Bill Cosby vs. Cliff Huxtable

Bill Cosby built his career poking fun at personal experience. And he's still talking about the personal, but now, he's gone from humor to issues of personal and social responsibility. Maybe he should take some cues from his gentle on-camera persona.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

Bill Cosby built his career poking fun at personal experience.

Mr. BILL COSBY (Comedian): If you know you're not supposed to do something and you do it, and then people say why did you do it, you say, I don't know. Brain damage. My parents never smiled, because I had brain damage.

CHIDEYA: And he's still talking about issues close to home. But now he's gone from humor to personal and social responsibility.

Commentator Deborah Mathis thinks that when delivering his message, Cosby should take some cues from his gentle, on-camera persona.

Professor DEBORAH MATHIS (Syndicated Columnist; Professor of Journalism, Northwestern University): Whatever happened to Dr. Cliff Huxtable, that all-American dad who attacked problems and failures with humor, patience, wisdom, and most of all, every indication that what he felt for you first and foremost was love.

Now, I know that was a television role for Bill Cosby - a very successful and popular television role for him - but I think I speak for more than a few people when I say we were led to believe that Bill Cosby was actually kind of like that in real life. I can't say who led us to believe that, but I know that was a common impression. I'm sure Cosby and his managers knew that was a common impression, and I'm certain nothing was done to disabuse us of that notion, accurate or not. Well, until now.

Lately I've come to believe that Bill Cosby, the beloved comedian, actor, and philosopher, has a temperament that is either very opposite Cliff Huxtable's, or he's going through some kind of stage, because the guy I've seen lately is anything but humorous, patient and wise. Cranky, judgmental, and combative is more like it.

Cosby has embarked upon something he refers to as a call-out tour, appearing in major cities around the country and dressing down black people for all sorts of failures, social and educational primarily. He got on this kick a couple of years ago when he laid into poor black people as the greatest scourge of all.

It's not that Cosby doesn't have anything worth saying, it's how he says it and where. It's also what he leaves out. Like the way the entire society is predisposed to see black wrong as wronger and wider and just all-together worse than anyone else's. And how the culture sets such low expectations and then limits or denies opportunity because it's already decided black people can't accomplish much, and then punishes them when they falter. And how, yes, some folk don't even try to do better, but that millions do and succeed, despite all the landmines along the way.

But even if he's only going to expose one side of this sordid contract, why so hostile, sir? Why so much contempt in your tone? What gives with the humiliation tour?

I'll bet you anything Cliff Huxtable wouldn't have handled it this way. Week after week in the glory years, we saw his family messing up or tangled up, and yet, wise, tender, caring Dr. Huxtable would invariably help his errant crew find the right path and take it. And we knew they would stay that course, because they were persuaded, not browbeaten, into change.

Oh, we do get weary, Mr. Cosby. So I ask you, what would Cliff do? Maybe try a little tenderness?

CHIDEYA: Deborah Mathis is a syndicated columnist. She's also a professor at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.

(Soundbite of theme from The Cosby Show)

CHIDEYA: This is NPR News.

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