The Bill Cosby Issue: Processing the Fall of an Icon

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This is an email exchange between Grantland’s Wesley Morris and Rembert Browne, which was set to have begun on Monday, actually began on Wednesday, and wrapped up today.

Rembert Browne: I think that the fact that it’s taken us 48 hours to start emailing each other about this sheds some light on the complicated nature of thinking of Bill Cosby as being accused of being a serial rapist.

It doesn’t make sense, and then when it begins to make sense, you don’t want it to make sense. Because it tramples so much of what you thought you knew. And not just what you thought you knew about Bill Cosby, but what you thought to be undeniably true about good people. It rattles your beliefs about the identifiable qualities of a good man, a good father, a good husband, a good black American archetype.

It’s a lot, Wesley. Which is why I wanted to discuss it, instead of allowing it to continue living inside my own head. Because this is that nasty family secret that everyone knows about but no one ever wants to bring up. And we’re all a part of the family. We’re all Huxtables. And even though it’s very public now, this isn’t new news. Yes, the accusations are Cosby’s dirty secret, but also all of ours. He’s the one who is accused, but we’re not completely off the hook, exempt from fault and shame.

Cliff Huxtable was a great man. But Cliff Huxtable was not Bill Cosby, no matter how hard we all tried to treat the two as one. We all thought Cliff Huxtable was great because we thought he was an extension of Bill Cosby. That’s the great trick of naming the show The Cosby Show, even though there are no Cosbys in it. It provided Bill with the much-needed mask of Cliff.

Cliff Huxtable is great, because Cliff Huxtable is fictional. Bill Cosby is real. A real man who may have done terrible things.

Wesley Morris: To take your “we’re all Huxtables” idea further, this is the murk of cognitive dissonance in which we find ourselves whenever a noble or talented man is potentially exposed as disappointingly or disgustingly human. Our presidents, preachers, and sport figures, our fathers, freedom fighters, and filmmakers: Throw a rock, hit an adulterer or a sex offender, or worse. Bill Cosby presents a particularly peculiar occasion for dismay. His forward-facing self has been the opposite of — though not at odds with — what at least 15 women have bravely come forward to accuse him of being: a monster.

One goal of Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, of The Cosby Show, of A Different World, was to make us want to be our best selves, to lift us up, all of us, to show us what we could be — not just Cliff and Clair, but also the rainbow of children the casting department blessed them with. This Bill Cosby — the cool paterfamilias — wasn’t a lie. This Cosby still feels like the truth. We watched him simultaneously subvert and fulfill the expected TV-family narrative. His self-belief indoctrination worked for me. I spent six seasons of television watching black college students learn both how to be students and how to be citizens, and strived to become those myself.

I had parents and teachers. I was smart and worked hard. I want to say I would’ve succeeded without Cosby’s entertainment empire, but his fictional family and his fictional school were often on my mind. They molded me, too. I grew up in Philadelphia, the home of Temple University, whose most famous face was Cosby’s. There was barely a day I didn’t see that puckered expression in a cap and gown beseeching me to follow his lead.

The public hand-wringing going on right now makes sense. What should we do? What’s the right thing to say? If you acknowledge even the faintest role Cosby has had in sculpting your perception of blackness, class, jazz, jazziness, Ray Charles, Shakespeare, the living legacy of the civil rights movement — how would you begin to reject that?

This is where, for me, the crux of the situation — this Cosby shit, to quote a disgusted colleague of ours, Rem — differs from, say, the case of a Roman Polanski or Woody Allen or R. Kelly. Polanski, Allen, and Kelly have given us art. Cosby gave America a vivid new way to see itself. I can — and do — applaud Netflix and TV Land and NBC for cutting (or suspending) their connections to Cosby. But I can’t suspend my connection to him. That’s where a lot us of are, made miserable by the possibility of this other truth, severing a cord we thought would endure forever.

It’s strange to watch this story mount while the children of a star of A Different World and the star of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air more or less reject Cosby’s social philosophy and belief in formal education. We laughed and scratched our heads. (I’m still doing both.) But maybe those little brats are onto something.

Rembert Browne: “Separating the art from the artist” presents so many dilemmas. But this Cosby situation is different. It’s a different category. It’s a much harder idea to deal with, separating the trailblazing from the immoral. In a perfect world, we could go Garfield Minus Garfield on The Cosby Show — he wouldn’t be there playing bass while Theo sings James Brown. But that can’t happen. Thankfully, that show is bigger than Bill Cosby, and even Cliff Huxtable. Important people and characters from the series deserve not to be erased or forgotten or discredited. But unfortunately, the lines between reality and fiction that the Huxtable family blurred have become clear. This is an important show. An important, fictional show. Going forward, The Cosby Show can never be real, ever again.

Cosby was more than a comedian — he presented himself more like Booker T. Washington than Richard Pryor. He wouldn’t let us think about him as just a comedian or an actor, so much so that for the last decade, I’ve thought of him less as funny and more as an avatar of curmudgeonly, demanding black respectability. But even when he annoyed me, I found myself respecting him. Or at least passively listening, in that way that you open your eyes and shake your head when Grandpa is speaking. Because he was an elder. And elders had earned their right to say and do what they wanted.

Respecting my elders is now out the window. “But they did this … ” has finally become meaningless. Because it’s a tactic that’s long convinced the masses to turn a blind eye to this preacher or musician or professor over here, that director or athlete or politician in Harlem over there.

It’s a type of denial that’s dangerous. And it’s a denial that I think stems from this inherent desire to strive for greatness, and wanting to believe that if you achieve that greatness, you suddenly cannot be flawed. Even though we know that success and the appearance of an upright morality don’t suddenly deem one immaculate, we still want it to be true. We still want things to be true, to feel sacred, even though we’re constantly reminded that few things that seem true are true, and that too often nothing is sacred.

This Cosby shit — this is a story of betrayals of trust. Both his accusers and the public trusted Bill Cosby. To your question of “what should we do?” my only answer is that we have to stop pretending.

Wesley Morris: I’m angry. I’m angry for Andrea Constand, Barbara Bowman, Tamara Green, Joan Tarshis, Janice Dickinson, and the other women who’ve come forward and those who haven’t. I’m angry that a man who bemoaned Eddie Murphy’s obscenity and black children’s low self-expectations made it nearly impossible for us to bemoan him. Comedian Hannibal Buress called that near-impossibility Cosby’s “public Teflon image.” That image has fallen away.

Rembert, you’re right to express wariness over the force field of wisdom, real or projected, and perceptive to sense that deference to agedness has propagated across centuries of exploitation, abuse, and transgression. Cultures foster a sense that elders are wise, that wisdom is a side effect of the character-building imperfection of experience. What I think you’re getting at is how respect differs from the benefit of the doubt. Cosby prospered amid the assumption that the former afforded the latter, of their conflation and confusion. Reports of Bowman’s story mention Cosby’s wanting her to trust him. That seemed to be part of his lure: paternal concern. That was his lure with us: Father knows all.

This wave of the story began to crest after Buress did publicly to Cosby what Cosby had tried to do privately to Eddie Murphy: shame him. Buress said he wanted to make it difficult for us to watch Cosby Show reruns, wanted us to think about what it meant to love this man, wanted to show us that there should be hard conditions on that love and that Cosby had violated them all. Until this week, when his upcoming show was taken off the 2015 schedule, Cosby had been able to remain a god at NBC. This summer, I had already been thinking about what Cosby really stood for in 2014.

The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon - Season 1Douglas Gorenstein/NBC

On August 19, he was the first guest on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. He came out and did a more doddering than usual version of Doddering Bill Cosby — apparently, his eyesight is less than great. He stood upstage of the furniture next to Fallon’s desk and spoke out to the studio audience. It doesn’t really matter what he said. It was Bill Cosby doing scat, pretending to dodder but not well enough to stop you from forgetting that he’s 77.

As he rambled to the audience, Fallon stood behind Cosby and attempted one of those interpretative improv imitations in which the comedian mocks a speaker while lip-syncing what he says. Fallon took advantage of the bonus of his speaker being Cosby. He did a lot of Cosby’s flailing hand gestures and hula-hoop half-steps, but because Cosby wasn’t actually saying anything, Fallon couldn’t quite stay on the ride. Or: If they’d rehearsed this, Cosby had gone on too long, and Fallon somehow had to get him back to the couch. They’d been using the box on the desk that holds markers as a sound effect, and Fallon used it to draw Cosby back to the shore.

Finally on the couch, Cosby slouched back and told a joke about sex with his wife, Camille: Basically, the punch line was that the most frightening words you can hear when you’re 77 and intimate with your wife are “keep going.” Actually, Cosby told the joke twice because, the second time, he wanted Fallon to do something with the box that held the markers. This was news to Fallon, who screwed up the joke again, sending Cosby to the floor in exasperation, which seemed to sincerely worry Fallon, who ended the segment there with a plug for Cosby’s live show the following month in Syracuse.

Rembert, I can’t tell you how strange this was then and how depressing it is to remember now. This was August, during the unrest in Ferguson. The other guests were Tiger Woods, of all people, and Rory McIlroy, who’d come on to play a game with Fallon. Well, McIlroy played. Woods was injured and could only look on.

At the time, there was something soothing in seeing one of America’s favorite comedians make a fool of himself on a late-night talk show — Cosby, of course, being black, Fallon white. They joshed with each other while the state of Missouri hoped the people of Ferguson would obey the enforced curfew. Those who did obey it might have arrived home and found themselves seated before Fallon’s show, which was a playground of benign yet profound cross-racial collaboration.

The only reason to bring any of this up at all is that Cosby and Fallon’s jovial awkwardness was so irrelevant compared with every terrible thing happening on earth at the moment that two segments of it seemed too many. But I also couldn’t get past the fact that the only joke Cosby told was one about sex with his wife, in which she was more or less raping him. There was something lewd about his insistence upon telling the joke and conscripting Fallon to help him. Generally, Fallon is an everyman fool. That night, he was standing in for us, the other enablers, pantomiming what we’d been telling Cosby since the rape allegations surfaced years ago: keep going.

The Cosby ShowNBCU

Rembert Browne: Since we decided to trade emails, several more women with accusations against Cosby have emerged. There’s a Tiger Woods–like “how many people will say something today?” feel to the situation, but the damn, Tiger, you were really out here flabbergastedness of that serial infidelity bears no comparison to the horror of rape, especially considering that what we know now is not necessarily the sum total of what Cosby could be accused of, given the circumstances.

And these realizations only intensify when you acknowledge how he’s responded to the allegations. There was the complete silence from Cosby when asked about it by NPR’s Scott Simon last weekend. And then, in November 6 Associated Press footage released on Wednesday, Cosby has the audacity to respond to questions about the allegations with, “No, no — we don’t answer that.”

The level of real-life patronizing is akin to Cliff Huxtable speaking to Theo — the degree of, This is over, we’re moving on, because those are the rules of this house. And this, with Camille by his side. As the official interview ended, but with the cameras still rolling, Cosby spoke to the interviewer.

Now can I get something from you — that none of that will be shown.

And then when that issue is debated among Cosby, the journalist, and someone off camera, when the interviewer refuses to provide a definite “we will not show that footage,” Cosby begins to question the interviewer’s integrity. It’s not just patronizing — it’s meant to be intimidating. It’s something you don’t want to be on the other side of. The confident calm he displays in this stressful situation, the deliberate pace at which he talks, the way he looks at the journalist he’s scolding — it makes it seem like you’re talking to a kingpin of sorts. The type of person who could convince you to stay quiet — or else. A man who knows that even when he’s in trouble, he’s not in trouble.

As the standoff continues, you can feel other speakers who have joined the conversation attempting to fulfill Cosby’s wishes. When Cosby says to a second person off camera, referring to the interviewer’s superior, “You need to get on the phone with his person — immediately,” you can already feel Cosby gaining full control of the situation. You can see how he’d executed damage control for years, how he can manipulate his surroundings in such a staggering fashion. And it truly begins to make sense why people stayed silent and the media turned a blind eye. Because Cosby can convince you that he can end you.

For the past week, my opinion of him has centered on what he has been accused of and how terrible it is. But since I saw that AP interview, it has all existed through this idea of some nasty old man.

Now, Bill Cosby is terrifying. He scares me. But thankfully, after decades of that fear working on others, a few people have had enough, and are no longer scared of what he could do to them. Yes, good on Buress for raising this in a public setting, but good on everyone who’s tried to bring this to the forefront, for years. It’s terrible it took this long. And it’s terrible that it took an act of breaking rank and tradition — a black male comedian coming at his black male comedian elder — for people to finally begin considering this a real story. But we can’t go back and change any of that. All we can do is acknowledge every single terrible aspect of it: Cosby’s failures, the media’s failures, the culture of denial’s failures. And try to move forward.

Wesley Morris: I’m with you: forward. I’m afraid, however, that we could be in for weeks more of disclosures and confessions, of looking up at the airport or the gym and seeing Ashleigh Banfield or Don Lemon trying to prosecute this mess. In the last day, I’ve moved on to some new stage of the Kübler-Ross grief model, somewhere between depression and acceptance. We broke up with someone this week, someone who intimately hurt a lot of people, someone in whom we’ve made an investment.

With this sort of serial case, whether it’s within a biological family, a larger extended clan, or a vast cultural tribe, there’s always a ruse that’s performed. We give him the perpetrated love that he uses for evil — it’s an emotional Ponzi scheme. If Bill Cosby is found guilty of having raped these women, I don’t know what the legal punishment can be. But, watching that AP footage, I was drawn back to the winter and the defiance of old Donald Sterling, whose self-defense against his racism was inviolable power, the power of control and suppression and denial. I thought about the psychological warping of the woman — his mistress — who brought him down.

Cosby’s alleged damages are far more vast and insidious. But it led me to a similar conclusion: He has to live with himself, even if there no longer appears to be anyone home.

Filed Under: Culture, Bill Cosby, The Cosby Show

Rembert Browne is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ rembert