FeatureIssue 10

The Performance Artist or If He Did It: Cosby’s Show

Bill Cosby was once regarded as one of the great figures in twentieth-century American culture. Whilst he lacks the stature of a Chaplin, still his originality, influence and sheer talent remain unrivalled among his fellow comedians. Certainly no entertainer alive can equal his achievements as a path-breaker for black performers in popular media. However, Dr Cosby is currently most renowned – and has come to the attention of those under thirty unfamiliar with his achievements in the first place – for an alleged nasty habit of drugging women and assaulting them. At the very least he must be guilty of serial adultery on a scale unimaginable even by Charlie Sheen. (Sheen’s mistresses tend to be consenting and more or less conscious, which is why he is unlikely soon to stand trial; unless of course he is charged for knowingly infecting his bedmates – he has been HIV positive since 2011 and paid extortionists ten million dollars in hush money until he decided to reveal the fact in public himself in November last year).

Never has a figure fallen so far from grace so quickly: for almost forty years Dr Cosby had been one of America’s most beloved television personalities – anybody who had been a child or teenager in the 1980s grew up with The Cosby Show – but it took a mere month or two for him to be universally reviled as a rapist. He has been charged with serious crimes, though not convicted; even so the people have made up their minds: Dr Cosby’s public virtues and generous philanthropy were simply an act, and his former audiences are outraged to have been deceived for decades by such a patent hypocrite.

Dr Cosby’s public persona before November 2014 was that of an avuncular family man. His reputation for assertive moral rectitude was an early development in his career: he has always been as much a teacher as a comedian. In 1969, when he created The Bill Cosby Show (his first short-lived star vehicle for NBC Television – the theme song, Quincy Jones’s “Hikky Burr”, is better known than the program itself) he played a well-meaning young schoolteacher. His didactic TV programs for children (The Electric Company 1971–73; Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids 1969 and 1972–85; Picture Pages 1984–89) consumed so much of his life in the 1970s that he was even awarded a Doctorate in Education by the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in 1976 for a dissertation entitled ‘An Integration of the Visual Media Via Fat Albert And The Cosby Kids Into the Elementary School Curriculum as a Teaching Aid and Vehicle to Achieve Increased Learning’. His failed 2009 hip-hop/rap album Bill Cosby Presents the Cosnarati: State of Emergency was also fundamentally educational.

Until the 2000s Dr Cosby’s conservative didacticism was largely gentle and indirect, although he was well known to be frustrated with the self-indulgence, violence and nihilism of rap, hip-hop, R&B – of black popular culture in general. His work had also darkened since 1997, when his son Ennis was murdered in an attempted carjacking. In May 2004, at an awards ceremony for the NAACP commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the racial desegregation of state schools in the American South, Dr Cosby gave what is now known as ‘The Pound Cake Speech’: a furious attack on ‘Black Vernacular English’, black single-parent families, black consumerism – a wide variety of perceived evils in contemporary African-American culture:

 

But these people, the ones up here in the balcony fought so hard. Looking at the incarcerated, these are not political criminals. 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. And something called parenting said, “If you get caught with it you’re going to embarrass your mother.” Not “You’re going to get your butt kicked.” No. “You’re going to embarrass your family.”

 

Dr Cosby essentially blamed the ‘racial achieve­ment gap’ in America on blacks themselves. The speech was more impassioned than focussed, but the point seems to have been that the black community lacked strong father figures. Dr Cosby’s claims in this speech were not necessarily Christian; in fact he praised the Nation of Islam for contributing to lower crime rates wherever they were present. Still, his ideal seems to have involved a black America that sounds a great deal like Protestant white America, or at least shares its tastes and aspirations:

We are not Africans. Those people are not Africans; they don’t know a damned thing about Africa. With names like Shaniqua, Shaligua, Mohammed and all that crap and all of them are in jail.

 

William H. Cosby, Jr was born in Philadelphia on 12 July 1937. His mother was a maid; his father was a drunk. He has never touched alcohol beyond a single beer when he was seventeen, though since his twenties he has been fond of smoking cigars. He finished neither school nor an undergraduate degree, and served in the US Navy as a Hospital Corpsman from 1956 to 1960. He lasted a single year (1961–62) as a mature student at Temple University; having seen how easily he could make people laugh when working as a bartender he decided to seek his fortune in New York City as a standup comedian. Within a year he was appearing on national television, on The Tonight Show, and had won himself a recording contract with Warner Brothers to produce a series of comedy albums. His life was a version of ‘The American Dream’ – which wasn’t usually available for black men in the 1960s.

Dr Cosby became successful so early and rapidly because he was unthreatening. In the era of the Civil Rights Movement he was the opposite of an Angry Black Man: he was handsome, well-spoken and likeable; he never used foul language or discussed risqué topics; his material was resolutely ‘family-friendly’, and based around childhood memories rather than political outrages or racial tensions. In 1965 Dr Cosby became the first-ever African American to star in a major TV drama series. I Spy (1965–1968) was an escapist adventure series featuring a pair of secret agents in various exotic locations; the Cosby character (‘Scotty’) was a Rhodes Scholar with a gift for languages. The fact that he was black was scarcely mentioned throughout the program. I Spy’s importance is purely historical; the program is unwatchably dated now. Of far greater interest is Dr Cosby’s sixth comedy album, To Russell, My Brother, Whom I Slept With (1968). This record perfectly demonstrates his appeal, because not only did his style first crystallise in this performance; he had also figured out how to win an audience’s permanent trust.

To Russell, My Brother, Whom I Slept With is a masterpiece. Despite being only forty minutes long, it is the most influential stand-up comedy record ever produced. The performance was recorded at a large theatre in Cleveland, Ohio; Dr Cosby manages to manipulate his audience brilliantly with a minimum of effort. His greatest gift is for the illusion of intimacy: part of this involves his conscious use of domestic material – the struggles of bringing up daughters, of dealing with children, or of simply being a child in a chaotic household – he makes an effort to be ‘universal’. Thus he can elaborate at length on details, confident that his audiences will remember enough of their own childhoods to feel pleasant shocks of recognition throughout his routines. Twenty-six minutes of this album concerns Dr Cosby’s experiences of sharing a bed with his brother when they were children. The routine is scrupulously chaste, of course. There is no hint of crime, danger or a ghetto at­mos­phere. The air of innocence and guiltlessness puts the audience completely at ease.

Children are a continuing preoccupation of Dr Cosby’s. His performance style, with all its mugging, exaggerated poses and eccentric speech rhythms, is based on the way one talks to a two- or three-year-old. Simplicity, emphasis, the slow repetition of information – Dr Cosby’s secret as a performer is to play with his audiences as though they were his own toddlers or grandchildren. He acts as though he were teaching the spectator how to speak. His remaining fans continue to look up to him as though he were a kindly, friendly father figure. The paternalism is seductively warm and gentle, for the most part.

Throughout the 1960s and much of the 1970s Dr Cosby’s fatherly persona was limited to his stand-up routines and children’s programs. He was known to frequent the Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles despite being a married man with five children. It was only once his film career failed to take off that he began to present an exclusively virtuous public persona; from the mid-1970s he became increasingly famous for TV adverts (most notably for Jell-O, Coca Cola and Kodak film). By 1980 he was one of the most trusted celebrities in America. His 1983 concert film Bill Cosby: Himself cemented his image as “America’s TV Dad” even before he became an international superstar with his sitcom The Cosby Show (1984–1992).

The Cosby Show was the most popular TV show in America, and earned Dr Cosby hundreds of millions of dollars – he was so spectacularly rich that he even contemplated buying the NBC television network at one point. The program featured him as a well-off obstetrician with a lawyer wife and five children. Whereas Dr Cosby’s stand-up performances often focussed on his struggles to impose his authority on his wife and unruly children, his ‘Dr Huxtable’ character in The Cosby Show was very much a paterfamilias in control of his household. This added a certain edge to his benign absurdity, comical dancing and lengthy monologues: his powers to dictate and punish were never questioned; nor was his judgment. Yet the scale of The Cosby Show’s success might have affected precisely that: his judgment.

One begins to wonder whether Cosby began to believe his own shtick. He invented such an attractive domestic authority figure that he convinced even himself of his own infallible fatherly morality. The most scathing critique of the Bill Cosby persona will be found in the 1987 concert film Eddie Murphy: Raw. Early on in the show Mr Murphy tells the story of how Cosby rang him at home one day to chastise him for using too much foul language on stage. He tells much of the story in a Bill Cosby voice; the caricature is keenly observed and devastating. Mr Murphy was twenty-six years old when this film was made, and had looked up to Dr Cosby (then fifty) as a hero until he received this phone call – his wounded rage is palpable.

Mr Murphy ridicules Cosby as a deluded, fussy, hopelessly out-of-touch fuddy-duddy. This is teenage defiance in the face of paternal authority, with a touch of Oedipal revenge. Dr Cosby’s insistence on public decorum is made to look ludicrously silly. Yet Mr Murphy doesn’t dare accuse Cosby of hypocrisy in this routine, and is content to attack him purely for his middle-aged suburban cosiness. The satire is perceptive rather than penetrating; it never occurred to Mr Murphy to question his target’s integrity. Mainly he was angry and humiliated that a man he had never even met before had taken it upon himself to administer parental correction over the phone. But what was the basis of Cosby’s status as a moral legislator, other than the fact that he played one on TV?

Dr Cosby has been accused of extraordinary sex crimes; the accusations are reasonable and credible, and his responses to the allegations against him are not obviously those of a man with a clear conscience. He has his defenders: the comedian-activist Dick Gregory, the most distinguished and credible among them, suspects a widespread conspiracy against Dr Cosby. The comedian Damon Wayans mocks those who have publicly accused Dr Cosby of rape as “un-rapeable”. Eddie Griffin (who starred in Undercover Brother in 2002 and is otherwise best known for his impersonation of Michael Jackson on crack) wonders what his accusers were doing going up to the hotel room of a known married man, and dismisses the idea that Dr Cosby administered the sedative Quaalude to women as anything but a fashionable party drug.

Without question Dr Cosby has done a great deal of good: he has given away much of his fortune to worthy causes; his services to African-American culture are particularly laudable. As an entertainer and educator his virtues are many and genuine. He remains a great comedian – however, the general consensus now seems to be that Dr Cosby is a profoundly evil man. Women who have accused him of sex crimes number in the dozens, and no doubt there are many more who won’t make an accusation but might have good reason to do so. Dr Cosby appears to have exercised great cunning in his choice of victims – aspiring actresses and would-be models, for the most part, who could have easily been shamed into silence. If he did it, of course.

And the call to Eddie Murphy seems evidence of something more complex than common or garden sociopathy. Since it originally occurred in private, the call illustrates the enormous depth to which Cosby’s performance of moral righteousness must have sunk within himself; no longer simply an act, perhaps Cosby began to think himself incapable of doing wrong. If he did it. Why, would a man as rich, famous and powerful as Cosby feel the need to drug his mistresses? Perhaps to hide inconvenient facts from himself and maintain the coherence of his persona. After all, if you have sex with a woman but she isn’t awake to witness it then you can’t possibly be cheating on your wife…

Over the past twenty years Cosby’s vision has diminished to the point where he is almost blind; his memory and hearing have deteriorated; his once-athletic body is in visible decline. His cranky stubbornness has made his more recent performances either boldly original or punishingly self-indulgent: the standup routines have come to resemble free-form jazz more than comedy, and he entertains the spectator with routines that are as controlled, articulate and intelligible as a Jackson Pollock painting. Frustration, frailty and the decay of old age are the chief preoccupations of his comedy. Latterly he has won notably few new fans: to anyone not intimately familiar with his performances of the 1970s and 1980s this work simply looks bewilderingly, repellently bizarre.

Dr Cosby’s most recent (possibly final) concert film Bill Cosby: Far From Finished (2013) has a rag­ing wintry bleakness more appropriate for a per­formance of King Lear than a standup show; and yet Far From Finished may be one of Dr Cosby’s single funniest performances since Bill Cosby: Himself, despite the fact that his language seems to have degenerated to a mere random pattern of sounds. It is as though the comical ‘Cosby dancing’ sequences of the opening credits of The Cosby Show have taken over his entire act. Either this is a ‘late style’ of remarkable boldness, or Dr Cosby is now completely senile and has no idea what he’s doing – or what he has done.