“I don’t know what I’m doing by telling you. I guess I want to just at least make it weird for you to watch Cosby Show reruns.” —Hannibal Buress
Mission accomplished. The re-examination of rape accusations against Bill Cosby that Hannibal Buress — and a growing number of women subsequently coming forward with their stories — helped trigger has changed a lot, fast. A story that had largely lain buried for years is suddenly everywhere. And that has apparently ended Cosby’s late-career comeback: NBC quashed an in-development Cosby sitcom, while Netflix pulled a standup special planned to air the day after Thanksgiving.
The most important stakes here are about justice, not TV shows. But as Buress suggested, the cultural stakes are not about Cosby’s future — they’re about his past, his legacy. On the one hand, the public is hearing that a beloved entertainer has been accused of using his power to sexually prey on women for decades. On the other, that entertainer created a long-running TV show that was a landmark not just of entertainment but of American society.
The Cosby Show is part of our history; it can’t be erased. (Even if TV Land has pulled its reruns.) It’s funny, insightful, moving, great. But it is now also — whatever you think of the allegations and the real-world consequences — weird, in a way that’s hard to shake.
To be clear, I’m not asking here whether it’s “OK” to watch The Cosby Show. The moral question of whether to support an artist financially is a different one (and, as Todd van der Werff points out at Vox, whether or not you watch reruns will make very little difference to Cosby’s bottom line now). I don’t want to police that call, and if we ejected every questionable artist from the canon — abusers, bigots, reprobates — our bookshelves and movie queues would be a lot lighter.
But it seems hard to hear what we’ve been hearing and not feel anything different when watching Cliff Huxtable making faces and dispensing wisdom. “Innocent until proven guilty” is a standard for the courts, for good reason. But it’s not a standard for life. If what you know or hear about an artist affects the way you see their work, you can no more will yourself to feel otherwise than you can force yourself not to blink.
Of course, bad people can create great works. People are complicated. Art is complicated. And so is the question of whether you can separate the art from the artist — the answer is different for every creator and every audience member. Whatever you think of the disturbing allegations against Woody Allen, for instance, there’s a good argument that although his movies have often relied on his persona, they don’t depend on your considering him a morally upstanding person. (Even if some, like Crimes and Misdemeanors, turn on issues of morality.)
With The Cosby Show, though, Bill Cosby the person is throughly and intentionally baked into it— his identity, his persona, his claimed authority. It’s not a show made as if it wants us to separate the art from the artist, and not just because “Cosby” is in the name.
Cliff Huxtable isn’t — like “Jerry Seinfeld” in Seinfeld — a carbon copy of his creator. But Cosby invested himself in Cliff in ways that were deeper and more binding. He drew on his own life, patterning Theo’s struggles in school, for instance, on his own son Ennis’ diagnosis of dyslexia. Cliff and the show shared Cosby’s interests in African American high culture, especially jazz.
Cliff liked what Cosby liked, felt what he felt, argued what he argued. He may have had a different job, but more important, he had Cosby’s sensibility and sense of didactic purpose. As Mark Whitaker pointed out in his biography — which ignored the rape accusations but delved deep into Cosby’s creative life — the comedian mingled his real and fictional lives so thoroughly that during the first season that “the producers and director started to notice something telling. When they were discussing scripts, he would sometimes slip and refer to his character as Bill instead of Cliff.”
That was part of the power of The Cosby Show: people’s affection for Cosby transferred to Cliff, and their respect for Cliff rebounded to Cosby (who at the height of the show’s popularity wrote the best-selling Fatherhood). Everything about this relationship between artist and creation said: Cliff speaks for me. And what Cliff had to say was also, deliberately, instructive: about how parents should speak to children, how white Americans should see their African American neighbors, how men should regard women. (See, for instance, the running jokes spoofing the clueless chauvinism of Sondra’s husband Elvin.)
I’ve rewatched those episodes a lot lately, especially in the last few years as my kids have discovered the reruns on Hulu. They’re still funny and powerful. They stand up, and they stand on their own. But they’re also designed to work, in part, by drawing on the moral authority of Cliff and, by extension, Cosby.
We shouldn’t erase The Cosby Show‘s place in TV history — the way it changed comedy, represented the unrepresented and reframed African Americans in pop culture — even if it were possible to do so. No one owes it to the rest of the world to stop liking The Cosby Show. But it’s also understandable if, this time, you can’t easily “separate the art from the artist,” when the artist worked so hard and so effectively, for so long, to meld them together.
The Cosby Show is a great, important, transformational piece of American culture. Nothing Bill Cosby does or has done in real life can ever change that; nor can that ever excuse anything Bill Cosby does or has done in real life.
But will it ever, entirely not be weird? There is no statute of limitations on that.
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