When I was a kid, there was a lot of talk about the generation gap. It was pretty routine for parents and children to fight over everything from the war in Vietnam to how long you could wear your hair. These are different times. My three kids are 7 to 14 and there’s not much we disagree on. With one great exception.
We fall into warring camps when it comes to listening to music in the car. To me, the answer is simple: It’s my car. I’m driving. My hand is next to the radio. I pick the music. I think that’s a fair solution.
My children have resorted to pleading, bargaining, and arguing. I find it’s easy to drown them out by turning up The Who to full volume. They have occasionally retaliated by chanting the words to rap songs they would rather be listening to in unison at the top of their lungs but I find I can trump that by swerving the car as if I’m about to drive off the road.
Last summer, we were driving from New York to Rhode Island and my 11-year-old daughter was sitting in the front seat next to me, complaining about having to listen to Neil Young for a third hour. She wanted me to put on "The Thong Song." I said no and she said, "Dad, tell me something. Do you like ANY young bands?"
I said, "Don’t be silly, I’m not like your friends' fathers, I like lots of new bands."
She said, "Could you name one young band you like, Dad?"
I knew I had her. I said I like Travis, Wilco, Lauryn Hill, Oasis, Starsailor, Radiohead, Alicia Keys, Coldplay, Ryan Adams, the Wallflowers and Counting Crows.
She said, "Dad, Dad ... let me put it another way. Do you like any young bands that aren’t just copying old bands?"
I told her to go sit in the back and be quiet.
On long vacation trips, we used to be able to compromise on the Beatles and Harry Potter books on tape. When the kids were little, we discovered that they loved Donovan, and we had a peaceful psychedelic summer listening to "Hurdy Gurdy Man," "Mellow Yellow" and "Sunshine Superman." It was my wife who finally announced that if she had to hear "Atlantis" one more time, we could all start cooking our own supper.
And then we found the solution that made everyone happy and brought peace to the family: Bill Cosby. The old Bill Cosby comedy albums from the '60s were reissued on CD and suddenly even the longest car trip, the worst traffic jam, the slowest line at the tollbooth became bearable.
A lot of people don’t remember that back in the '60s, years before Jello commercials and the Cosby Show, Bill Cosby was one of the most popular recording acts in America. His comedy albums lived at the top of the charts. And it’s no wonder — his stories of growing up in the Philadelphia projects with Fat Albert and Old Weird Harold and Russell, his brother whom he slept with, were warm, universal and hilarious. I put on Cosby’s "Wonderfulness" and my kids started listening to "Chicken Heart" — the story of young Bill being scared by a monster radio show.
Pretty soon the whole car was in hysterics. It made me realize that all the success he had later as America’s new "Father Knows Best" had caused a lot of us to forget that back when he was young, Cosby was just about the greatest standup comic of all time. Lenny Bruce may have been Dylan and Richard Pryor the Rolling Stones, but Bill Cosby was the Beatles. He appealed to everybody: young and old, black and white, hip and straight. His routines were like the best parts of Tom Sawyer, Will Rogers and Angela’s Ashes in one package.
Once my children went Cosby crazy, I began to notice how those old records of his infiltrated the consciousness of people who grew up in the '60s. I realized how many baby boomers dropped Cosby-isms into their conversations without even knowing it.
I was having lunch with a group of friends and the attorney said to the medical technician, "Hey you — almost a doctor."
Which is a line in Cosby’s 1966 routine "Tonsils." I asked him if he realized he was quoting the Cos and all of a sudden everybody at the table began talking in old Cosby routines.
"Why is there air?"
"You go long."
"It’s the Lord, Noah!"
We realized we could all quote his lines like song lyrics. Those records were a huge part of growing up 35 years ago, and yet we’d sort of forgotten they were there.
I went so far as to start buying old episodes of "I Spy" on DVD. As far as I’m concerned, it’s better than James Bond. You’ve got to love an adventure show in which the action stops for minutes at a time so Cosby can riff on the letter he just got from his mom in Philadelphia. Even playing a secret agent, he set his own rhythm.
I’ll tell you what I think. Maybe in 200 years no one will remember Cliff Huxtable or "You Bet Your Life" or "Kids Say the Darndest Things" or his Kool-Aid ads. But I’ll bet that families on long interstellar voyages will still crack up listening to "Chicken Heart." It’ll make that trip through the hyperspace fly by.