When the joke is on us l Chuck's World

May 02, 2018

Ask a comedian around the age of 60 for early comic influences, and you'll almost always hear about Bill Cosby. Cosby was funny, silly, understandable, accessible to kids, and his comedy albums were everywhere.

He also had a TV series, “I Spy,” and then “The Bill Cosby Show” for a couple of years. He produced, acted in, and directed films. He played Vegas. If I read his name somewhere, I usually kept reading. He tended to show up a lot.

I even saw him in concert once, in the late 1970s, in Phoenix. It was funny, but what I remember is his opening. As usual, Cosby came out and joked with the audience, talking about Phoenix and the flight over and asking people questions, etc.

And at one point he did something that made my young heart, overloaded with show-biz aspirations, beat a lot faster. He mentioned a woman's name, asking if she was in the audience. Apparently a young person had reached Cosby with some sort of request.

I imagined that she was a budding entertainer, maybe a comedian. He told her from the stage to come back after the show to see him.

It felt nice, to me. A famous man graciously offering some advice, or at least access, to a young person with stars in her eyes. That's what I thought. That's how I remember it. That's all there is, too.

In 1984, when my wife and I were expecting our first child, we watched “The Cosby Show” every week. It was fun to see the comic slip into sweaters and play a 40-something frustrated father, and it was a huge success, spawning spin-offs and books on parenting by Cos.

The books are where he started to lose me, by the way. Cosby obviously saw himself as an authority on the subject, being a father and being Bill Cosby. He was still funny, but he had definite ideas and there wasn't a lot of shading.

Then there was the string of comments and speeches where he harangued the African-American community for failing itself, which felt like harsh honesty at first and then started to sound a little weird. Nothing is that simple.

I stopped paying attention, for the most part, 25 years ago. I lost interest, and he became just another cranky, aging celebrity in my eyes, still funny but with occasionally odd political views and personal philosophies. He faded from my view, replaced by fresher voices. I'd moved on.

None of the above counts for anything. I didn't have special insight. I wasn't the only one who thought he'd become a little unlikable in his later years. I have no idea what happened with the young woman in Phoenix.

I didn't predict any of this, in other words. I didn't feel justified in any way for earlier opinions when his crimes became apparent.

I've had wildly varied reactions to the #MeToo stories. I've been horrified by a lot of them. I've been suspicious of a couple. I've been mystified by at least one (Louis CK – who does that?). Some of them were obvious crimes. Some seem to be just men being jerks, which is nothing new. I can't work up sympathy for any of them. My sympathies lie elsewhere, sorry.

But Cosby lit a fire of self-righteousness in me, for unclear reasons. It wasn't disappointment; O.J. Simpson was my first sports hero, and though I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt for a bit, I had no problem figuring out that situation, and I wasn't confused by sentiment in the least.

I must have given Cosby some benefit, too. I understand how famous people can be targets, it's not hard. And I probably assumed it would go away, that payments would be made and suits settled, and the truth would remain blurry and, eventually, lost.

Dozens of women, though. Dozens upon dozens, all with similar stories. Stories about fame, about access, about celebrity, about youth. About a predator who drugged women and raped them. Outrageous, cried his friends and family. Lies, said his supporters.

Oh, it definitely happened, said Bill Cosby. His released deposition softened the details, but he was under oath and we'll take him at his word: he routinely gave women pills to help them "relax," and then he had sex with them. Maybe they were awake, maybe not.

Maybe it was just that, the overwhelming evidence, the truth leaking out of his own mouth. Maybe it was the betrayal of a culture that deifies people who make us happy on purpose.

But I don't think so. I don’t think it's about growing up with Cosby, listening to his routines until I'd memorized them. It's not about watching him for my entire life on TV and in films. It's not about admiring his skill, his intelligence, his wit, his mastery of the medium.

Bill Cosby was the best, but that's not it, I think. That's not why I will be very satisfied if he spends the rest of his miserable life in prison.

I think it's because he preyed on hope. Because he leveraged his talent and success to satisfy his darkest demons. Because he took women with dreams to spare, and he hurt them. He assaulted them, and he didn't care.

And mostly? I think it’s because I worry that 40 years ago, I might have watched him doing it.

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