A couple of months ago, my sisters and I cleaned out the attic of my mom’s old house, unearthing precious mementos amidst the junk. My treasures included my old Bill Cosby records, which I had thought lost. There they were, invaluable to me and maybe even valuable to collectors. I imagined putting them on our old turntable sometime soon for a nostalgic listen.
I have loved Bill Cosby since his early appearances on the Tonight Show beginning in 1963. I still recall his virtuosic miming of Revolutionary War soldiers frantically loading and reloading muskets while well-armed British solders relentlessly approached (at the end of this long routine). I noted both him and his name: he was black, the first black comic I ever saw, and his name was oddly like Bing Crosby, my mom’s favorite performer. I stayed on the lookout for that name in the TV Guide. I saw his first Noah performance on the Tonight Show.
I didn’t collect many records, but I collected Bill Cosby’s. My junior-high friends and I memorized his routines and recited them to each other. I saw him perform in concert at least once. I never much watched his sitcom The Cosby Show and never regarded him as America’s Dad. I was never smitten with his sweaters. I never watched Fat Albert. But I continued to try to catch him on late-night talk shows.
I loved “I Spy,” his early TV show, which began in 1965, staying up late to watch it. In my 10th grade Latin class, I rehashed the previous night’s episode every Tuesday morning with a kid named Doug who sat in front of me. When I taught high-school English, I always showed my students the 1968 Cosby-narrated film “Black History: Lost, Stolen, or Strayed,” which belies the accusation that Cosby remained uncommitted regarding racial issues. I understood he wasn’t as cool or cutting-edge as Richard Pryor, but I believed he had prepared the ground.
Now, in November of 2014, I am reading obsessively about Bill Cosby online. This is a waste of time, and I’m hoping my writing about it will help exorcise my obsession with this now-painful topic.
About ten years ago, I was vaguely aware that Bill Cosby was in some kind of trouble and that he publicly admitted being unfaithful to his long-suffering and beautiful wife Camille. I thought this was too bad but could easily accept that he was a flawed person. I’d never been into the Cliff Huxtable/All-American Father thing, anyway.
As we all know now, of course, the accusations are way, way worse than a little adultery, or even a lot of adultery: drugging and raping women, sex with teenagers, sordid pay-offs. I believe that the revelations fit a pattern we’re now familiar with from other badly behaved men in the news. Bill Cosby, it seems, is a controlling, violent person.
A smallish story amid the horrendous revelations helps confirm this description. The female staff of the Letterman show has revealed they’re relieved not to have Coz as a guest again. Seems he demanded the youngest and prettiest staffers gather around him before his appearances to silently watch him eat curry. They hated it, but they did it, and the show’s producers enforced the demand. Narcissism, anyone?
I’ve made the mistake, in my reading, of perusing the comments after online articles. People’s disbelief and vitriolic misogyny boggles the mind. They ask why the women went to his room, why they took the pills, why they waited so long to report the abuse. Too often, they never bother to ask why this rich, famous man drugged and raped young, vulnerable women.
So now, what do I do with my records? Don’t tell me to separate the artist’s work from the artist’s life. This compartmentalization is impossible for me. I’m not celebrating rapists like film director Roman Polanski and singer R Kelly and Bill Cosby. The talented Bill Cosby is mentally ill, damaged, and dangerous. Not so funny anymore.