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Advice on being a father, Bill Cosby-style

Fatherhood, by Bill Cosby. New York: Doubleday. 178 pp. $14.95. If you have been a longtime fan of Bill Cosby (remember his stand-up routines on Ed Sullivan? timeless neighborhood sketches of Fat Albert and the gang?), you will probably agree that the man has changed. Unfortunately, not in all ways for the better. His latest book, ``Fatherhood,'' is more the new Cosby than the old one, and his advice on being a father is too glib, too slick, and too produced to ring true.

The book is a product -- as Bill Cosby has allowed himself to become a product -- designed to be sold nationwide, with anything really useful or piquant removed. Even the play on his racial background, the source of the bite his humor used to have, has disappeared. In its place is the new Cosby, a sort of McFather, to be served to millions across the nation, with fries and a vanilla shake.

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The problem with Bill Cosby is the clever commercialism in everything he does. It's hard to take him seriously, not when he sells Jell-O, Coca-Cola, and other equally nutritious stuff to kids, and least of all when he gives advice on fatherhood.

The advice is too contrived and smarmy, and the humor takes great advantage of America's growing obligation to find everything Bill Cosby says wryly amusing. You couldn't call Cosby insincere, but you couldn't call Coca-Cola or Jell-O insincere, either. The trouble with his advice is that it's just too sweet. If he believes all this sticky stuff, fine, but I see in his eyes a more intelligent man, and a shrewder one.

Cosby's advice on fatherhood is harmless, and in some parts it's even funny, if you can hear it in his stand-up comic voice, with a laugh-track. (The chapter on pubescence needs a laugh track with snickers.)

Being a father Cosby-style sounds like becoming a combination of Robert Young and Leo Buscaglia -- changing diapers not simply because it's necessary, but to prove some sociologically redeeming point. And there's the rub. Whatever he knows has been reduced to sit-com psychology, delivered as wisecracks, designed not to help you be a better father, but to be more like a TV father.

The worst part is that with enough hype, this type of fatherhood might be put over as the optimum, the way it's supposed to be done. Any father not able to measure up would bring shame on his family. (I, for example, can never think of a wry wisecrack in time, but then, I don't have a stable of writers in the wings. Will my children love me anyway? Thankfully, they don't have writers either.)

There's also a foreword, and an afterword, by Dr. Alvin Poussaint, a psychiatrist and one of the Cosby show's script consultants. Dr. Poussaint describes the book as a ``comedic yet insightful journey through the shifting sands of parenthood.'' When you hear the word ``insightful'' -- especially when combined with the clich'e, ``shifting sands'' -- run for it. It means that Cosby has made the worst mistake a comedian can make: He's started to take himself seriously.

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