The outspoken Bill Cosby
Comedian challenges African-American community
(CNN) -- You don't want to get Bill Cosby angry.
And Bill Cosby is angry.
Cosby's ire is focused at the African-American community: its rates of juvenile delinquency, its parenting, the coarse language of its youth. You can do better, he exhorts his audiences. Don't let yourself be victims, and especially don't let the poorest in the community let themselves be victims.
"This is about little children ... and people not giving them better choices," he told Paula Zahn in an interview for CNN's "Paula Zahn Now." "Talking. Talking. Parenting. Correctly parenting. That's what it's about. And you can't blame other things. You got to -- you got to straighten up your house. Straighten up your apartment. Straighten up your child."
This is not the smiling, avuncular commercial spokesman for Jell-O and Coca-Cola. This is not the wisecracking tennis coach of "I Spy," or the jokey stand-up comedian of "Bill Cosby Is a Very Funny Fellow ... Right" and "To Russell, My Brother, Whom I Slept With," or the fast-talking guy of "Uptown Saturday Night."
This Bill Cosby is more like the man who told his TV son Theo, "I brought you into this world, and I can take you out of it" in an early episode of "The Cosby Show."
And he doesn't care who knows it. Some of his critics have attacked him for airing what they see as the black community's dirty laundry in public. Others said that Cosby should also be condemning establishment institutions that, in their view, helped create the situation.
"Judgment of the people in the situation is not helpful. How can you help them is the question," said hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, founder of Def Jam Records and the Phat Farm clothing line.
Let 'em rant, Cosby says.
"Let them stay mad as long as they don't have good sense," he told Zahn. "I don't care what right-wing white people are thinking. ... How long you gonna whisper about a smallpox epidemic in your apartment building when bodies are coming out under the sheets?"
Focus on education
To get the message out, Cosby has organized and continues to organize town hall meetings in inner city communities where community leaders -- from police chiefs to district attorneys to parents to schoolteachers -- get everyone to talk about how to help give kids better choices.
Cosby first caused controversy after making a speech at a celebration of the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court decision that struck down school segregation.
"People marched and were hit in the face with rocks to get an education, and now we've got these knuckleheads walking around. ... The lower economic people are not holding up their end in this deal. These people are not parenting," he said, addressing an audience of Washington VIPs.
"Brown versus the Board of Education is no longer the white person's problem. We have got to take the neighborhood back. ... They are standing on the corner and they can't speak English."
A number of commentators have defended Cosby, including NAACP President Kweisi Mfume, who shared the dais with Cosby, and black newspaper columnists Clarence Page and Leonard Pitts Jr.
Cosby on "Cosby," his '90s sitcom. "The Cosby Show," his previous program, was one of the leading shows of the '80s.
"He's pissed a lot of people off," Kevin McCaskill, principal of a vocational high school in Springfield, Massachusetts, told "Paula Zahn Now." McCaskill has worked with Cosby on educational programs. "[But] he simply said this is what is occurring, what are we going to do about it, without excuses. ... It's not about Kevin McCaskill nor do I think it's about Bill Cosby. It's about what do we have to offer to make people the best they can possibly be."
Cosby has a longstanding interest in education. The actor earned a doctorate in the subject from the University of Massachusetts and has made shows, such as the Saturday morning cartoon "Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids," with an emphasis on teaching. (Indeed, "Fat Albert" was the subject of his dissertation.)
The comedian is also symbolic of what he preaches. Raised in a poor Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, neighborhood, he dropped out of high school to join the Navy but later earned his diploma through a correspondence course.
He acknowledges he could push the limits as a youngster. A teacher called him "a schemer with a high IQ."
But, he told Zahn, "what kept me out of trouble is going right to the edge and then ... thinking that my mother would be embarrassed, and that I didn't want to embarrass her, and that my father would be embarrassed, and I just didn't want to do that to my family."
He earned an athletic scholarship to the city's Temple University and worked nights as a bartender -- which is how his comedy talent was discovered.
In the 1960s, Cosby was a trailblazer. Other black comedians of the time focused their routines around race; Cosby told tales of childhood. On the other hand, Cosby was one of the first African-Americans to star in a TV series, "I Spy" -- and received equal billing with his co-star, Robert Culp, to boot. He won three Emmys for his performance in the series. His comedy LPs won Grammys.
'Make them think'
"The Cosby Show," which began in 1984 and was TV's No. 1 series for several years, cemented Cosby's status. The show didn't talk down to its audience and simply assumed the success of its black characters: Cosby's obstetrician, Dr. Cliff Huxtable; his lawyer wife, Clair; their five children and, later, grandchild; and their comfortable life in the upscale New York City neighborhood of Brooklyn Heights.
"When it came time for the Huxtables, it was off of my routines," he told CNN. "And I was watching television and I noticed that a number of television series had these little ... children who were brighter than the parents."
He wanted to change that around.
"Our children ... were never brought up to feel that comfortable that they could call the parents stupid. First of all, they're not working. They're homeless," he told Zahn with some amused exasperation. "You can't do that."
Cosby's career hasn't always run smoothly. An early '70s series, "The Bill Cosby Show," and a mid-'70s variety effort, "Cos," both tanked. He made two movies during the "Cosby Show" run, "Leonard Part 6" and "Ghost Dad," both of which failed at the box office.
There's no guarantee that his education and parenting crusade will pay off, either. As a 67-year-old multimillionaire entertainer old enough to be the crotchety grandfather of today's teens, he knows it's going to be hard to make people listen.
But he's going to try, full speed ahead.
"When I say, 'I don't care what white people think,' I mean that. I mean, I'm addressing my people, period," he told CNN. "I'm telling you. I want all this loud profanity in the street stopped. ... I want you to stop doing things that are detrimental to your getting at least an education with a high school credential. I'm talking to the people who are dropping out."
Even if all this means taking a hit in his popularity?
"Maya Angelou said, 'You know, Bill, you're a very nice man, but you have a big mouth,' " he said. "So I just want to be the big mouth and make them work, make them work, make ... make them think."