How to Approach Bill Cosby’s Comedy Legacy

Why He Didn't Make Our List of the Best Comics of All Time

Comedy Features Bill Cosby
How to Approach Bill Cosby’s Comedy Legacy

UPDATE: On April 26, 2018, Bill Cosby was convicted of three counts of aggravated indecent assault. In light of that news, let’s revisit this article from last summer, which contends with how his comedy legacy should be viewed today.

If you see that headline and immediately think there’s no reason to consider Bill Cosby’s comedy legacy at all in 2017, well, we don’t blame you. That’s what we wrestled with when we compiled our recently published list of the 50 best stand-up comedians of all time. No matter if you skimmed or dug deep into it, you likely noticed that there was one big name missing: Bill Cosby. And there’s a good chance that your response to that realization was either a small rush of relief or a complicated mix of sympathy and confusion.

Trust me, you’re not alone in those feelings. It’s something that many Paste writers have been wrestling with for the past three years when the allegations of sexual assault were first widely publicized, in part due to a viral clip of Hannibal Buress calling Cosby out in his stand-up. For some, there was no question that Cosby’s name should be kept off the list. He admitted under oath in 2005 that he intended to give drugs to women before sex, and the allegations against him were too numerous, egregious and horrible to even consider including him alongside his contemporaries like Richard Pryor and Phyllis Diller and the stand-ups that continue his comedic legacy (Jim Gaffigan, Patton Oswalt). Others among us wonder if it’s worthwhile to completely erase the man from the rolls in the wake of the seismic impact he had on popular culture.

It’s telling that the divide between those two was a generational one. The younger writers who voted for the best stand-ups list were, by and large, the loudest voices against including him. Others, like myself, that grew up with Cosby’s albums, his enormously popular titular sitcom and who still shake our heads in bewilderment at the existence of Leonard Part 6, had a long internal and external debate about the issue. We knew he likely wouldn’t make the cut, but we felt there was an argument to be made for his inclusion.

The simple truth is that Cosby was an incredible comedic talent. He was absurdist yet cool. He had a remarkable facility for sound effects, which he used to perfectly punctuate his bits and punchlines. And he delighted in making himself the butt of the joke. His stand-up albums from the ‘60s are perfection; longform bits that, as Keith Harris put it in a 2011 blurb that proclaimed 1968’s To Russell, My Brother, Whom I Slept With the best comedy album of all-time, “taught a country infatuated with sentimental myths of domestic tranquility that children and parents are natural adversaries—and that their absurd clashes help make family life worthwhile.”

Then there is Bill Cosby: Himself, the 1983 film that captures Cosby at his best. Besides kicking the door open for his eventual reign at NBC, it forced an entire generation of comics and fans to rethink their understanding of his talent and to appreciate it anew. To quote Oswalt, from a celebration of this film’s legacy on the occasion of its 30th anniversary from GQ (which, it should be noted, Buress participated in):

“I’d heard all his albums and was a big fan. But to see him visually doing what he was doing, that was a big deal. Up to that point a lot of the stand-up I’d watched was very frenetic and they would run around onstage and be very active. He was sitting down but even more in control because of that. He was kind of controlling the volume of what he was doing and the impact of what he was saying.”

The film pushed Cosby into a new income tax bracket through the sitcom, commercial endorsement deals, book deals and his ill-fated attempt to become a movie star. It’s the kind of rare second act that very few folks in entertainment ever receive. He was set to settle into his twilight years with less relevancy but a great deal of respect, until…

All of that goodwill and quiet deference is gone for the time being, replaced by acidic feelings of disgust and bewilderment. Deals for a new NBC sitcom and a Netflix stand-up special were scrapped, and the many networks that were re-running Cosby’s many TV series pulled them from the rotation. Ticket sales for his stand-up dates started to dry up. And all of us who have spent the past few decades praising his work are left wondering what to do with the fragments of this shattered life and career.

Does he deserve this kind of cultural erasure? Considering the gravity of the crimes he’s being accused of, and the sheer number of accusers out there in the world, it seems like an appropriate response. Does he still deserve to be on a list of the greats in spite of all that? That’s where things get a little cloudier. Cosby’s work is certainly a lot easier to ignore now that much of it has been scrubbed from multiple outlets. But is negating its impact entirely the right move?

The issue for a lot us came down to the medium that Cosby has used to express himself for 50 years or so. Stand-up comedy feels, even when the person on stage is talking with a few hundred or a few thousand people, very intimate. That’s what made Himself so great: you felt like you were being talked to directly, being personally let in on these opinions and anecdotes.

You also can’t avoid the person holding the microphone. Take, for one small example, Roman Polanski. It is entirely possible to watch and enjoy a film like The Pianist or Rosemary’s Baby and not know who was behind the camera. Or say you stumbled across a great R&B song on the radio but didn’t know that it was Chris Brown singing it? Your opinion on it might only shift once that information was revealed. Stand-up comedy affords few chances for that kind of anonymity. Once you are in front of a person telling jokes, you get a clear sense of who they are. If there’s any solace to be found with Cosby, it’s that he has long kept his stand-up material clean and family-friendly.

The most important reason, though, that we kept Cosby off the rolls was that, to include him, would have felt like a slap in the face to the women who have bravely stood up and made their names and faces and experiences known to the world. To praise him while he was on trial for these crimes would have felt nothing short of gratuitous.

Even writing this essay doesn’t feel terribly good. You might not have even noticed that Cosby’s name wasn’t on the list. If you did notice, you might have completely understood why it was missing. But it feels important to acknowledge this weird, fuzzy, constantly moving line that we, as consumers of culture, have to reckon with whenever a celebrity does something awful.

Is it easier to overlook how Dr. Dre abused his girlfriends and female journalists in the past because of his continued relevance or because it was only a handful of women vs. the more than 50 women who have accused Cosby of assault? Is the public willing to ignore the similar allegations leveled at Ben Roethlisberger because he still could take the Steelers to the Super Bowl and isn’t some past his prime actor/comedian quietly stumbling towards irrelevancy? How does race factor into this, as it does into every other aspect of society? The fact that the public now largely treats these issues with the seriousness they deserve should be seen as a sign of progress, even if our justice system is still systemically unfair for victims and accusers. For all the lip service we pay to always believing a woman when she speaks up about such abuse, we have a long way to go to bearing that out in our everyday lives.

Original editor’s note from 2017: While we were preparing this piece for publication reports came out about Bill Cosby’s plans to host “town hall” meetings giving advice on how to avoid sexual assault accusations. We knew he was a monster—we didn’t expect he was a troll, too.—Ed.

Robert Ham is an arts and culture journalist based in Portland, OR. Read more of his work here and follow him on Twitter.

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