How to Think About Bill Cosby and ‘The Cosby Show’

To the extent that America still has a collective cultural memory, it’s comforting to have the happy stuff to hold on to. And it’s depressing to arrive at a juncture that forces us to let some of that stuff go. For much of its eight seasons, “The Cosby Show” (which ran from 1984 to 1992) was foolproof happiness, and the primary source was Bill Cosby. Now, at the close of a depleting, inconclusive criminal trial, we’re back to reckoning with what to do with him and whether it’s still possible to laugh at his comedy.

The moment that Americans would probably cite as peak “Cosby Show” bliss happened in 1985, during the second season, when the Huxtable family lip-synced to Ray Charles’s “Night Time Is the Right Time,” for the 49th wedding anniversary of Cliff Huxtable’s parents. You forget how much Theo leans into the opening verse, from the stairs, and how Sondra, Denise and Vanessa are barely there as Raelettes.

But that’s only because what everybody remembers, what everybody still melts over, is wee Rudy’s pretending to belt the climactic Margie Hendrix part. (“Bay-bay!” Hendrix screams, “Bay-bay!”) All the comedy comes from the incongruity of a snaggletoothed kindergartner mimicking, with all her might, a grown woman’s yearning. She didn’t fill Hendrix’s shoes — who could? — but her trying to suffices as a definition of joy.

Rudy became the show’s secret ingredient. When a scene called for authentic precocity, she would blurt out something, grin or just say her kid-chauvinist pal’s nickname: “Buuud.” Cuteness like that helped, in 1986, make the actor who played her, Keshia Knight Pulliam, the youngest-ever Emmy nominee. Cuteness like that made Rudy a textbook definition of “little sister.” Her percolating feminism eventually made her more than cute. If anything about television remains sacrosanct, it’s Rudy Huxtable.

So it was alarming to see Ms. Knight Pulliam accompany Mr. Cosby, the man who played her father, Cliff, to a Philadelphia-area courtroom. While a jury couldn’t agree on whether Mr. Cosby drugged and then sexually assaulted Andrea Constand, more than 40 women have told similar stories about him. The accusations date back at least 50 years — nearly his whole career. Ms. Knight Pulliam was there purely as herself but also to tug at our memory. She and Mr. Cosby posed for a photo that Mr. Cosby’s official Twitter account made public.

For three strange years, we’ve openly renegotiated our relationship with Mr. Cosby, struggling to square his television celebrity with these women’s accounts. Before the allegations surfaced, it was merely Mr. Cosby’s lecturing about other people’s behavior that could be vexing. His notoriously shortsighted rant arguing, more or less, that black people are their own worst enemy, at a 2004 N.A.A.C.P. commemoration ceremony, helped tarnish his saintly glow. Comics like Eddie Murphy and Kenan Thompson turned Mr. Cosby’s demand for black rectitude into searing comedy. But respectability politics is where you could imagine a socially conservative Cliff Huxtable arriving at. Multiple counts of sexual assault is not.

The abuse accusations exploded any pretense of rectitude and instigated one of the most stunning reversals of a public figure’s reputation that modern America has ever experienced. It’s a small fraction of the pain and bewilderment his accusers say they’ve suffered, of course, and yet, because Mr. Cosby’s show made him seem like everybody’s father, we’re bewildered, too.

As a nation, we’ve never known what to do with our fondness for the work of men who have become troublesome. We force ourselves to practice impossible moral surgery that hopes to cut off the artist to save the art. Mr. Cosby’s mistrial just further extends our permanent impasse with certain great figures and their problems.

Tainted black entertainers present a compound conundrum for African-Americans. If achieving success in this country is twice as hard for black people, it’s also doubly tough for black people to flunk their own. Individual guilt — or the appearance of it — is weighed against so many centuries of national blame and racial injustice, against the ways the legal system and law enforcement disserve black people.

Mr. Cosby’s accuser Andrea Constand leaving after the judge declared a mistrial at the Montgomery County Courthouse in Norristown, Pa.
Mr. Cosby’s accuser Andrea Constand leaving after the judge declared a mistrial at the Montgomery County Courthouse in Norristown, Pa.

That history shouldn’t be enough to exonerate Mr. Cosby, and yet, for some of us, like the folks who’ve been cheering for him outside the courtroom these last two weeks, it’s enough to cast suspicion over Ms. Constand, her supporters and Mr. Cosby’s other accusers. It’s enough to obviate Mr. Cosby’s own admission, in 2005, of procuring drugs for extramarital sex.

Some of his black support is partially about him and what he’s meant to black America — which is far greater, by the way, than it was for O. J. Simpson, who, even after renouncing his being a black American, discovered that black America couldn’t bring itself to renounce him.

Embraces like that are crucial stand-ins for a whole people that includes slain teenagers, motorists, pedestrians and passengers, as well as dubiously convicted or harshly sentenced sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, cousins and friends. That fealty may not be rational, but what about America is?

This is a symbolism Mr. Cosby surely understands. He knows what his work means. He knows, in the minds of his black supporters, what this trial represented. But what was disheartening during Mr. Cosby’s trial was what he chose to do with his work. He weaponized it.

Ms. Constand gave poignant testimony. Mr. Cosby declined to take the stand in his own defense — yet he tried to make statements in the court of public opinion. Hence, his barking, on his way out of the courthouse, the famous “Hey, hey, hey” catchphrase from his Saturday-morning cartoon, “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids.” Hence, Ms. Knight Pulliam’s dismaying deployment, seemingly, as an instrument of stratagem.

As stunts go, this was cheap. At last check, Ms. Constand hadn’t accused Cliff Huxtable of anything. The notion that Mr. Cosby could make a moral escape through an alter ego is absurd. But it was also shrewd. We’re still unsure how to respond when men are accused of harassment and sexual assault. When those men are famous and powerful, the confusion becomes more acute. Mr. Cosby knows this. Mr. Cosby probably knows that for a long time he was sacrosanct, too.

He helped create “The Cosby Show,” which almost instantly became one of American television’s most important programs, for its portrayal of black people as happy, stable, well off and free of white oppression and guilt; for sneaking into typical sitcom high jinks occasional, hilarious, often poignant lessons about gender equality, friendship and marriage; and for proving that such a depiction could be a ratings winner.

Cliff Huxtable would have made no sense during the wilder, more disillusioned, acutely politicized climes of the 1970s. The Huxtables were notable not simply because they were black but because there was nothing flamboyant or ideological about their blackness. On “The Jeffersons,” which ran from 1975 to 1985, George Jefferson’s business success left him with a chip on his shoulder and a bone to pick with white America. Cliff and Clair Huxtable ran an opposite sort of household, one that played Ray Charles records, and one where Christopher Plummer might stop by and perform Shakespeare from the living room sofa. They mattered in a way few other television families had.

That’s what’s so bruising about Mr. Cosby’s stab at extralegal self-exoneration. He exploited how much his sitcom really did matter — as much to America as for him. He implied that its importance either outweighs his misdeeds or made inconceivable the prospect of his assaulting one woman, never mind dozens more.

Dragging the Huxtables into the trial also suggests that “silly, affectionate TV dad” is the only version of Mr. Cosby we’ve got. That’s untrue. In the mid-to-late-1970s, he starred in a few hit movies that have nothing to do with the affluent, innocuously jolly obstetrician he played on TV. At the movies, Mr. Cosby could be smooth, immoral and a little creepy.

Watch a movie now like “Mother, Jugs & Speed,” a comedy from 1976, and a kind of negative clarity comes over you. He plays Mother, the beer-swigging ambulance driver for a crooked Los Angeles company. (It’s sub-sub-Marx brothers material, with Mr. Cosby as Groucho.) Mother gets his kicks running nuns off the road. “Takes the place of sex,” he jocularly says of the pleasure he presumes the nuns receive from his harassment. At some point, Mother delivers B12 shots to a woman while also being serviced by others at a sex parlor, and he jokes about procuring a rape whistle for Jugs, the rudely pursued secretary and aspiring driver, played by Raquel Welch. The movie, astonishingly enough, also has a scene in which the sleaziest driver (Larry Hagman) attempts sex with an unconscious coed who has overdosed on Seconal.

Mr. Cosby in the movie “Mother, Jugs & Speed.”
Mr. Cosby in the movie “Mother, Jugs & Speed.”

Between 1974 and 1977, Mr. Cosby made three unruly but emotionally satisfying uplift comedies with Sidney Poitier, who directed all three of their collaborations, the last of which, “A Piece of the Action,” showcases Mr. Cosby’s proficiency at upbeat lechery.

He and Mr. Poitier play Dave and Manny, thieves who wind up working together at a Chicago community center, pretending to be successful businessmen on the up and up. (It’s a long story.) They need a crucial morsel of information from the community center’s director, Ms. French (Denise Nicholas). To attain it, Dave, played by Mr. Cosby, volunteers his “ultimate weapon”: “sex appeal.”

“She’s got eyes for me. Now all I have to do is take her out,” he tells Manny. “One thing leads to another, and at the end of the week, anything I ask her about anybody, she will tell me. She will smack her mama if I tell her to.”

Manny doesn’t seem convinced, but Mr. Cosby gives Mr. Poitier the signature Cosby pucker and peacock, the very gestures he used to hawk Jello-O and lip sync to Ray Charles.

Dave takes Ms. French to a nightclub. At one point, she retreats to the ladies’ room to deal with her hair. The camera watches her walk away as Dave shudders with delight. In her absence, another woman arrives, in a robin’s-egg-blue dress, lays her arm on his shoulder and complains that he hasn’t danced with her yet.

“Now if you don’t dance with me,” she says, calmly, “I’m a holler ‘rape.’”

“Is that a request?” he asks.

“What, the rape or the dance?”

“Don’t make no never mind to me” is Mr. Cosby’s braying, exclamatory reply.

And off they race to the dance floor, where Mavis Staples and Curtis Mayfield’s “Koochie Koochie Koochie” is playing. His moves are an early version of the tight, stuttered stepping he’d go on to do in the opening-title sequences of “The Cosby Show” — only here he’s loose and casually nasty, and having the time of his life, pretending to smash himself down then yank himself up. His head, for most of this routine, is at his partner’s hips. (Ms. French, by the way, is still in the bathroom, unwittingly part of some endless, cruel cosmic joke against black women and their hair.)

It’s alarming to discover — or remember — that the same popped-eyes and smacked lips Mr. Cosby used to delight children has previously been used, without much differentiation at all, to pursue women for sex.

Obviously, none of this amounts to legal guilt. But it’s useful to remember this ’70s Bill Cosby. Milking our collective cultural memory — while demonstrating a perverse selective memory of his own — constitutes stratospheric cynicism, or perhaps, a professional death rattle. Still, if Mr. Cosby wants to play games and wink at his work for sympathy, he should wink at all of it.

Guilty or not, Mr. Cosby’s courthouse behavior acknowledged an additional trial: the one going on in our hearts. I don’t need a jury to know that this trial has worn mine out. For at least half an hour, “The Cosby Show” kept at bay the tide of bad news from the outside world while never skimping on the glories and hassles of being alive. The show became the oasis we needed. But real trouble has intruded. And now the oasis is condemned.

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