The truth is, Bill Cosby stopped being funny a long time ago.
It hurts to write that. I grew up watching The Cosby Show and A Different World (Cosby's other popular sitcom). Those shows have had a major influence on the man I've become. Cliff Huxtable, the loving father on The Cosby Show, was upstanding and open-hearted, strict, but not too strict. Cliff wasn't perfect—no father is perfect—but he was a model, like all good fathers should be. A good man.
With the Huxtables, Cosby established an "idealized version of family life." The Cosby Show quickly became the most popular sitcom on TV and, with the creation of A Different World, Cosby anchored the most successful TV programming block in history around fatherhood and family values. For five consecutive seasons, from 1985 to 1990, Cosby was the highest rated show in households on Thursday nights. Cliff was America's Dad, and Cosby's significance as a world-building TV pioneer was undeniable.
But Bill Cosby is not Cliff Huxtable. Cliff Huxtable was fiction. Hilton Als reminds us: "The power of fiction is that it includes everyone." The power of Cliff Huxtable was his ability to embody many meanings. We all saw fragments of the dad we knew or the dad we wanted in Cliff.
Bill Cosby, now, has become something other. He has become something more repulsive. We can no longer ignore the multiple allegations of rape that have been hurled at the legendary comedian. Fifteen women have accused Cosby of sexual assault. For so long, Cosby has been indestructible—beyond fame, his comedy and TV careers afforded him a cozy and safeguarded place in the public imagination. Not unlike Michael Jackson or Joe Paterno, our belief in Cosby's goodness and what he personified far outweighed the generations-old grime hidden underneath the mask. His importance became so immeasurable that, among particular circles, speaking ill of America's most beloved dad was treason—no matter how crazy he sounded from time to time.
But more victims keep coming forward and we can no longer look away.
The accounts of Cosby's terror are gruesome.
Joan Tarshis, while on the set of The Bill Cosby Show, 1969:
We went up to his cottage after they were done shooting. That's when it happened. He offered me a drink. It was a red eye, a bloody mary topped off with beer. He always made the drinks; he didn't have a bartender.And then next thing I know, I was being undressed on his couch. I was so out of it. But I remember saying to him—I thought I would outsmart him—I said, I have an infection down there, and if you have sex with me, you're going to get it, and then your wife will know. He immediately switched to another orifice, which was worse.Yes. He was holding me down. He's much bigger than I am. He's very big. I couldn't resist. He was forceful. He definitely used force. There was nothing I could do except wait for it to be over.
Janice Dickinson, on meeting to discuss a role on The Cosby Show, 1982:
After dinner, in my room, he gave me wine and a pill. The next morning I woke up, and I wasn't wearing my pajamas, and I remember before I passed out that I had been sexually assaulted by this man. The last thing I remember was Bill Cosby in a patchwork robe, dropping his robe and getting on top of me. And I remember a lot of pain.
Barbara Bowman, on multiple incidents, 1985:
In one case, I blacked out after having dinner and one glass of wine at his New York City brownstone, where he had offered to mentor me and discuss the entertainment industry. When I came to, I was in my panties and a man's t-shirt, and Cosby was looming over me. I'm certain now that he drugged and raped me. But as a teenager, I tried to convince myself I had imagined it. I even tried to rationalize it: Bill Cosby was going to make me a star and this was part of the deal. The final incident was in Atlantic City, where we had traveled for an industry event. I was staying in a separate bedroom of Cosby's hotel suite, but he pinned me down in his own bed while I screamed for help. I'll never forget the clinking of his belt buckle as he struggled to pull his pants off. I furiously tried to wrestle from his grasp until he eventually gave up, angrily called me "a baby" and sent me home to Denver.
These three accounts are barely a fraction of Cosby's alleged destruction. There are more women. There is more horror. Andrea Constand. Tamara Green. Beth Ferrier. And perhaps countless other women who have yet to voice their pain. It is, as Roxane Gay said, a "history of violence." Collectively, these stories paint Cosby as a calculating sexual predator. It is ugly and sad and terrible. All of it.
Accepting Cosby's malicious and repeated sexual assault on women means reconciling it with a part of the past that many of us hold dear. There are moments from childhood that echo loudest. Although The Cosby Show never covered the subject, there was an episode of A Different World that dealt with date rape. The episode remains important, but it becomes increasingly difficult to buy into the integrity of its message knowing, by that time, the creator had possibly assaulted several women.
In recent months, 77-year-old Cosby attempted a comeback; he was set to release a comedy special on Netflix and develop a sitcom for NBC. Both were nixed as more accusations came to light. Yesterday TV Land announced it will no longer air reruns of The Cosby Show. There will likely be more blowback in the coming weeks.
Tuesday night, while at dinner with friends, I asked if the rape allegations would eclipse all that Cosby has achieved in his career. I was curious if Cosby and his legacy could somehow survive the storm.
There was silence, followed by heavy sighs. "No, I don't think he will."
We all shook our heads. Nobody wanted to believe it. But deep down we knew the accusations were true, and that Cosby's career and legacy were over.
The truth is, Cliff Huxtable was a lie and Bill Cosby must now confront the truth.
[Image by Jim Cooke, photo via AP]