I need to preface this week’s Before Shabbat with the following disclaimer: I have loved listening to and watching Bill Cosby for 50 years. From his I Spy days to all of his comedy albums to the Cosby Show: I couldn’t get enough. I learned the “Snowball” segment of Revenge by heart. I do a perfect impression of Fat Albert.
Cosby’s revolutionary humor was to veer away from one-liners and shtick, to long, rambling monologues about his life. And even if you weren’t a black, inner-city raised kid, you could relate to him and his escapades. His storytelling was thoughtful, intimate, and so well crafted. His timing was impeccable.
He would often sit in a chair in the middle of a big stage when doing his monologues. The way Cosby used his face; his smirks and eye rolls and the looks of shock, disbelief, mischief, and so forth, was truly brilliant. Every one of his gestures was enough to make the crowds howl. And we did howl.
I incessantly listened to Cosby’s early albums: I Started Out as a Child; Why Is There Air?; Revenge; To Russell, My Brother, Whom I Slept With, and more. You’d think with a comedy album, once listened to was useless. But no. I must have listened a 100 times and laughed at the same fabulous dénouements. I would be so pleased when a friend came over who never heard Cosby’s albums. I was proud to introduce them to a man I considered one of the funniest humans around.
Cosby’s allure was not simply that he was a fabulous storyteller comedian. It was not only that he was a black man redefining an entire genre of comedy. It was not just that his appearance with Robert Culp on I Spy declared a new beginning in the lily-white world of television drama. Cosby was a funny, successful, brilliant mensch. His stories were never vituperative or cruel. He made a point of describing real life with honesty and insight. He was not afraid to reveal his flaws and shortcomings as a father and as a husband.
NBC passed on the Fat Albert Show because Cosby insisted on making every episode educational. They just wanted entertainment. But Cosby would not edit the pilot and sold it to CBS.
Fat Albert always had a theme of honesty or loyalty or fairness. In the middle of the cartoon, Cosby would break in and talk for a minute or two or so, reiterating the lesson of the show. Fat Albert aired in 1972. I was 17 years old, and I religiously watched with my younger siblings and then, years later, my children. I distinctly remember singing with them, days later, weeks later, the refrain of a song that played on an episode we watched (there was always a musical interlude at the end of each episode repeating the lesson of the day): “There’s no fool like a fool/That’s playing hooky (hey hey hey)”…
When the allegations about Cosby began to surface, I couldn’t believe it. Someone with such a highly successful career! A teacher’s teacher! How could this man of moral rectitude, this giant of philanthropy, Doctor Cliff Huxtable, for God’s sake! How could Bill Cosby possibly be a sick sexual predator? There had to be a mistake, some explanation.
But of course, there is no explanation. Bill Cosby, over many years, abused the trust of women – many, many women. He lured them into his hotel suite, or at times, into his own home. He would coo and compliment and then offer a drink that he laced with a heavy sedative. Then Cosby would sexually assault them.
Could Cosby’s behavior be signs of profound mental illness? Could this need to express sexual dominance be a sickness? Or is it another post #Me Too realization of the depths to which a man can sink as he exercises a need for dominance and control? Is it another example in an infinitely long line of men who believe they are above the law, that sexually abusing women is somehow their prerogative?
A jury found Mr. Cosby guilty on three counts of assaulting Andrea Constand: penetration with lack of consent, penetration while unconscious and penetration after administering an intoxicant. These are felonies, each punishable by up to 10 years in state prison, though the sentences could be served concurrently.
I am disgusted, truly disgusted by Cosby’s crimes. I hope he spends the rest of his life in jail. After hurting, physically and mentally, so many women – perhaps as many as 50 or even more, Cosby deserves nothing less.
Now I have an existential dilemma. And I don’t know the answer to this conundrum. Can we separate the art from the artist? Is it politically incorrect to want to listen to an old Cosby monologue for entertainment’s sake? Can I still appreciate Modigliani? Or Picasso? Or Chuck Close? Knowing they sexually harassed models? Can I watch American Beauty, one of my favorite American movies? Or another one of my all-time favorites, The Usual Suspects, ever again? Or does Kevin Spacey’s predatory behavior make it taboo, or what we call in Yiddish, pahst nisht? What about Woody Allen? Should these men now be in herem (culturally excommunicated)?
I honestly do not know how to answer these questions. There are gradations of offenses, from harassment to actual physical violation. Do the gradations make a difference in how we should respond? Is it that the longer ago it is, the more we might find it acceptable to view or read the offenders’ art, while still condemning the behavior of the artist? Or is there no statute of limitations for any work by any man who has sought to use and abuse women as sexual objects?
I would appreciate your feedback on this vexing issue. How have you made peace from your perspective? Upon what principles do you base a decision you have made about this dilemma? Because I don’t know how to parse it. Not yet.
I applaud the strength and the fortitude of Andrea Constand, and the many other women who were hurt and damaged and raped by Bill Cosby. I am so deeply offended by Cosby’s behavior and his slick dodging of the truth. The number of lives he compromised and destroyed, hiding behind a well-built wall of deception and authority, is too high. It blots out the possibility of enjoying whatever old performances I might watch. And it may be that way for the rest of my life.
So long, Fat Albert.