I haven’t had much to say about the Bill Cosby controversy, because every time I start to write something, another columnist makes the point for me.
DeWayne Wickham did a good job in his USA Today column and Cynthia Tucker hit other bullseyes in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (link removed). I agree with each of them. Then there are those like Cal Thomas, who twisted the controversy into some sort of conservative vs. liberal political diatribe to further an agenda that has nothing to do with what Cosby was saying.
Still, all of those writers missed some points.
Cosby plays by his own rules. He did it in the 1980s with his NBC sitcom, when he had to fend off criticism that the Huxtables didn’t accurately reflect a “real black family.” That was nonsense, of course, because the Huxtables were based on Cosby’s own family. To say there was no place on television for an upper-middle-class black family — that the only true black TV experience was represented by life in the projects a la “Good Times” — is to argue that the white side of the equation couldn’t include both “Roseanne” and “Frasier.”
Speaking properly is obviously one of Cosby’s pet peeves. Last year, at the Emmy Awards, co-host Wanda Sykes was wandering through the audience, talking trash while pointing out and picking on celebrities. When she spotted Cosby, she stopped to ask him how he managed to keep a number one show for so long. Cosby could easily have given her some bland remark about the cast, the network, etc. Instead, he replied, “We spoke English!”
Cosby even makes his own rules on stage. My wife and I went to see him in concert a couple of months ago — he was on the short list of comedy legends I’d always wanted to see but never had — and we were amazed. He’s still a brilliant storyteller, who sets himself apart from other standups by understanding the simple concept of pacing, the value of the pause, that there’s no need to rush a well-written routine.
In Cosby’s world, a concert doesn’t have to take place at night, or in the early afternoon for a matinee. This show began at 4pm — not because he was going to do another show that night, but because that’s when he wanted to perform. It didn’t bother the audience of 4,000 at the Fox Theatre, which rolled in laughter throughout.
About 90 minutes into the show, as he finished one lengthy story, Cosby announced, “Now, I’m going to walk off this stage for a couple of minutes to use the bathroom. But I’ll be right back, so don’t go anywhere.” I had never seen a performer do this before, and wasn’t sure if he was serious. Many others in the audience thought it was an intermission and headed for the bathrooms themselves. They were very surprised to see Cosby back centerstage three minutes later, launching into yet another routine.
He kept performing for another hour. That’s a total of two and a half hours, a remarkable amount of time for a one-man comedy show. Most comedians consider their act to be complete at 75 minutes. Cosby did twice that. Not only did he never look fatigued, he was also all over the stage, up from his chair to prowl about as one character or another, even getting down on his hands and knees to act out one routine about his childhood.
Cosby is a true elder statesman of show business. To some, he may seem like a cranky old man, but that’s unfair. When you achieve that lofty position — earned through a combination of longevity, success, and respect — you can express honest opinions without worrying about who might be offended. You don’t care about political correctness anymore, because the truth is vital, no matter how much it stings.
Let’s hope that at least some of the people who heard or read Cosby’s remarks at Howard University take them to heart.
Bill Cosby released this statement to clarify his remarks and rebut the criticism.