I shuffle in the passenger seat of my mother’s Nissan as we take the off-ramp to Riverside Drive and navigate the unfamiliar one-ways and side streets of downtown Memphis, until my mother finally decides to cough up $15 for parking in a lot adjacent to the Orpheum Theater. We file into a crowd of mostly white older men and women donning sport coats and Sunday skirts. A woman snaps a photograph of the marquee, hundreds of golden bulbs illuminating its black placards: THE ORPHEUM THEATER PRESENTS BILL COSBY.
Inside, we settle into seats in the mezzanine. An overweight man plops down next to my mother, taking over her armrest. He apologizes for her having to sit next to him, saying he knows she must be uncomfortable. My mother, smiling, assures the man it’s not a problem. I fight with the sleeves of my oversized coat, trying to remove it without disturbing those behind me, until finally I stuff it between the armrests as the lights go dim.
Affixed to a folding chair in the center of the stage, Bill Cosby performed his two-hour routine that February afternoon in 2004. His act consisted mostly of long-winded stories and ruminations on fatherhood that culminated with hard-earned punch lines. Occasionally he’d lean forward, hiking up the ankles of his burgundy slacks, and stare directly at the audience, one lazy eye wandering up to the elegant goldwork in the theater’s ceiling. Cosby paused in these pregnant moments before the punch line, as if to make sure we were paying attention. It was an ironic gesture because of its redundancy: we had all paid money to do just that.
This was my first time seeing Cosby in person. My mother had surprised me with tickets two months earlier, well aware of my adolescent obsession with watching reruns of The Cosby Show on Nick at Nite. Like it did for so many others twenty years ago, Cosby’s TV family represented an idealized family dynamic to me, a lower-middle class white kid with a mostly absent father.
Cliff Huxtable’s whimsical expressions and quick-witted quips provided an escape from reality, though reality for me was never too daunting. Perhaps what the show truly offered me was consistency; watching Cosby play house was an integral part of my bedtime routine during adolescence. I was, of course, old enough to realize that Cosby was acting, that the stairs in the Huxtable living room led nowhere. Still, it was difficult to separate the man from the character. Many Cosby Show story arcs and one-liners came directly from Cosby’s standup routines, which, presumably, stemmed directly from his life.
For the way he seemed able to transmit his own reality through the medium of television and make me laugh, Cosby became a sort of childhood hero to me. And the show was not only funny, it was wholesome. Cliff was intelligent, his wife was successful, the kids were loved, and life was good. If the real Bill Cosby had something to hide, I imagined maybe he left the water running while brushing his teeth or scuffed the bumper of someone’s Toyota once and drove away. I trusted him.
More than fifty women have accused Cosby of drugging and sexually assaulting them. In a recent A&E TV special called “Cosby: The Women Speak,” several women recalled their encounters with Cosby, and their accounts are vividly similar. Many of the women, who worked as actors, writers, models and comedians, were lured in by Cosby’s charming offers to give advice on their careers and ended up alone with him in hotel rooms or limousines. Some of them, choking back tears, describe in great detail what happened next; others, buckling beneath the weight of what had occurred, are unable to continue.
Though the rape allegations simmered quietly for decades, buried beneath other news stories or simply shrugged off by those who read them, the women are finally getting the attention they deserve. A “Bill Cosby” Google search now yields mostly news articles describing the accusations and blog posts arguing where we should stand on the scale of public outrage. And make no mistake: we are a society with the rights to life, liberty, and the public expression of our outrage.
In these circumstances, we choose whether to direct this outrage toward Cosby, for the heinousness of his alleged actions, or, far less likely, at a collection of total strangers who somehow colluded with one another over the course of four decades to execute the most successful extortion and defamation campaign in history. Given all the evidence—including a deposition that recently surfaced, in which Cosby admits to acquiring prescription drugs to give to women he wanted to have sex with—I can’t understand how one could defend Cosby’s innocence at this point. Even still, there are Cosby apologists.
I am not interested in advising the ordinary citizen on how they should feel about the situation. I am interested in the super fans, those like me, to whom Cosby was more than just a wholesome funny man. I recognize that many in that camp won’t acknowledge Cosby’s crimes until he’s been proven guilty of them. But for the rest of us—who have accepted the likelihood that Cosby’s funny faces were masking something monstrous all along—where do we go from here?
As a ten or eleven year old, when cartoons and teenage sitcoms made up the majority of my entertainment, Bill Cosby was the only grown-up who could make me laugh until I couldn’t breathe. It was at that age that I first watched Himself, Cosby’s most memorable standup special. Himself, I presumed, was aptly titled: the stories about childhood and fatherhood, seasoned with a dash of exuberance, seemed genuine and personal. I remember getting hooked by Cosby’s exaggerated squeals and squinting eyes when he impersonated a stoner grabbing fast food—even though I had no idea what smoking weed meant—because I could identify the authenticity in the man behind the impression.
There is no way to measure what Bill Cosby took from the women he abused. And, to be clear, they are the only real victims of his actions. While I trusted Cosby as a wholesome TV dad, an imaginary, nightly stand-in for my absent father, these women trusted him with their lives, in the closeness and vulnerability of human interaction. Many of his accusers—still growing in number—entered into mentorships with Cosby, expecting to learn and laugh with the gentle, fatherly man they’d seen on TV.
“Listen, he was America’s favorite dad,” said Barbara Bowman, who met Cosby at seventeen and claims he drugged and raped her countless times for more than a year. “I went into this thinking he was going to be my dad.” Victoria Valentino, a model who had dinner with Cosby in 1969, says Cosby knew Valentino was depressed because her six-year-old son had recently died in a drowning accident. When Cosby offered her a pill to make her “feel better,” Valentino took the pill, desperate for anything to ease the agony of losing a child. “I really never felt in any danger from him at all,” she said in the A&E special, before describing how Cosby then took her to his Hollywood office and raped her twice. No one can blame Valentino for looking to Cosby for comfort, or Bowman for buying into the myth: Cosby never faltered in his public role as father and husband, onstage and on-screen. He encouraged us to find humor in ordinary life—his ordinary life—allowing us to believe this man is who he says he is.
Another woman, Donna Motsinger, accused Cosby of drugging and sexually assaulting her in a limousine in the 1970s. According to Motsinger, she and Cosby had a few drinks in his limo on the way to one of his performances in San Carlos, CA. At some point on the drive, Motsinger felt ill and asked for an aspirin. The next thing she remembered was waking up in the car with Cosby’s hands on her. She apparently drifted to sleep again, and awoke the next morning in her own bed wearing only her underwear, certain that she had been sexually assaulted.
In a season five episode of The Cosby Show, Cliff Huxtable sits at his kitchen table with Jeremy, a teenage boy who’d brought one of Cliff’s daughters, Vanessa, home past her curfew. Cliff knows they’d spent time in Jeremy’s car. When Jeremy agrees to split an apple with him, Cliff retrieves an unnecessarily large knife from the kitchen drawer and sits back down.
“I brought you in here,” Cliff begins, casually aiming the knife in Jeremy’s direction, inches from his nervous, clasped hands. The audience laughs. “Because there are some things I want to talk to you about.”
Cliff grabs an apple from the crystal bowl and sets it on the vinyl tablecloth.
“Let’s say this apple is you.”
He pulls another apple from the bowl.
“And this apple is my daughter.”
Jeremy stares at the lumpy red delicious, its close proximity to Cliff representing the forbidden fruit of his desire, a rare example of symbolism in the typically otherwise surface-level narrative that drove The Cosby Show.
Cliff continues to interrogate Jeremy about his actions with Vanessa. He plays puppet master with the apples, arranging them on the table in different degrees of closeness and asking Jeremy if he and Vanessa were that close in the car. Finally, Cliff carefully balances the Vanessa apple on top of the Jeremy apple and aims a pointed stare at Jeremy.
“Oh, no way, sir!” Jeremy shrieks, separating the apples from their carnal arrangement and placing them on opposite sides of the table. Cliff relents, satisfied that his daughter hadn’t been subjected to sex—consensual or not—and holds the Vanessa apple at eye-level between them.
“You see this? Ever since the first day it’s been getting man in trouble.” The audience laughs again.
I suppose, according to Cliff and so many others, that Adam—man—was tempted by the forbidden fruit only because Eve plucked it from the tree and ate from its flesh. It was the apple that got man in trouble, because woman made it look so easy, so harmless. Jeremy didn’t take from Vanessa’s flesh in that episode, though he surely felt tempted, and by avoiding temptation he avoided the wrath of Cliff. There was a lesson here, blanketed by the canny quips and recycled laughs: though you may be tempted, men, by women and their forbidden fruit, you must not partake of it in the garden, or in the backseat of the car. If The Cosby Show was a moral compass, its wobbly needle pointed true north toward Cliff Huxtable.
In a 2014 interview on the Today Show, host Savannah Guthrie asked Keisha Knight Pulliam about the allegations surrounding Cosby. Pulliam played Rudy, the Huxtables’s adorably cheeky youngest daughter on The Cosby Show. America watched Rudy lose her baby teeth and find her sharp tongue, the father-daughter chemistry between her and Cosby’s Cliff palpable and sincere. In many of Rudy’s scenes, one couldn’t tell the difference between actor and character—her infectious laugh when being bounced on Cliff’s knee sounded authentic, as were the grins she tried to conceal when asking Cliff a dozen badgering questions. One can imagine Pulliam felt the roles confused when she was suddenly battered with questions about Cosby’s alleged actions.
“What do you make of those allegations,” Savannah Guthrie asked, “people coming out and saying this happened to them—somebody who was such a beloved character for so many years?”
Pulliam didn’t hesitate. “What I can say is this: I wasn’t there. No one was there except for the two people, to know exactly what happened. All I can speak to is the man that I know and I love. The fact that he has been such an example, and you can’t take away from the great that he has done.”
I empathize with Pulliam when she says, “All I can speak to is the man that I know and I love.” I, too, felt I knew Bill Cosby, and I can’t count the number of times I’ve told people that I loved him. Of course, I’ve never met—let alone worked with—Bill Cosby. But when I was young, I felt as though Cliff Huxtable had stepped through the glass of my tiny TV and appeared in his polished loafers and gaudy sweaters, speaking directly to me.
He was always on time, armed with funny faces and creative discipline as soon as I climbed into bed and switched him on. I shook my head at the Huxtable kids when they trashed the house during a party or lied about where they’d been, baffled that they would forfeit the trust of such a good and loving father. But it was no matter. Ships captained by men like Cosby, the show promised, sail straight and true. And so, like clockwork, episodes riddled with misbehavior and subsequent punishments ended with smiling faces and the Huxtable family sleeping soundly.
But for Pulliam to suggest that “you can’t take away from the great that he has done,” simply by virtue of his having been “such an example” is to presume that Cosby’s accomplishments as an artist and humanitarian can somehow be measured against the pain he caused his victims. This is a dangerous step in the direction of wishing all this would disappear so we can get back to finding pleasure in Cosby’s work without an ounce of guilt. Pulliam goes on to applaud Cosby’s contributions to society, such as the money he’s given away or raised for education. It’s not often that great is employed as a noun, but according to Pulliam, if anyone has done it, Cosby has done it. He has done great, and it can’t be taken away.
But, maybe it can be taken away. Most tangibly, the physical remnants of Cosby’s legacy—plaques and statues bearing his name and likeness, buildings erected upon heaps of his money—have been disappearing from public view. And in recent months, as the opprobrium over Cosby’s conduct has intensified, numerous universities (Amherst, Brown, Tufts and Fordham among them) have rescinded the honorary degrees they awarded him years ago. The stripping of his honors, however, is only a symptom of a deeper problem with Cosby.
What made Cosby great was his consistency, his ability to portray honorable characters so convincingly that it was impossible for fans to differentiate between the man and the persona. Can we imagine Cosby playing a villain—or anything less than a father figure, for that matter? We expect a measure of directness and affability from our comedians, but in Cosby’s case this was the entire basis of his appeal. Now we are forced to reconcile the fact that Bill Cosby is a far cry from the gentle, endearing Cliff Huxtable, that the man on stage during Himself could not be more dissimilar to the man behind the curtain. Perhaps a better question than whether Cosby’s “greatness” can be taken away from him is whether, in light of his appalling actions, we as viewers will be able to hold on to the character he created. Can we still find him funny?
I haven’t watched an episode of The Cosby Show since the allegations and testimonies flooded every major news outlet. Before, I’d skirt responsibilities for the comfort of my couch if I came across a Cosby marathon; I’d pop in my season three DVD after a stressful day. Cliff Huxtable, with all his one-liners and senseless stories, was a comfort I could count on, like the Nineties’ NBA on NBC theme music. Now, I imagine The Cosby Show playing in my living room will be like unwelcome guests, and I can’t find the words to ask them to leave.
A few weeks ago, I walked to the Burger King around the corner from my Chicago apartment to grab a quick dinner. As I waited, my pockets stuffed with an unnecessary quantity of napkins and ketchup packets, I watched a young man assemble my burger behind the counter. One of Bill Cosby’s stand-up routines popped in my head, as they often do, without warning. It was that classic bit where Cosby impersonates a stoned guy at Burger King who can’t stop laughing at the line cook’s simple routine. I remembered the exact dialogue, the timing, the shrieking sounds of his voice, the wide-eyed expressions on his face. Except this time, for the very first time, I didn’t laugh.