In Retrospect: What I learned from watching six hours of “The Cosby Show”

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

I have fond memories of “The Cosby Show” from my childhood. Growing up in a broken home with no cable may have helped, but it may have stemmed from seeing such a harmonious and functional family at a time when everything looked bleak. At the time that show aired, and for years prior, Bill Cosby must have seemed like a modern-day leviathan, with an illustrious career and a penchant for comedy that countless American families could enjoy.

That period is behind us now, and Cosby has joined the infamous pantheon populated by Roman Polanski, Woody Allen and other rich, talented men with enough money to make their alleged sexual crimes not an issue. While there are certainly some people (and maybe a majority of YouTube comments are indicative of demographics) who doubt the validity of the claims of 40 women who say Cosby drugged and raped them, my purpose isn’t to talk about the scandal itself. My task was to watch a sampling of his work through the lens of modern times and find find the dichotomy between the artist and the art. I powered through the second season of “The Cosby Show,” as well as hours of stand-up episodes of “The Bill Cosby Show,” ”Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids” and “Little Bill.” For the purposes of my analysis, let’s assume that the allegations are true (which, for the record, I’m saying they totally are and that Cosby should be in prison).

The Man

The epicenter of Cosby’s career is the man he purports himself to be. He’s a family man, a loving father and an original comic. At the time, he was a lightning rod that drew praise as a black comedian who could make jokes that didn’t ask hard questions or make white people uncomfortable, the yin to Richard Pryor’s yang. He was avidly monogamous, was against drugs and espoused his ideas of honesty and self-responsibility on the comedy stage and on sets of his various shows. He could even be considered a feminist for his time, as his wife worked and was his equal in “The Cosby Show” universe and almost every joke in his stand-up started with “My wife Camille … ,” with obvious love in his voice.

The man himself is clearly different from his stage persona. Amidst the exposure of his sexual assault allegations, he has admitted to taking handfuls of drugs in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and admitted to having casual sex with countless fans and young women (the difference being that his numerous accusers claim it wasn’t consensual). Obviously, all those family and clean living messages he espoused on stage were bullshit, and we’re forced to ask, to what end? Well, obviously his career has made him millions of dollars, and he was, until recently, a respected member in the upper echelons of American society. Him admitting to everything being a lie shows how much of a cold and calculating liar he is, lest his secrets be revealed in a huge scandal that torpedoes his career. He’s also very clearly a master manipulator, as he had to surround himself with circles of sycophants that could score him drugs and act as a barrier between his persona and his actual life, silencing his first round of rape accusers, (the first of which was in 1965), with more telling the same story in the ‘70s and ‘80s.

Regardless of how many more people come forward and if justice is ever served (or if any of the cases go to court), we’re obviously dealing with a lying, manipulating drug-user and cheater. Knowing what I know, I dove into his body of work.

Let’s watch “The Cosby Show”

Damn, this was awkward. In the stand-up set that went viral and exposed Cosby’s actions to the public, comedian Hannibal Buress said “I don’t know why I’m telling you this. I guess to make it weird watching “Cosby Show” reruns.” He didn’t know how right he was.

“The Cosby Show” was the hardest to get through, so I started with it first. I didn’t find anything particularly unsettling in the show’s content itself, as the message of every episode boiled down to “family good, hatred and laziness bad, let’s all hold hands and drink coffee.” Most of Cosby’s faux feminist messages stem from this show. His wife has a promising career, his first daughter is in college and he helps with the cooking and cleaning around the house. The only real data I was able to ascertain from watching way too many episodes is just how much time Cosby spent upholding and advertising his public persona. The only scene that was particularly uncomfortable, aside from general uneasiness, was the ending scene of the episode “The Last Barbecue,” wherein Cosby’s character makes a special barbecue sauce that makes everyone uncharacteristically horny. This seems oddly fitting, considering Cosby’s penchant for date rape drugs.

“Little Bill,” “Fat Albert” and “The Bill Cosby Show” were a wash, following the modus operandi of Cosby’s media: Tell a wholesome message, uphold, reinforce and advertise his public persona. The janky animation and near-constant laugh track were particularly grating (take a hint, Chuck Lorre) and I was only able to stomach about two episodes each. However, the very first episode of “Fat Albert” taught the message that lying instead of telling the truth can only get you into more trouble, and that people eventually distrust and dislike liars. If only Cosby would have heeded the message of his very own show.

The stand-up albums, and the Madison Square Garden set in particular, was where Cosby’s family-friendly attitude and tame persona were first created and honed. He doesn’t swear on stage, and every story is about his zany anecdotes as a doting husband and father. The only piece I found particularly interesting is how he talks at great lengths about trying to avoid public embarrassment. I found this interesting primarily because it gives insights into his actual character. However, his embarrassment would probably stem from handfuls of Quaaludes and not his zany daughters.

What we can learn

If there is a message in all of this, it can be that separating an artist from their art can be dangerous if taken too far. I know people can stomach Kanye West’s music even though he’s an incredible asshole, but purchasing content made by people like Woody Allen, Cosby and others can be dangerous, especially if you know you’re funding future legal teams and hush money. Conversely, it’s also important to maintain some separation between the artist and their work, lest their carefully crafted public persona seep into your perception of their true self, blinding you to facts. I think much of the backlash and denial of Cosby’s accusers stems from people not wanting their illusion of “America’s Dad” to be shattered. Facing the truth is hard, and many people who grew up with Cosby’s material undoubtedly feel betrayed, making living in denial a preferable option for some.

I also think it’s important that we all try to prevent this sort of shit from happening again. People have known about Cosby’s dark, personal life for years, with “30 Rock” referencing it all the way back in 2009. I think it gained more traction because we are so much more connected in the digital age, and potential rapists and criminals have so much more exposure than before. I’ve only touched on one major celebrity who seems above scrutiny, but I’m sure there’s more stories out there.
We’re living in an impressive time here folks. Let’s not let another Bill Cosby get away.

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