Chicago's Robert Townsend talks Cosby, Second City and a 1-man show

Comedian Robert Townsend talked about directing Bill Cosby's 'Far From Finished' to be released November 26. Sam Rubin reports.

Here's something you may not know about Bill Cosby.

"He orders lunch for everyone," Robert Townsend said when I reached him in Los Angeles by phone. "Usually somebody like a production assistant does that. But he will call the restaurant himself and make the order for the whole crew. You can hear the people on the other end of the phone laughing and he'll be like (mimicking Cosby): 'Take your time, don't drop the phone. It is me. Don't drop the phone.'"

Townsend (born and raised in Chicago) has known Cosby for some 20 years. Most recently he directed the Comedy Central special "Bill Cosby...Far From Finished," which debuted last week and repeats at 9 p.m. Sunday on TV Land. The special is also available on DVD.

To my embarrassment, it occurred to me that I rarely think about the people who direct comedy specials. Townsend also directed Eddie Murphy's 1987 concert film "Raw."

"You've got one man on stage and six cameras," Townsend told me. "It's an easy assignment. I'm just in the control room laughing. With Mr. Cosby, it was a chance to work with a legend again."

The pair first collaborated on Townsend's 1993 superhero comedy "The Meteor Man." Cosby agreed to work for a mere $100 a day. "He just wanted to make sure he was paid in cash because he said, 'I know you have credit cards'" — a reference to Townsend's breakthrough film "Hollywood Shuffle," which was largely financed on the plastic in his wallet.

I've been thinking about "Hollywood Shuffle" a lot lately. Watching the 1987 indie again, it remains as sharp as ever in its satire of Hollywood's shabby treatment of black actors. The "Sneakin' in the Movies" segment alone may be one of best parodies of its kind. Townsend is just so economical with the way he zings an entire gallery of targets, from the chin-stroking of the old "Siskel & Ebert" show to the way audiences actually talk about movies.

Consider this assessment of a "Dirty Harry"-esque actioner. Instead of giving the movie a thumbs up or thumbs down: "We both gave 'Dirty Larry' the finger." Why? Because "the crooks wait for Larry to go in his jacket, pull out a big-(expletive) gun — what they think he was looking for? His American Express card?" The full 10-minute segment is on YouTube. Go watch it, I'll wait.

"All the auditions people were getting at the time were for pimps and muggers and slaves," Townsend told me. "There were no characters of dignity. You didn't have movies with Denzel Washington where he's the top cop handling business.

"Some of that stuff is still going on. I'll have actors come up to me and say, 'Man, when "Hollywood Shuffle" came out I wasn't in the business, but now I really get it.' Because even though people are more politically correct now, they still have those roles where the dialogue is written a little jive."

When I asked Townsend about the notable absence of black women on "Saturday Night Live," he seemed reluctant to step into the fray. In a way, you can't blame him. Current cast member Kenan Thompson was asked the same thing earlier this month and ended up sounding borderline ridiculous when he commented that the show's producers "just never find ones that are ready."

There are problems of perception that go beyond the kinds of roles available to actors of color. When the Los Angeles Times asked Universal's head of distribution about "The Best Man Holiday" beating projections (opening weekend it made $30 million, nearly twice the movie's budget), the response was yet more foot-in-mouth-itis: "I would never have thought in my most non-lucid moment to expect this."

Which is a weird mindset, right? "It enables the fluke-ifying of every success by a black filmmaker, or female filmmaker, or filmmaker who makes a movie about women or people of color," wrote NPR's pop culture blogger Linda Holmes. "There's really no such thing, after all, as a film 'overperforming.' The film makes what the film makes; that is a tangible thing that exists in reality, and it happens, and then you measure it."

Or as my Tribune colleague Michael Phillips pointed out last week: "The audience is there, and the audience, really, is plural, though in the subgenre of African-American ensemble projects, both hits and misses are analyzed unduly, because there aren't enough of them."

"Hollywood Shuffle" and its happily caustic social commentary may be Townsend's most significant legacy as a filmmaker, but I sensed a cautiousness from him when we spoke about the state of things today.

That probably makes good business sense, when potentially burning studio bridges is the last thing any filmmaker wants. (Townsend shot his upcoming feature, the basketball-themed romantic comedy "Playin' For Love," in Miami earlier this year.)

These days he's been writing a one-man show about life growing up on the West Side in K-Town, when he juggled high school with classes at Second City.

And then there's the story of Townsend almost getting cast on "SNL" in 1980.

"I had a really great audition, doing all my characters, and I didn't get it. And I was really disappointed. And then a book about 'Saturday Night Live' comes out ("Live From New York") and I come to find out there was a big fight over Robert Townsend because Jean Doumanian (who was briefly the show's producer) wanted me. And in the 11th hour they went with Eddie Murphy.

"When I was a little kid," he told me, "my name was TV Guide because I was like a human TiVo. I could do all the shows on television. I was a character machine. So when I went to Second City I was like, oh, I'm at home. The people there wanted me to join one of their productions, but my mother was like, 'You're going to college!' So I went to Illinois State.