Though media outlets have taken action against Bill Cosby in the last month following public allegations of rape against him, Tina Fey was calling out Cosby long before the the comedian’s shows were cancelled or his reruns pulled.
In a 2005 Weekend Update bit on Saturday Night Live, Fey and co-anchor Amy Poehler joked about a lawsuit that alleged Cosby had tried to molest a California lawyer. Both Poehler and Fey did their best impressions of the comedian since Kenan Thompson, who starred in Cosby’s Fat Albert movie, could not — “because of the Fat Albert and the money and the sequels.” Kenan ran out after the bit and joked, “I didn’t say any of that because Kenan Thompson loves to work, OK?”
Though Kenan’s hesitation to make fun of Bill Cosby was played for laughs, the punchline speaks to the reason it took so long for people in the industry to criticize Cosby — a powerful comedian with an intimidating legacy.
Not so for Fey, who took a jab at Cosby again in 2009 on her show 30 Rock. In an episode called “The Bubble,” Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan) threatens to quit TGS, and Jack (Alec Baldwin) tries to lure him back. One strategy Jack uses is getting a coworker to do a Bill Cosby impression on the phone.
But when he hears the Cosby impression, Tracy becomes enraged: “Bill Cosby, you got a lotta nerve gettin’ on the phone wit’ me after what you did to my Aunt Paulette!” he yells. When the confused impressionist says Tracy must be confusing him with someone else, Tracy shoots back, “1971. Cincinnati. She was a cocktail waitress with the droopy eye!”
Many missed the joke when it was initially made: Tracy often spewed nonsensical comments on the show. And the dig is subtle (again, perhaps because of the pressure to respect Cosby in the media). Tracy doesn’t come right out and say that Cosby assaulted his aunt, but in light of recent allegations that Cosby often drugged and then raped young women, that’s certainly what the joke is referencing.
Though it took many years, criticism from people inside the industry like Fey may have helped to empower Cosby’s alleged victims to speak out about what happened to them. It was Hannibal Burress, a 30 Rock writing alum, who helped kick off the recent Cosby debate with a stand-up routine he did on Cosby that circulated in October. Burress was not writing for 30 Rock in 2009 and had no hand in the Cosby joke on the show. But by forcing people to acknowledge what Cosby did (in explicit terms), he moved along a conversation that Fey was having almost a decade ago.