Mind Over Sports


Posted on: June 11, 2012

I’ve been reading Katie Couric’s excellent book “The BEST ADVICE I EVER GOT” and was especially taken by a chapter written by Bill Cosby titled “Don’t be your own worst enemy,” which also applies to sports performance. In sports, as in life, we sometimes expect we’re going to fail and, in fact, we do fail. It’s like the self-fulfilling prophecy. But the chapter was so funny and so relevant, I thought I would reproduce it here on my website. So here goes. (In Bill Cosby’s own words.) Enjoy.

In the late sixties, I was performing at a club in Chicago called the Gate of Horn. Even though it was a folk room, it was a nice, hip place and I was proud to work there. But across the street was a really big-time club: Mr. Kelly’s.
You see, in those days there were a whole bunch of clubs across the country – like Basin Street East in New York City, or the hungry I in San Francisco – that were the spots. They were the same level as Mr. Kelly’s. And the guys who played at these clubs – guys like Lenny Bruce, Dick Gregory, and Jonathan Winters — were making huge money: $2,500 a week! I was making $125. They were on Ed Sullivan; I had never been on TV.
The point is, these clubs were the pinnacle. The top. Once you played there, you were big-time. I often stared across the street and wondered, Gee whiz, man, will I ever get to play Mr. Kelly’s? Then one day, when I was back in New York, I got a call. The call. From my agent. He told me he had gotten an offer for me to play Mr. Kelly’s. Opening act at $350 a week – I had never made that much money in my life!
The brothers George and Oscar Marienthal owned Mr. Kelly’s.  I’m not sure if they were twins, but they looked a lot alike.  Anyway, they had seen me somewhere – I don’t know where – and obviously liked me, because they booked me. They flew me to Chicago, and I got a suite at the Hotel Maryland for twelve dollars a day, and then I went to Mr. Kelly’s and put my clothes in the dressing room.
So, I was sitting in my dressing room in Mr. Kelly’s, a small dressing room, and it was somewhere around two o’clock, and my mind started to tell me that I wasn’t really funny enough to be in a club like Mr. Kelly’s. Flash! You are not funny.
The feeling would go away – I would make it go away – but from two o’clock until the first show at eight, I began, without moving my lips, to talk myself into the fact that I was not funny and that I really and truly had no business playing Mr. Kelly’s.
These performers – are on TV. They have proven themselves. And you? You’re just a Temple University student, and I don’t know what you think you’re doing, but you certainly have no business in front of this crowd, which is a hard-liquor crowd. These people have seen the best, and they’re not going to see the best tonight.
And so I beat myself down to the point of not believing that I was funny. I just knew that I wasn’t going to do well. But I went downstairs anyway.
I had a sport coat on, slacks, a tie. I looked good. I looked like a professional comedian. And then the fellow introduced me: “Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Kelly’s is proud to present one of the fastest-rising new comedians, Bill Cosby!”
And there I was. Onstage. At Mr. Kelly’s. I forgot who the headliner was, but the house was about half full. There were a hundred people there, and maybe sixty applauded. I did my act, which was supposed to last twenty-five minutes, in twelve minutes. Twenty-five minutes of comedy in twelve minutes.
There was no laughter.
Of course, I left no time for laughter. And certainly, while I was talking, these poor people in the audience didn’t hear anything funny. I delivered my routine like a speech, and I did it in twelve minutes. And then I said, “Thank you very much and good night.”
I waved at them, and the same people who had clapped me onto the state did not clap me off.
I went to the dressing room, and I had this horrible feeling that this was it—the end of my career. And I talked to myself again without moving my lips, and I tried to make myself feel better: Okay, you’ve had a good time, but you certainly are not funny and you don’t want to do this again. You don’t ever want to do this again, because it’s a horrible, horrible feeling.
So I was sitting in my dressing room and there was a knock on the door. It was George Marienthal. George came in and closed the door. I had both arms across my chest and I was bent over, and I never looked up. “Mr. Marienthal,” I said, “I am very, very sorry for what happened, and I’m very sorry for what I did tonight. I refuse to accept any pay from you.”
“Good,” Mr. Mariental said, “”Cause you stink!”
“And as soon as I get the money I will pay you back for the plane trip, the hotel room, and everything else, but I will not be going out to do the second show. I am going back to Temple University.”
“I think you should.”
“I am going to play football and I am going to graduate from college and get my master’s and my doctorate.”
“So thank you very much for this opportunity, Mr. Marienthal. And I really apologize to you, but I will not be going back out on that stage.”
“Good,” Mr. Marienthal said, “You are not going back out on that stage because you, sir, are no good.”
I felt terrible. Just terrible. But Mr. Marienthal didn’t let up.
“You, sir, embarrassed me,” he continued. “You embarrassed my brother. And even though you embarrassed us, let me say that you don’t have to pay us back one iota. You owe us nothing. Just take your things with you and you may leave.”
Mr. Marientthal started for the door, but stopped and turned around to face me. “Will you do me a favor?” he asked.
“Sure,” I said. I would have done anything to feel less terrible, to somehow make amends.
“When you get back to your hotel,” Mr. Marienthal said, “will you tell Bill Cosby to come back here and do the second show and to never again send you, because, sir, you are not funny. Bill Cosby is very, very funny. I don’t know why he sent you. Probably because he was afraid. Who knows what happens in the minds of entertainers? But, sir, you get out of here and bring Bill Cosby – you send Bill Cosby. Do whatever, but Bill Cosby has to come back here and do the second show.”
Mr. Marienthal opened the door, gave me a look, and said with emphasis, “Now you get out. And don’t forget, I want Bill Cosby back here.”
I went back to the hotel. Despite what Mr. Marienthal had tried to do, it didn’t life my spirits . I didn’t feel any better. I sat in the room wondering what I was going to do. Eventually, I went back to the club.
I was embarrassed and walked straight through the club with no sense of pride. Nobody said anything to me. A trio was playing some hip kind of jazz music, and the place seemed to have a few more people than the first show. I went up to the dressing room and I just sat there. Nobody came in. The flowers that had come with a note from the Marientthals welcoming me to Mr. Kelly’s were still there—they hadn’t taken them away. So I just sat there.
I went downstairs and I stood there. Two minutes to eleven. The trio stopped and the audience politely applauded, and I stood in the dark, ready to go on for this horrible, horrible punishment. There I was, standing in front of these people who had seen the best and the greatest, and they were going to see the worst.
Eleven o’clock.
The announcer said, “Ladies and gentlemen…Bill Cosby.”
Just that. Bill Cosby. No “fastest-rising.” Nothing. And that introduction took me out of whatever self-pity I was wallowing in, because it hurt.
Ladies and gentlemen…Bill Cosby.
Bill Cosby? I knew I was better that that. Whaddayamean, Bill Cosby? What happened?
And I shouted as I walked onto the stage: “What happened to the part – you just said Bill Cosby – what happened to the part…”
The people began to chuckle, because they thought it was part of the routine. I said, “What? When you introduced me in the first show, you said I was one of the fastest-rising young, fastest-rising new comics. And now this time you just say Bill Cosby?”
The announcer – I don’t remember who the fellow was – said, “That’s because I saw the first show.”
And the audience broke up.
Now, ordinarily I guess this would have meant destruction for a performer. But for me, well, it just took me out of that self-degradation. And I began to talk to the guy.
“Well,” I said, “I’ll tell you something, it was a terrible show.”
And then Bill Cosby – the Bill Cosby in me – came out and did about ten minutes on my behavior and disastrous twelve-minute show. I didn’t say anything about Mr. Marientthal, but I glanced toward the back. I hoped he was watching.
So I did twenty-five minutes, and I think only about seven minutes of prepared, written material. The applause was wonderful. I left the stage and headed to my dressing room. I just sat there with my arms folded across my chest, rather relieved, but not completely. I still had some feelings of self-doubt.
Okay, okay. But there’s tomorrow. Do I have to wait until eleven o’clock, when they’re drunk?
There was a knock on my door. It was Mr. Marienthal. George. And he came into the dressing room.
“Bill, wonderful show,” he said. “Who was that horrible fellow you sent for the first show?”
I looked up at him and I said, “Mr. Marienthal, I hope never to send him out on stage again.”
And Mr. Marientahl said, “If you do, you ought to really, before you even think about it, realize that there are some people out there who want to laugh.”


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