Children Will Listen
Jack Paar was the host of what would become The Tonight Show on NBC from 1957 until 1962, too early for me to have any awareness of him, but a key figure in television history.
And he wrote a book, at some point in the early 1960s; he wrote several, I think, but this one sat on my parents' bookshelf until I got bored and pulled it out one day.
I remember it felt old, even though the stories mostly took place within the past decade of my life. Many names were unfamiliar, but there were plenty of origin stories, first appearances by famous people. And he wrote about Bill Cosby.
As I recall (I don't have the book), he told an anecdote about Cosby's big break on the show, his first national television appearance. As Paar was introducing him, praising the young comic, he heard Cosby's voice from backstage.
"I don't NEED it."
He needed no help, in other words. A supremely confident performer for his young age, in other words.
I knew who Bill Cosby was, of course.
Ask a comedian around the age of 60 for his or her earliest comic influences, and you'll almost always hear about Cosby. The 1960s were in some ways the heyday of comedy albums, and children will always listen. Cosby was funny, silly, understandable, easy for kids to grasp, and his albums were everywhere.
Then there was his TV series, I, Spy, a prominent place for a black performer to be at that time. I watched his first solo effort, playing a high school coach in his first eponymous sitcom. I enjoyed seeing and hearing him whenever he was on. He acted and directed films. He played Vegas. If I read his name somewhere, I usually kept reading. He tended to show up a lot.
In 1984, when my wife and I were expecting our first child, we watched The Cosby Show every week. It was fun to see the comic slip into sweaters and become a 40-something frustrated father, and it was a huge success, spawning spin-offs and books on parenting by Cos.
The books are where he started to lose me, by the way. Cosby obviously saw himself as an authority on the subject, being a father and being Bill Cosby. He had a TV show and everything. He had a doctorate in elementary education, earned when he was in his late 30s, which he obviously took seriously: his Cosby Show credit of "Dr. William Cosby, Ph.D." was an awkward error (either the title or the degree, not both) that struck me as obvious ego, and confused me. WTF, Cos? Not enough strokes?
But the books and his opinions were not confusing. Dr. Cosby had himself some thoughts on parenting and he wasn't shy. He was still funny, but he had definite ideas and there wasn't a lot of shading.
Then there was the string of comments and speeches and presentations where he harangued the African American community for failing itself, which felt like harsh honesty at first and then started to sound a little weird. Nothing is that simple, certainly not civil rights and child-rearing. And it was about then that I finally figured it out.
Bill Cosby is sort of a dick.
At some point in the late 1970s, my dad would sometimes get free tickets to shows at Celebrity Theater, a big venue in Phoenix at the time (still around). I saw some unlikely acts via this, including The Fifth Dimension (um, fun, I guess), but I jumped at the chance to see Bill Cosby.
Phoenix is a one-hour flight from Los Angeles, and this was a one-off. He flew in, did the show, flew back. It wasn't a national tour, as I recall; just an evening with Bill Cosby.
It was funny, also as I recall, but what I remember is his opening. As usual, Cosby came out and joked with the audience, talking about Phoenix and the flight over and asking people questions, etc.
And at one point he did something that made my young heart, overloaded with show biz aspirations, beat a lot faster. He mentioned a woman's name, asking if she was in the audience.
Look: What I remember is mixed up with what I was thinking at the time. I can't reliably quote the man. The gist, at least in my mind, was that someone, apparently a young woman, had reached Cosby with some sort of request. I imagined that she was a budding entertainer of some sort, maybe a comedian. He told her from the stage to come back after the show to see him.
It felt nice, to me. A famous man graciously offering some advice, or at least access, to a young person with stars in her eyes. That's what I thought. That's how I remember it. That's all there is, too.
Of course, now that's all I think about. That young woman. Backstage. Cosby.
I stopped paying attention, for the most part, 25 years ago. I just wasn't interested. I admired his consistency, his perseverance, his longevity. As he aged, he just became a cranky celebrity in my eyes, still funny but with occasionally odd political views and personal philosophies. He just faded from view, replaced by fresher voices. He was the same age as my parents, after all. I'd moved on, and he faded from my view.
None of the above counts for anything. I didn't have special insight. I wasn't the only one who thought he'd become a little unlikable in his later years. I have no idea what happened with the young woman in Phoenix.
I didn't predict any of this, in other words. I didn't feel justified in any way for earlier opinions when his crimes became apparent.
These sorts of celebrity crimes can be awfully fuzzy, but I've never doubted that justice gets tilted in the favor of fame and wealth. Actor Robert Blake probably murdered someone, and he went free. O.J. Simpson definitely murdered someone. I don't know what Michael Jackson did with those kids. Maybe nothing.
But justice has a way of slicing through the niceties of law. Simpson was one of the greatest running backs in football history, and his achievements on the field won't be remembered, not the way they would have been. Michael Jackson's legacy will always be tainted by self-inflicted wounds of questionable choices and just being a big weirdo. No one gives a shit about Robert Blake.
And a show business giant, who should be comfortably resting at the top of a historical pyramid, the star on top of the tree, has had his career disintegrate and his legacy dissolve. Poof. That's at least a little justice.
I've had wildly varied reactions to the #MeToo stories. I've been horrified by a lot of them (Charlie Rose and Matt Lauer, two people I rarely watched, seem to have pushed buttons in me for unclear reasons). I've been suspicious of a couple. I've been mystified by at least one (Louis CK--who does that?). Some of them were obvious crimes. Some seem to be just men being assholes, which is nothing new. I can't work up sympathy for any of them. My sympathies lie elsewhere, sorry.
But Cosby lit a fire of self-righteousness in me, and it felt dangerous. It wasn't disappointment; I mean, O.J. Simpson was my first sports hero, when he was a junior at USC, and though I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt for a bit, I had no problem figuring out that situation and I wasn't confused by sentiment in the least.
I must have given Cosby some benefit, too. I understand how famous people can be targets, it's not hard. And I probably assumed it would go away, that payments would be made and suits settled, and the truth would remain blurry and, eventually, lost.
Dozens of women, though. Dozens upon dozens, all with similar stories. Stories about fame, about access, about celebrity, about youth. About a predator who drugged women and raped them. Outrageous, cried his friends and family. Lies, said his supporters.
Oh, it happened, said the man himself. His released deposition softened the details, but he was under oath and we'll take him at his word: he routinely gave women pills to help them "relax," and then he had sex with them. Maybe they were awake, maybe not. I'm asking here, is this really a crime? A little adultery in a long marriage with a young woman? A little Benadryl?
You say Benadryl, I say Quaaludes, let's call the whole thing rape. Shall we?
Maybe it was just that, the overwhelming evidence, the truth leaking out of his own mouth. Maybe it was the betrayal of a culture that deifies people who make us happy on purpose.
Maybe it was his fellow celebrities, his friends, who understandably support him but now are smeared with his awfulness. Phylicia Rashad and Damon Wayans weren't exactly in my top ten but perhaps you can forgive me if I ignore them for the rest of my life. Sure, you never saw anything remotely sinister in your buddy, I get that. You stand up for him when he's in trouble; we all get that.
But the man admitted drugging women and then having sex with them, so. You guys do what you need to do.
None of this, though. Not really. I think.
I don't think it's about growing up with Cosby, listening to his routines until I'd memorized them. It's not about watching him for my entire life on TV and in films. It's not about admiring his skill, his intelligence, his wit, his mastery of the medium. Bill Cosby was just the best, he was. That's not it. I think. That's not why I will be very satisfied if he spends the rest of his miserable life in prison.
I think it's because he preyed on hope. Because he leveraged his talent and success to satisfy his darkest demons. Because he took women with dreams to spare, and he assaulted them. He hurt them, and he didn't care.
And mostly? I think because 40 years ago, I might have watched him doing it.