WASHINGTON — Bill Cosby still thinks America is funny — like the name-calling over health care and the way we drink so much water from plastic bottles that could be toxic — even though he says the nation has some serious problems it needs to tackle.
The 72-year-old who has long drawn laughs for his wisecracks and deadpan observations will receive the nation’s foremost humor prize Monday at the Kennedy Center in Washington. Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, Sinbad and other top entertainers will line up to honor him with the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.
It’s a prize Cosby has turned down twice before because he said he was disgusted with profanity and N-words thrown around by performers honoring Richard Pryor, who was the first recipient in 1998.
“I told them flat out no because I will not be used, nor will Mark Twain be used, in that way,” he told The Associated Press from his home in New York.
The profanity bugs Cosby. He always kept it clean with the family laughs on “The Cosby Show,” portraying a middle-class black family and everyday life, from 1984 to 1992. And he’s not impressed with today’s comedians who can’t help but curse.
It took a chat with Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser this year at Sen. Edward Kennedy’s birthday celebration for Cosby to accept the award this time.
“What I wanted was to associate my work with why I do what I do,” he said.
For a man with a master’s degree and doctorate in education, his life is about more than laughs.
So Cosby helped craft the tribute show — airing Nov. 4 nationwide on PBS — to capture his overarching emphasis on taking education seriously and telling stories that teach something in the process. He’s planned a special nod to his beloved Central High School in Philadelphia, with fellow alumnus James DePreist conducting their alma mater.
Producers of the show are worried it won’t be funny, Cosby said. But he said there will still be plenty of entertainment.
Cappy McGarr, one of the show’s executive producers, said they’re thrilled with the lineup, which also includes Carl Reiner, Wynton Marsalis, and “Cosby” co-stars Phylicia Rashad and Malcolm-Jamal Warner. The producers shape each show around the honoree and have had Cosby on their list for years. McGarr explained the tribute to Pryor aired for a different audience on Comedy Central and wasn’t meant to be offensive, but the show has aired on PBS ever since.
He said the producers were grateful Cosby finally accepted.
“He is a comic genius,” McGarr said. “He just has a wonderful reflection of funny … and is an absolute master at taking an ordinary human condition and giving his take on it.
“He makes us laugh with us, not at us.”
The comedian who kept NBC viewers laughing on Thursday nights after “Cosby” went to reruns will salute the man he says reinvigorated the sit-com.
Seinfeld said he started buying Cosby’s comedy albums when he was 11 years old. He was watching as Cosby made the jump from nightclubs to television with the “I Spy” series and as physical education teacher Chet Kincaid on “The Bill Cosby Show” in 1969.
“Watching him do those things showed me the right way for a standup comedian to play himself on television — how you kind of transform your standup persona into a character persona,” Seinfeld told the AP. “I think only comedians know and understand that this guy has reached like a virtuoso point of command over this form that most people, even the big star comedians, don’t get anywhere near.”
Beyond the comedy that he still performs on stage, Cosby has spoken bluntly about society over the years. He has spoken out about personal responsibility in the black community and talks often about education on his Web site, Facebook and Twitter feeds.
Of all things he’d wish for young people, better television is on the list. Cosby said he wishes kids had access to classic writers and their stories on TV, “so that our youth can find themselves being excited about things other than going straight for the genitalia.”
The longtime TV dad also has some observations on politics, though he says he’s not a “wheeler, dealer” when he visits Washington. Recently, the tea party protests against President Barack Obama have struck a chord.
“To see people marching down the street, talking about a tea party, they’ve got to be kidding … and the name-calling, these people are hilarious,” he said. “What’s not funny is how seriously so many of them have come together to speak like this.”
He was appalled by the refusal of some public schools last month to show students an Obama speech about education, and he agrees with some observers, such as former President Jimmy Carter, that some of the opposition is driven by racism.
“I just want this United States of America to be the United States of America, for which it’s supposed to stand,” Cosby said.
His family will join him for the award show in D.C. “I don’t know if the Suburban’s going to look like ‘Grapes of Wrath’ or what,” he said.