January 6, 2016

How do you solve a problem like Bill Cosby?

(With apologies to Rodgers and Hammerstein)

How do you solve a problem like Bill Cosby? 
How do you make believe he never was? 
How are you going to fill that empty sweater? 
You brush him out! You close your eyes! Because! 

Many a thing you know you’d like to tell him, 
How evil he was, that he will understand 
That soon there will come a day 
When you make him go away 
By telling him all his TV shows are banned!

Does that sound too flippant? I hope not, because I don't want to make light of what is a serious situation. There can be no doubt that if even some of the accusations against Bill Cosby are true, then he is guilty of having done horrendous things to women, and for that he should be justly punished. We must leave all that for the courts to decide.

But in the classic TV universe world, this raises another question, the one in that awful parody of the famous Rodgers and Hammerstein song, namely, this: does he now become a non-person, someone to be erased from the television timeline, as easily as we used to be able to erase a VHS cassette? What, in fact, does one do with Bill Cosby?

I gave this some thought last week while perusing through one of the classic television message boards. One of the posters commented that he could no longer watch any of Cosby's old shows, because every time he would see him on-screen the images of his supposed crimes became too vivid for him to ignore. Another respondent offered that he could still watch a series like I Spy, in which Cosby costarred with Robert Culp, precisely because it was so far away from the Dr. Huxtable role that everyone knows and loves - he could not, however, take seriously a program like Fat Albert.

My own first reflection was that this was not unlike how we look at Richard Wagner. Yes, Wagner was an anti-Semite; yes, he was, in the words of Fr. Owen Lee, a "terrible man," but that one could still respect his art. I can see where one might be repulsed by Cosby playing the role of father figure to women and girls, and that would be similar to Wagner writing an opera with an overt "Kill the Jews!" theme - it cuts too close to the bone. But going as far back as I Spy, where Cosby plays a tough, clever and dryly humorous American spy, one might be able to appreciate the show on its own merits, without thinking it a sanctification of Cosby the man.

Now, it's true that scandal, particularly of the moral kind, has ruined more than one career, going all the way back to Fatty Arbuckle. Pee-wee Herman's career took a definite hit from his bust for indecent exposure, particularly since there was something so childlike about his career*, but he's hardly been driven out of show business. Hugh Grant nicely survived a prostitution scandal, as did Jerry Springer (who didn't become a star until long after the scandal). Bob Crane's sex scandal didn't come to light until after his death (or as a result of it, actually), but the perception is that Crane didn't prey upon women, and that in fact he was the victim of a brutal murder, rather than the perpetrator. So why is Bill Cosby different? Why do we feel so much angst about his situation, and think ourselves suckered for having fallen for his charade?

*Ironically, one of Herman's defenders was Bill Cosby, who was quoted as saying, "Whatever (he has) done, this is being blown all out of proportion"

In the current issue of Opera News, Washington Post critic Philip Kennicott comes close to addressing the subject in an article regarding political correctness in opera. While noting that a listener often needs to keep "some degree of intellectual distance, and historical context" in order to appreciate certain operas considered problematic today, he says there are often obstacles to that distance:

Complicating this, however, is a deep-rooted contemporary need to personalize our relationship with art and artists. We want Mozart to be a nice man; we feel alienated from Wagner because he so manifestly was not one. We expect artists not just to offer us material for thinking about morality but to be moral exemplars themselves. 

Of course that can, and does, apply to Cosby. After all, where do we see this more than in television, where oftentimes it's a star's likability quotient, rather than any inherent merits of the project itself, that is used to sell a series to networks and viewers? If you put Bill Cosby in a colorful sweater, had him make silly faces and dispense fatherly advise, you were guaranteed to have a ratings winner. Kennicott adds that we have "this odd need to think of artists like friends, to be as invested in their character and personality as in their art." Is this it? Are we so angry with Cosby because we feel he's personally betrayed each and every one of us who ever watched and enjoyed his shows?

*Full disclosure: I've never been a Bill Cosby fan, so it's hard for me to measure this. I always liked Robert Culp in I Spy better than Cosby, and I never watched any of his sitcoms, so I can't say if I'd feel betrayed by his actions or not. Consider the use of "we" as artistic license.

To me, it seems that the actor who perhaps comes closest to approximating Cosby's situation, albeit in a much more serious way, is Robert Blake, who was tried in 2004 for murdering his wife. Even after his acquittal (although, a la O.J. Simpson, he was later convicted in a civil trial), there seemed to be a consensus in the classic television world that any chance of a complete-series DVD release of his most successful series, Baretta, was likely doomed, despite the fact Blake's trial came over two decades after the series ended,* and that Baretta himself was a character you rooted for and respected, but didn't feel particularly cuddly about.

*The first season of the series remains the only one to be released on DVD, in 2002 - before Blake's murder trial.

In theory, one should be able to accept Baretta on its own terms, just as one could watch Cosby's many series without confusing his real life with his fictional creations. Why don't we? Perhaps, then, I was wrong in thinking that one could separate Cosby from his roles in the same way that one could separate Wagner from his music. With Wagner, or any other composer for that matter, we see him only through his music - an indelible impression, to be sure, for composition is an intensely personal expression, one in which the composer leaves his DNA embedded in between the notes. However, the image we have of the composer is one of colors, of lines and lyrics taking on certain hues and swirls using the pallet of the imagination. We can instantly recognize Wagner, Puccini, Bernstein or any other composer, by the sweeping strings, the indescribable melodies, the aggressive rhythms. We may intensely associate the music with something that happened to us while the music was playing, and in that sense it conjures up an often vivid image. But we don't actually see the composer, unless we happen to be staring at the picture on the album cover.

On the other hand, the magic of television has always been that it is not only a visual medium, one where it can be quite difficult to separate the actor from the role; it is also an intensely personal, intimate one as well, where viewers welcome stars into the privacy of their homes as invited guests. It is therefore natural, one supposes, that revulsion over an actor's actions can bleed over to their past performances, that the actor himself becomes so closely identified with his off-screen behavior that the viewer can no longer disassociate the role from the actor playing it. If that means audiences are more likely to see Cliff Huxtable as a fraud, one who uses a the facade of a harmless, fatherly sage in order to prey upon women, then Cliff Huxtable - and his show - are in one hell of a mess. No wonder viewers feel betrayed.

And thus we may come to understand the situation of why so many people are up in arms about Cosby, but it brings us no closer to answering the question posed at the beginning of this article - how do we solve the problem? What do we do with him? Some will never be able to look at Bill Cosby again without seeing the faces of the women he's accused of sexually abusing; they'll never again see him as a kindly doctor or a fatherly sage, and that's fine if they can't. For those who can maintain a distance, I suspect they can watch at least some of Cosby's former series without losing a great deal of the enjoyment they once enjoyed, and that should be fine as well.

For the point I'm making, it would seem, is that the past is; it can't be changed, no matter how hard you might desire it or want it to be so. And Hollywood wasn't called the Dream Factory for nothing; it was the place where dreams came true, where anything could (and often did) happen. And so, ultimately, we must reconcile ourselves to the two Bill Cosbys: one an actor, the other a human being. To the women whom he violated and those who feel he betrayed them, his actions are those of a terrible man. To his fans he is the truthful artist, seen in the warmly human roles he played and the pleasure he gave people who watched him. Is it that much of a stretch to believe that both of those Bill Cosbys were real, and that both can - and must - coexist? Is it that much of a problem?


  1. Why don't WE do what WE did with Clinton:
    1. Say it never happened.
    2. Think up a new definition of what happened.
    3. MSM destroys the lives and careers of women involved.
    4. It happened so long ago, it doesn't matter.
    There you go, that's what WE do, ow, I forgot he's conservative, never mind.

    1. Hi Anon,

      I followed most of what you said, but I'm missing one point - who's conservative? And are we talking politically, ideologically (which isn't the same thing), lifestyle-wise, or what? A little more information would help.

  2. I think what anonymous was saying is that the moral failings of those who espouse traditional conservative values, as Cosby has done in his chastising of parts of African-American culture, are treated as more unforgivable by the media. Whereas those of a Bill Clinton, or a Lena Dunham, or anyone else that thinks climate change and Planned Parenthood are the two most important causes in the world today, tend to get more of a free pass.

    1. Ah, that's an interesting hypothesis. I thought he might have been hinting at that, but I couldn't be sure. I'd love to explore that at greater depth, but I fear it would get so far into politics and away from classic TV that it would become something I've tried to stay away from here. Maybe we'll bring it up on the other blog.

  3. I'm sure that's what's going on here. How else do you explain the continued reverence for Woody Allen while Cosby is shunned?

    1. You know, this is getting to be a more interesting question all the time. You could include Roman Polanski in that as well. I'd like to get more feedback on this - perhaps it is something that should be discussed here?

  4. This is such a fantastic article Mitchell, and I don't think I can answer any of these questions you and your readers are asking. And I don't necessarily want to. I think, in short, my feelings with Bill Cosby are very conflicted, and that's OK. Sometimes there are no answers. (But it's always good to keep asking the questions.)

    1. Thanks so much, Amanda! I'm glad you like it! And I know what you mean - I'm not sure there's an answer either, but one of the things I most like about getting out of competitive politics (which I'd been involved in when younger) is that you don't have to have an answer to everything. As you say,sometimes the question is enough.

  5. It's an interesting question, and one that's also relevant Down Under as we've had a similar case of the lead actor (also playing a father figure) from a once-popular long-running sitcom recently accused, charged and convicted of a series of sex offences against young females, one of which was a co-star on the same show.

    While it was a series that many people cringed at, even before we knew anything of this situation, any memory of the series (which ended 20 years ago) is now essentially tarnished because now we know what was going on behind the scenes.


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!