Archived Video of the Day: Bill Cosby as Mr. Tooth Decay, or How to Market a Smile

Dear CF,

In light of your Jay Smooth crush (he is indeed braintastic and marvelous) and my newfound obsession with smiling as a shortcut to building a certain kind of empathic resolution that satisfies an audience, I thought it might be interesting to look at Bill Cosby in his youth. He’s the ultimate smiler and the anti-Jay in some respects, though with just as public an interest in race relations.

I just said he’s the anti-Jay, but actually there’s something about Jay Smooth’s earnestness and perfectionism as a performer—the demons that haunt him in “Beating the Little Hater,” for instance—that reminds me, weirdly, of Cosby, whose quest for the perfect unracialized and unthreatening and unmarked smile is bizarrely represented, I think, by some of his TV commercial choices. I’m including them below. They include (with no apparent contradiction) toothpaste and Coke, both of which are offered as vehicles toward the ultimate smile.

First, though, it’s interesting to see him before he’d quite figured out who he was going to be in front of the camera.

Exhibit A.

Here he is, at age 27. The interviewer asks him whether he feels pressure to base his comedy on the fact that he is “colored.” He says he feels that expectation but refrains from fulfilling it, although he emphasizes that he has racial material and actually focuses on that for the rest of the clip. He tells one of many “warm stories” he has about being black, this one about wanting food at a restaurant and being forced to eat in the kitchen. In a semi-subversive move, he says it all worked out because you get the best sandwiches in the kitchen anyway, then says he boycotted the establishment when they tried to seat him in the restaurant instead.

In talking about his comedy, he characterizes the difference between himself and other black comedians like Dick Gregory (interestingly, I think) in the language of movement: he says wants to move around the stage, not stay still and talk about government. He wants to talk about Superman, about Noah and the ark. (He seems, in other words, to equate stage movement with topical mobility.) Then he turns obliquely back to race and presents a “racial stereotype situation,” an anecdote about how has to eat watermelon in the closet that does a similar kind of subversive work:

Exhibit B.

Here he is a few years later, having perfected his onscreen persona. There’s a determined uptwist to his mouth that keeps his expression jovial, and he’s perfected the trademark Cosby squeal. He talks here about building stardom:

Exhibit C.

And here he is as the ultimate Smile Salesman. These are some TV ads he did for Crest (with Fluoristan! back when anything ending in “istan” didn’t send Americans running for the hills). These are from 1969, the same year as the above. He plays Mr. Tooth Decay, and is dressed (in one) in a black tuxedo while sitting on the very very white oversized teeth he’s trying to foil. In the first ad he watches resignedly—philosophically, almost—as a huge toothbrush with white toothpaste comes to “bathe” him. In another he chats with a karate expert named Bac Teria. In a third he confronts three children—a black boy, a black girl, and a white boy—in a police lineup and talks about the importance of dental care. In another he’s dressed in sweats and boxing gloves, using a tube of Crest as his punching-bag, yelling  “Things are getting BAD—there’s a lot of healthy TEETH around.” When I get STRONG enough,” he says, “this world isn’t going to be BIG enough for the TWO of us!” The tube of Crest swings back and knocks him down.

All of this sounds appallingly racist, and it is. And yet I think Cosby comes close to pulling it off: to effacing—even in a stark black-and-white stage set in which he is black and dressed in black and representing tooth decay that will be whitewashed clean by white toothpaste in a white container—the racial expectations he seems to find so comedically uninteresting. In other words, to inhabiting the part not as a black man or as a black comedian but as a comedian (unhyphenated).

I can’t embed the videos, which are part of Duke’s new archive available at Adview. The Crest commercials can be viewed using Itunes here. See the first four. Procter and Gamble still brag about the commercial’s effectiveness at improving sales and dental health among African-Americans, a demographic that had been overlooked in advertising.

Exhibit D.

And here he is in 1979 advertising Coke, “simple refreshment that makes you smile.”

It’s interesting, isn’t it? The sober, somewhat diffident man with the downturned mouth in the first video is so different from the man in the last one, whose rhetoric more or less compels you to smile, requires it so strenuously that it breaks the fourth wall and uses a Calvino-esque trick of narrating your reaction to you: You may think you’re watching me, he seems to say, but I’m actually watching you. And you are smiling.

Cosby didn’t write these ads, of course.  Some Don Draperish type did that. But there’s something almost Faulknerian about how Cosby seems to have forged an identity that’s synonymous with Smile As Concept. His eyes smile, his cheeks smile, the squeal in his voice smiles. His association with and specific use of smiling transcends specific expressions and products—it’s elastic enough to range from dental health to its opposite, Coke-consumption.  But the smile, and its claim to transcend racial categories, definitions and fears, is ultimately what’s being sold.

I think Jay Smooth shares with Cosby a slightly evangelical impulse to perform a kind of racial/cultural brokerage. He’s better at it—at any rate he’s more explicit about it. By almost never swearing, by avoiding slang, by championing the out-of-the way artist, he’s consciously trying to liberate some of the constraints on what hip hop is, or of how it’s been traditionally understood. By framing his own performance that way, though, he’s also (and this seems important) compromising on some of the defining characteristics of hip hop—the very characteristics that make it most offensive to outsiders.

Right? Doesn’t this seem like a somewhat Cosbyish move?

In an interview at The Media Drop Jay Smooth has this to say about the hip hop station he started in 1991:

So our job has become to provide an alternative to that.. Not because i think Jay-Z or 50 is wack, but because for us to play them would be redundant. Also, since I am on a station that strives to represent on a different level politically and intellectually, I have always tried to set a different example for what a hip-hop radio show can be… to show that you can have a totally different demeanor than most other hip-hop jocks have, be a nerd who likes to talk about politics and hardly ever uses any slang, and still be just as “down”, just as legitimate as a representative and member of the culture. Which is not to look down on anyone else’s show but when everyone sounds the same its easy for kids to think you have to be that way to be down. When really, anyone can be themselves and be respected if they have the love and knowledge of the music. Lemme stress again I’m not saying my show is better than anyone else’s, just trying to be a different flavor in that sense.

He’s trying, in other words, to expand the convention, to let the geeks play with the freaks. He’s trying to be an inclusive Firecracker!!! What do you think? Is this a gloriously smart liberation of the thing or an over-expansion of hip hop to the point where the definition becomes either too broad or defines something else entirely?