to get rid of apathy, to take pride, think about pride, believe in their black pride, take on the seriousness of their foremothers and forefathers who succeeded with threats of death and seriousness. And [it] is stupid to debate whether this is a post-racial society. We knew that people would oppose Obama. We heard people saying, please don't let him get into office. You still have people who are misbehaving badly.
I think we all need to look at each other — especially black people — and think of ourselves in terms of a nation, and then look at [our] ranks holding ourselves out and rising. We need to look at abnormal behavior and the things that are not taught [to our children]. We need to stop saying and start doing. We need to get to our youth and have them believe. Some of them believe jail is better than the house or apartment they were in.
Speaking of Muslims, there is a neighborhood in Baltimore where black Muslims have signs that say, "Our neighborhood, our responsibility." "Our children, our responsibility." And if we can get [other] neighborhoods to take on the pride, they'll bring themselves into that old-time religion that activates a forward button, that protects [someone] like this woman [Kelley Bolar-Williams] who's been charged as a felon. Without our strength together, we don't protect this woman. We just sit there and say we can't do anything about it.
Jenée Desmond-Harris is a regular contributor to The Root.