Dr. William H. Cosby and the traveling medicine show
Oh, the old traveling shows! Painted wagons rolling from coast to coast, bringing scarce entertainments to town—magicians, singers, comedians and storytelling orators—to help soften crowds up for the main event: bombastic and well-dressed men with flamboyant personalities, hucking esoteric tonics that would drive the devils of illness from you and the ones you love.
I’d always figured the traveling shows for a thing of the past. We can all go to doctors now, after all, or cook up our own dubious miracle cures from one of the thousands of recipes online. On Monday, though, at the Austin Convention Center, I joined an audience of thousands for an all-day workup of razzle-dazzle capitalism and for-profit miracles courtesy of Get Motivated Seminar, Inc.
The show comes packaged as a star-studded lineup consisting of motivational speakers, memorable sports characters, business leaders and notable figures in American politics. By the time I’d locked my bike and made my way to the entrance, the first act was already over. Get Motivated veteran Colin Powell opened the second act with a full hour of material, joking and chuckling, generally winning hearts. It served well to soften up the brains of us gawking rubes for the furious fist of salesmanship that was to come next.
Bob Kittell was not listed in the program. His Brylcreem-and-suntan visage was not displayed in the promotional material. Bob Kittell was a dark surprise, summoned from the depths of Salesvania, dressed in black and ready to give us the business.
Bob took the stage amid a bouquet of discount pyrotechnics and proceeded to participate in 20-30 minutes of alternately making us feel insecure about our salaries, dropping arcane tidbits of market rhetoric to pump up his ethos and listing the ways in which our ignorance had led us to the illness of monetary mismanagement. Then, naturally, with great enthusiasm and bottomless sincerity, Bob told us all that he could make us well again.
Bob’s tonic (which revolved around a hilariously simplistic citizen-investor Web application) didn’t promise to regrow our hair, grease up our creaky joints or soothe our piteous eyesight. Instead, Bob promised to heal the boils out of our bank accounts to make room for the strong, wealthy stuff that would doubtlessly flow there forever after.
Bob concluded his stage time by encouraging us to “go toward the light,” which shined from LED wands waved overhead by brand ambassadors of Wealth Magazine. Once we reached the light, we could ink our information into sign-up forms and proffer our pocketbooks for the bloodletting. Several dozens of people were fooled.
The event continued in similar fashion, swapping notable business experts and firing off pyro before each pitch. The audience thinned throughout the afternoon. Only a scant crowd remained to watch a former football coach of Notre Dame do a magic trick with a newspaper. Even fewer attendees remained to hear Rudy Giuliani suggest that Republican policy could control the weather. I left at 5:15, half an hour after the event was scheduled to end, and I was not the last one to go.
Bill Cosby—now known as Dr. William H. Cosby, Ph.D.—spoke in the fourth act of the show. Dr. Cosby told us to forget about money. He told us that the quick and lazy answer to our problems was probably the wrong one. In doing so, he quoted Fat Albert, Jesus and James Brown.
By the time the event’s lone comedian left the stage, a change had come over the room. Somehow, subtly, skillfully, Bill Cosby had armored us potential suckers against the false jazz and avaricious manipulation that we were supposed to get motivated to believe. Bob's pitch had enjoyed robust audience participation, but the next salesman's questions met mostly silence. Dr. Cosby, paid in full to shill for the hucksters, had nevertheless let it slip that the miracle cures on sale at the medicine show might be no more honest remedies than sugar water.
Cosby won’t be speaking at the next Get Motivated event on Dec 5. Citizens of Baton Rouge, I wish you luck.