Saturday, November 29, 2014

Say It Ain't So, Cos. Say SOMETHING!

I waited a while to write this until the media feeding frenzy and "Me, too! Me, too!" piling on blew over.

Boy, did it ever.

Black Friday? Forget that. This has been Black Week in America. And if he hasn't already, Bill Cosby should hit his creaky knees and thank God for the blessings of timing and the 24-hour news cycle. "America's Dad" may be the only man in the country to benefit from the senseless destruction and idiocy of Ferguson, since it literally blasted him off the front pages.

Not for long, though, I'm guessing. When you've got women taking numbers to stand in line so they can hurl rape allegations at you, there's an excellent chance you'll regain the title of Public Celebrity Enemy No. 1 sooner than later. I walked through the grocery store the other day: Cosby is on this week's cover of People, Us...and the National Enquirer. Nobody wants to be that popular.

Suddenly, everybody has a Bill Cosby story. Here are a few of mine.

Out of respect, a photo Cosby approved.
There is absolutely no doubt in my head that my sense of humor, whatever it may be, was completely formed, shaped and polished by William Henry Cosby Jr. – or more specifically, by the string of 10 classic, tear-inducing comedy albums he recorded between 1963 and 1969, a span roughly corresponding to my junior high and high school years.

Here was a young, inventive comedian the same color as I, which, believe me, was not an everyday occurrence in the '60s. And, unlike Redd Foxx (who was the only other African American comic I knew of at the time), you didn't have to wait until your parents were gone to pull his albums out of their hiding place. Cosby always worked "clean," never stooped to vulgarity or innuendo, never took advantage of his comedic birthright to use his race for easy punchlines.

Why Is There Air? Wonderfulness. "I Started Out as a Child." It felt like they were coming out every other month. I would race to the record store in the little town next to the little town where I grew up, snatch up the latest LP on the date of its release, then dash home breathlessly to begin absorbing every groove. By the tenth hearing or so I had every routine committed to memory.

Meanwhile, in the other small town, my friend, Chris DeBlaey, was going through the exact same ritual. We were Cos-obsessed. Chris and I attended the same small (of course) Methodist church, and by Sunday our mental guns were loaded. You know how kids are in church to begin with...and we came armed with material.

We would sit next to each other in the service, alternating lines of Cosby's monologues, trying our utmost to break each other up. I vividly remember one Sunday night worship where our persistent snickers and stifled snorts escalated to such a volume that our pastor, Ron Smeenge, actually halted the service in mid-sermon.

"YOU TWO!" he bellowed, sounding like the voice of God Himself.  "Just what exactly is so funny?"

I wanted to shout out, "Noah!" or "What's a cubit?" using an example I figured he would understand. Instead, Chris and looked down at the floor, feigning remorse, then cut knowing glances at each other, our eyes dancing with mischief.

I learned comedic timing from Bill Cosby's albums. I studied the art of the pause, how to deliver the punch line, how bending a word or simply choosing one word over another could make a joke funnier. And since I ultimately spent a portion of my life working as a professional standup comic, I would say I tried to put those lessons to good use.
The Cosby image the media shows today, now that he is Satan.

But there's more. Maybe you have to be a young boy in his formative years with a media fixation and an identity crisis to understand how thrilling it was to have a black man starring in a dramatic television series. Bill Cosby broke TV's color barrier in 1968 with I Spy: before Sheldon Leonard made the daring decision to cast him as Alexander Scott, blacks were allowed to make America laugh but never permitted to make us think. And it was significant to me that Scott was the smart one, the thinking man's character, and Robert Culp was the athlete. That's a contrast that rarely happens even today.
*          *          *
Fast forward to the mid-80s. I'm the entertainment writer for The Detroit News and the long-gone Premier Center in suburban Sterling Heights is booking an impressive lineup of national acts. Two legends of the industry, Bill Cosby and Sammy Davis Jr., are touring together for the first time. I am, as you might expect, giddy with anticipation. But first, some background.

Several weeks earlier, Eddie Murphy made his first standup appearance in Detroit at the Masonic Temple. I was reviewing the show, sitting in a back row, and was very familiar with Murphy's outrageously blue comedic style. I was in the minority. The audience that night was largely white, people who knew Murphy only from his small body of work on Saturday Night Live. They expected to see live versions of his Buckwheat and Mr. Robinson characters; some even brought their children! I could see disaster on the horizon, and unfortunately I was right. The first time Murphy dropped an F-bomb you literally could hear jaws dropping.

Ultimately Eddie had to cut his performance short and was booed offstage. Someone actually threw a shoe at him as he stalked to the wings. He stopped, picked up the shoe and threw it back at the crowd! Besides writing my local review, I was a stringer for People magazine and wrote a blurb that appeared nationally on the magazine's back page.

Back to the Premier Center. Davis and Cosby put on a sparkling performance, and when it was over a VIP reception was thrown for them backstage. Elizabeth Roach, the venue's publicist and a good friend, asked, "Would you like to go back and meet Mr. Cosby?" I had a deadline to meet, but – are you kidding? Heck yeah, I'll go!

We were milling around backstage, waiting for an opening, and at the appropriate moment Roach walked me up to Cosby and introduced us. He looked at me and narrowed his eyes, apparently putting two and two together. "Are you the one who wrote that piece in People magazine?" he asked.

"Y-y-yes," I stammered.

"Come here."

Cosby took me by the arm, walked me over to a small table near the back of the room and proceeded to give me a 20-minute master class on his theories of comedy and why blue humor is its own worst enemy. Was I mesmerized? What do you think? In the midst of a throng of people who merely wanted to shake his hand, I was sitting face-to-face with my comedy idol who was giving me an animated lecture on Comedy 101. He was warm and passionate, the Ph.D. side of his nature clearly gushing forth. I was euphoric, living a highlight-reel life moment, one which I shall never forget.
*          *          *
As we'd prefer to remember him: Cosby Show papa Cliff Huxtable.
The last time I talked to Cosby was about three years ago, for an advance feature in HOUR Detroit magazine prior to one of his Detroit appearances. Again, he gave more than expected: a scheduled 15-minute interview turned into a 45-minute conversation, and this time he was dropping the F-bombs, trying to give me an object lesson about how blue humor was the lazy way to a cheap laugh. Mostly, though we talked about the African American community in general and Detroit in particular. 

For my money, most of his recurring themes about society today make complete sense. Young black men should pull up their pants and stop acting like inmates-in-waiting. Education is the key to escaping the downward spiral of poverty and drugs. All politicians, white and especially black, need to do more to bolster the African American community. But because of his age (77) and occupation (funny man), Cosby has been summarily dismissed by Black America as a grouchy curmudgeon talking down at us from his mountain of money. We didn't want to hear the message, so we objected to the messenger.

Now, I've said all that to say this: these last few weeks have ripped holes in my heart. Cosby has been my hero, role model and comedy icon for decades, as he has been for millions of others. (C'mon, don't be ashamed to admit it now.) I haven't even mentioned how he almost singlehandedly saved NBC in the 1980s with his most successful Cosby Show (he had several in his career), or what Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids meant to children of my generation and beyond. 

Hearing this litany of assertions is like finding out that Captain America was a Communist spy, or Judge Judy abuses her grandkids. Did he do all these horrible things he's being accused of? I don't know for certain, and neither do you. If it was only Janice Dickinson making the charges, we might not be so quick to rush to judgment; she hasn't had a purely lucid thought since the '90s. But a steady stream of women, at 16 and counting I believe, have come forward with essentially the same story.

I think a big part of it is that deep down, we want Cosby to be Cliff Huxtable, the dad we all wished we had, which is kind of like expecting Jim Parsons to be Sheldon Cooper. (Some days, I'll bet Jim Parsons wishes he was Sheldon Cooper). This just in, people: television is not reality. The truth is, nobody is all good or all bad; the backlash is so ferocious because our naivete has been shattered.

I went back and watched the video of the Hannibal Burress standup routine that rekindled all this. It was direct. It was cutting. But what struck me was that it wasn't funny, which made me question his motives for doing the bit in the first place. Did he just want to denigrate a living legend in order to elevate himself? I think it's fair to say "black man" and "rape" in the same sentence almost never brings an audience to tears. (Of laughter, anyway.) It just seemed like an odd forum for so vicious a contention.

Let me say without hesitation that rape is a horrific, odious, unforgivable offense. If America was just, there would be no statute of limitations for the crime, as is the case with murder, especially because women sometimes require many years to gather the courage to come forward and name their attacker. But there is a statute, and for these accusers it has long since expired. Why, oh why did it take so many years for all of his victims to step out of the shadows? Was Cosby's control and intimidation over them that complete? Did he and the lords of Hollywood do that good a job of keeping his sins away from the public eye, keeping them swept under the rug?

So instead the nation has turned on him like a pack of wolves. It's too late to prosecute, so they persecute. The media is opting to use the most grizzled, stubbly, unflattering photos it can find. New projects and concerts have been abruptly cancelled, Cosby Show reruns have been yanked. Meanwhile, I still can watch Two and a Half Men in syndication every night, and Charlie Sheen's myriad transgressions are a matter of public record. Heck, he boasts about many of them. Seventh Heaven is back on the air although series star Stephen Collins has admitted to molesting children. What are we to make of that?

In Cosby's case, he has been tried, convicted and sentenced in the Court of Public Opinion even though no charges have been filed against him. Now he has resigned as a trustee from his beloved Temple University, a board position he has held more than 30 years, not wishing to be a distraction to his alma mater.

Did he do it? I don't know. Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely, and at one point Cosby was among the most powerful men in Hollywood.

Bill Cosby has had a remarkable, multifacted career, one almost anyone would be proud to claim. Now he's a septuagenarian and rich as Midas. Does he care that his reputation and legacy have been tarnished for all time? Only he knows. I know that his only son, Ennis, was brutally murdered on an LA freeway some years ago. so it's not as though he's blithely floated through his success without having some holes ripped in his heart, too.

I just wish my hero would come forward and deny it all in the most powerful terms possible. Say something. Anything. Right now the silence hurts more than any F-bomb used for a cheap laugh. It's deafening. Nobody's laughing.


  1. Interesting perspective, Jim. And, as always, very well written. I do feel, though, that by saying nothing, Mr. Cosby is saying everything. With so many women coming forward with stories, I find it difficult to believe that there isn't truth associated with them. I don't think anyone would want to put themselves "out there" like that just for fun. Sad story, all the way around.

  2. I remember with Michael Jackson, who was my hero and the same age as me, was accused of sexually abusing young boys. I went right into the mindframe: I can separate the art from the artist. That got me through those days. In this case, Cosby did present to me a picture of a prospering black american family (lowercase my intention), however, as a white woman, I feel particularly affected by these allegations. It is hard for me now to separate the art from the artist.