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?



My So-Called Freak: Angela Chase, Lindsay Weir, Voiceover and Voiceunder

Hullo darlin’,

Were the Funny People poster-people fabrics, Leslie Mann would be cotton, Sandler pleats and Rogen polyester: shiny and smooth even where we want and expect wrinkles. (That shot of him is a bit cetaceous, no? Like he’s looking forward to spinning a multi-colored ball on the tip of his nose to make it all better?) I blame Photoshop. It’s an odd photo if only for the lighting contrast: Sandler is all dramatic shadows and hard edges, Mann is properly shaded and then there’s Rogen as cuddly dolphin, Rogen as slippery seal. I like that this disturbs you.

I’ve been meaning to bend your ear with some thoughts on Freaks and Geeks, launcher of James Franco, Seth Rogen and Jason Segal, and My So-Called Life, its big sister. It’s hard to talk about the one show without the other, and I’m generalizing from your annoyance at the assumption that we’ll be delighted by emotional displays from conventionally unemotional characters (the “it’s amazing when guys like us cry” effect) to the all-important question of how these shows deploy smiles—specifically, the power of a smile withheld.

Both protagonists (female, in this case) get a lot of mileage out of the withheld smile, but they work it quite differently, and I think the switch from angst to irony says a lot about how American coming-of-age stories have evolved in the five years separating the Freaks from the So-Calleds.

My So-Called Life (MSCL from here on in) was novel in that it took a fifteen-year old’s life seriously. There was nothing “so-called” about it really; the show paid its characters an unprecedented kind of respect. It didn’t regard them with the comfortable hindsight of The Wonder Years, the format of which pitted every plot against the foregone conclusion of Kevin Arnold’s successful adulthood. MSCL wasn’t a drama the way, say Party of Five (or Dawson’s Creek) was a drama. It didn’t depend on extraordinary or tragic circumstances and insisted on age-specific realism. The characters weren’t wise or precociously sage; they were just high school kids with the flaws and virtues that appertain thereto. It took the messy world that gets produced at that humble scale seriously. (I mean “seriously” seriously; humor is part of this show, but it isn’t the main feature.)

Freaks and Geeks (heretofore known as F&G) is a tighter and funnier show.  That’s its triumph and its limitation. It’s smooth, episodic, and self-contained. It doesn’t go for the emotional jugular the way My So-Called Life does. Instead it insists, crucially, on distance. It doesn’t manipulate us into the protagonist’s point of view—in fact, it persistently abstains from that (pretty typical) narrative effort. It engages with other characters’ emotional universes much more intimately than it ever does with Lindsay’s own, at least until the last episode, the notable exception, when we see Lindsay express a positive desire for the first time and fall into her cortex while listening to the Grateful Dead.

F&G earns the punch (and heightens the awkwardness) of that scene where Lindsay dances around her room, moved for the first time by music and not by the social structures surrounding it, by withholding her consciousness from us during the bulk of the season. It’s weird to see her this unguarded. It’s actually uncomfortable. This character has kept us at arm’s length for so long that there’s voyeurism and discomfort in watching her be goofy, moved, awkward as she dances around her room, army-jacket free.

F&G‘s restricted access to the protagonist feels like a reaction to My So-Called Life, which gives us Angela Chase’s eyes and ears and voice and precious little else. Angela’s smile is withheld just as stubbornly as Lindsay’s, but we’re flooded with the whys and hows of her blankness, sullenness, despondency, and flashes of joy. The voiceovers, after all, are the strongest structuring element of the show. Angela Chase’s inner monologue is bitter and acerbic and funny, but above all, it’s young. Whatever critical distance we get from Angela is external to the show itself, which refuses to acknowledge that it’s smarter and older than its characters. It’s nostalgic only in that it insistently inhabits its mistakes: Angela’s is a wrongheaded and rebellious and evolving perspective with which we can’t help but sympathize. We’ve been there.

Freaks and Geeks might be the Ultimate Anti-Voiceover. It’s a bit like Seth Rogen in the Funny People photo. It’s terrifically smooth, so smooth that we might wonder about the missing wrinkles. In this show, Things Resolve. Even if individual characters have meltdowns the show preserves an equanimity—impassivity, even. It strikes a curious tone, an affect of uninvolved spectatorship that maybe reflects something true about high school, something important about the ethos of eat-or-be-eaten and the value of invisibility. Ultimately, though, the show is a careful choreography of balanced equations. (It’s no coincidence that Lindsay is a mathlete.)

I think the main difference between the two shows comes down to opposite philosophies with respect to language and its role in narrating adolescence. F&G (like Lindsey) is a little too cool, or a little too sophisticated, to say the things Angela thinks out loud. Take Angela’s account of sex:

I couldn’t stop thinking about, the like, fact of it. That people had sex. That they just, had it. That sex was this thing people had. Like a rash, or a—a Rottweiler. Everything started to seem pornographic or something.”

In F&G this same theme is explored when Sam, Neal and Bill are first exposed (heh) to porn. They sit through the movie in an agony of disgust and attraction. When Cindy Sanders comes up to them the next day at school, the boys (Sam especially) are clearly thinking what Angela thought five years before them.

You talk about showing, not telling, and this is maybe what F&G does best: it shows, but it absolutely refuses to tell. This show is never about language; it ignores words and books in a way that few other brainy shows do. Confessions are deeply embarrassing; Nick’s song to Lindsay is a punchline.The show is interested in making the characters’ storylines substantial but the central problems, the real problems, must be left unarticulated. Nothing ever gets explained or exposed—not because introspection is unimportant to the show, but because it must remain internal. Dialogue is dilatory, tangential, revealing only because of what’s left unsaid. Language is almost entirely beside the point. The show’s poignant moments are usually wordless: the moment of Daniel Desario’s (whose name even sounds like Jordan Catalano) appearance at Kim’s doorstep with his hair still in “punker’s” horns, the moment Neal sits down and starts laughing at his ventriloquist’s dummy after finally talking about his dad’s affair. The finale is typical in this regard: the reveal of Lindsay’s new direction is 100% language-free.

Compare this to Angela Chase, whose lesser moments include lines like “School is a battlefield…for your heart,” and who at her best has lines like these:

It had become the focus of everything. It was all I could feel, all I could think of it. It blotted out all the rest of my face, the rest of my life. Like, the zit had become the truth about me.

or this one:

People always say how you should be yourself. Like yourself is this definite thing, like a toaster or something. Like you can know what it is even. But every so often I’ll have, like, a moment, when just being myself in my life, right where I am, is like, enough.

Angela’s overarticulated (and sincere, because unwitnessed) angst makes Lindsay Weir’s circumspection possible. Lindsay can be as cool as she is not just because the set of problems she’s working through has been mapped out for us, but also because the show spares us the miserable microscope that forces us to share in the purely biological embarrassments of zits and blushes. Lindsay’s embarrassments—the cheesy unicorn poster she puts up for her party, for example—don’t faze her. Her concerns are (in the main) philosophical, disembodied. She’s Angela Chase without the abject and blurty self-consciousness that characterizes MSCL’s whole aesthetic project; Angela Chase minus biology.

In the show’s opening credits, Lindsay smiles for the school camera. It’s a stunning smile, gorgeous and spontaneous and sincere and startling because we never see it during the show itself, and because it seems strange, out of context. All the other characters (Kim excepted, and it’s an important exception) either smile or don’t smile too, in a way that really cleverly encapsulates—in a nutshell—their social personae. Sam looks around nervously, Neal smiles smarmily, Daniel poses looking confused and dark until the shot is taken, then smiles, satisfied at his performance.Bill does the opposite: his sweet smile for the camera collapses into a morass of self-consciousness and dopey despair.

This, I think, is where the two shows converge: smiles in F&G and MSCL mean exactly the same thing: they’re victories that give huge satisfaction to the viewer because in both cases they manage to interrupt the established pattern. In MSCL, the protagonist’s smile alleviates the angst. In F&G, the protagonist’s smile alleviates the distance. My question to you, then, is this: aren’t Lindsay and Angela the female equivalents of the “it’s amazing when guys like us cry”? Something to the effect of, “It’s amazing when girls like us smile?”