Comedians do not tell the truth.
The criminal Bill Cosby was sentenced on Tuesday. Pending some unspeakable parole scheme, or perhaps dying in prison, or some third option, we’re all going to have a seat for the sad spectacle of this aging monster ripening in a dark hole. And while all decent people abominate our nation’s inhumane and barbaric jail system, there are times where we all make an exception. Moments when locking a feeling creature away from light seems necessary.
This is one of these times. Bill. You appalling grotesque.
A lot has been written about Cosby’s privilege. How he represents the worst of us. How news of his predation dovetailed with the rise of #MeToo. How he is a poster child for the misogyny and sexism and abuse that powers our society. But I don’t want to talk about any of that. We need to talk about Cosby’s comedy. Comedy is a complicit partner in Bill Cosby’s crimes.
The privilege given to comedians gave Cosby a free pass. Comedy throws laurels and love at antisocial pedants who lecture us about honesty and goodness. Quotes them. Fawns on them. Calls them prophets and servants of the truth. It’s okay to be a deeply vile human being, as long as you’re funny, right? Comedy let Louis C.K. come back to the Comedy Cellar. Comedy will allow anything.
It was comedy that raised Cosby up, and comedy that allowed him to skitter around the margins for so long. It was his stance as brave, comedic truth-teller that allowed him to spend decades as a preening moral jackass. There was a reason your idiot relatives forwarded you emails with racist remarks attached to Cosby’s name.
On January 24, 2004, a nineteen-year-old named Timothy Stansbury was shot in New York by Officer Richard S. Neri Jr.
Stansbury, unarmed, opened a door onto a rooftop that Neri was patrolling. Neri was suspended without pay, stripped of his gun, and not indicted. The NYPD settled a wrongful death suit for two million dollars. January 2004 is also the time Andrea Constand went to Cosby’s house in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania.
Four months later, in the middle of a decade of police brutality and wrongful death, after raping Constand, here’s what Cosby said in his Pound Cake speech:
These are people going around stealing Coca-Cola. People getting shot in the back of the head over a piece of pound cake! And then we all run out and are outraged, ‘The cops shouldn’t have shot him.’ What the hell was he doing with the pound cake in his hand? I wanted a piece of pound cake just as bad as anybody else, and I looked at it and I had no money.
The speech is the effort of a practiced sociopath. That’s plain to see. But it’s also the work of a man who’d larded his public persona with so many corny, down-home “humorous” stories, that he was taken at his word.
The man’s mainstream comedic chops allowed him to flatter white audiences for decades and sell out the African-American community. Especially poor African-American people, at a time when they were being jailed, harassed, and abused in record numbers. Cosby was the most prominent mainstream Black comedian in American for twenty years. And that’s what he did with his position. Felony and Pound Cake.
I never found Bill funny, except when I was a little child. But millions of Americans did. By the time he entered his dotage, he had stopped being even the faint image of funny, if he ever had been. But people still cracked up when he would make some inane, lame aside. As if he had earned free yuks for keeping it real all these years.
Because he was a comedian.
This decade-spanning huckster made a few funny faces on-air during the Reagan Years, and the public ate it up. Unless you grew up in those days, it is hard to understand how ubiquitous and beloved Cosby was. It’s like comprehending how people thought of the President in the ‘40s. Unless you lived in LA or New York or cared a lot about comedy, there was one comedian, and his name was Bill.
Let me get to the heart of the matter, in case I’ve been too subtle. Comedy let Cosby do what he did.
It’s true that plenty of other wealthy and powerful men abused their positions.
But nobody called Cosby on it, because we all knew who he was: a scolding, yet warmhearted Dad. Right? Isn’t that why it was so hard to believe these women? Deleting Cosby meant removing Cosby’s comedy, and Cosby’s comedy was, after all, the “truth.” That’s what comedians do, right? Tell awkward truths?
When he browbeat young men for not pulling their pants up, when he repeated damaging lies, when he berated and abused other people—well, that was just Our National Father being cranky, right? And hadn’t he earned that? Comedy tells the truth, right? I can almost hear Twitter: It’s unpleasant and hurtful sometimes, but hey, it’s comedy. Stop being so sensitive. Laugh a little.
But comedy is not the truth. Comedy is entertainment. It is no different from the people on American Idol who sing pop hits written by Scandinavian algorithms. There’s not a hair-width separating comedians from Jimmy Buffet, Stephenie Meyer or Thomas Kinkade. Comedy is a calculated, deliberate attempt to provoke a reaction from the audience.
We think comedy is different. Perhaps it’s because comedy exists in a weird twilight space between socially acceptable and edgelord contrariness. We see one comedian, Jimmy Fallon, and another, Richard Pryor, and we assume they’re a species apart. But the truth is, they’re the same. One’s an epochal genius, the other’s a vaudeville clown, but they’re engaged in the same business.
Your maturity as a comedian or consumer of comedy hinges on accepting this. Despite being the most mainstream comedian imaginable, the cloak of comedy covered Cosby from the first moment of his fame.
Comedy is not the truth. Comedy is an act. Sometimes it tells the truth, but that’s incidental. Cosby’s entire persona was an act. People took it for the truth. But here’s the truth: William Henry Cosby Jr. is a serial rapist who’s going to prison.
Jason Rhode is on Twitter @iamthemaster.