His mother was crying. Then laughing. The comedian knew, right then, what he had to do (his best, forever).
It was rough being dark. I got heat from my own people more than anyone else. I remember going to my mom and saying, "Why am I so black?" And she said, "Because I'm black. You just gotta always work harder than the average bear." She taught me that if you give your best, you can always walk away. You won't have to worry about how well you did. You'll just think, I did my best.
We lived in Chicago, in an apartment on 69th and Morgan. One time when I was about 5 years old, I was sitting on my mom's lap watching Ed Sullivan with her, and she was crying. I was on her lap, crying, too, and wiping her face with my little 5-year-old hand. I kept asking, "Why you cryin'?" And she said nothing. What I didn't know was that she had breast cancer. She would lose both breasts and wear a prosthetic bra. She took care of all of us kids and her mother, and so many others, though she was sick herself. And she never told a soul.
So we're watching Ed Sullivan, and he calls out Bill Cosby, who starts doing this routine about Noah's ark. And my mom started laughing and crying at the same time. When I saw this, I started laughing. And when Cosby was finished, I looked at my mom and said, "Mom, that's what I'm gonna do. I'm gonna be a comedian, so you never cry again."
I became the storyteller of South Side Chicago. I used an old Kiwi liquid shoe polish as a microphone. I'd go around the house interviewing everybody, telling stupid jokes, doing voices. I mimicked Sidney Poitier, Sammy Davis Jr., people on Laugh-In, Flip Wilson. I'd make up stories at the drop of a hat, then sometimes get a whipping because they'd say I was lying, but I just loved entertaining people. I was good at keeping my mother from crying. And I stopped crying, too, even when she died, because I was 15 and that's how I thought it was done.
When I hit my 20s, I struggled to make it. I got married at 19, and my daughter, Je'Niece, was born a year later. I worked blue collar jobs during the day and comedy clubs at night, and I was earning about $25 a year doing stand-up.
One day, when I was selling beer at Soldier Field, I fell down a flight of stairs. The way I fell, I should've been dead, so I went home, even though I really needed the $150-a-week paycheck. I sat in the apartment worrying about the light bill and the rent and wondering why I was wasting my time and energy in those clubs. And then I started thinking about my mom and what she taught me. I heard her words: Always give your best. And I wept. It was the first tear I'd cried over my mother's death, and I couldn't stop. I cried until my head hurt.
After that, whether I was playing to one or 1,000 or 10,000 people, I gave them everything. I got roughed up. I was the butt of a lot of jokes. But I kept on, because I knew what I was doing it for. My mother had it right. I wanted to be the best that I could be, first for myself, then for an audience. I love to see a smile on somebody's face, like I saw on my mother's that night. If I can tell someone a story that makes them bend over and laugh, that's bigger than anything else.
As told to Scott Frampton.
From the April 2007 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine
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