Don’t forget the good in the middle of the Cosby tragedy
Tragedy is defined as someone scuttling his or her own fate because of a fatal personal flaw or action that causes downfall. The more highly esteemed the person is, the greater the tragedy. Bill Cosby is a figure of tragedy. He was convicted Thursday in Norristown on three counts of indecent sexual conduct that involved drugging a woman, extended to women, and having his way with her. Cosby’s defense said the liaisons were consensual. The star witness and long-time plaintiff says no, it was assault, as charged.
Cosby stays under house arrest in a Montgomery County compound initially bought for his mother. Tragedy. Having to go to jail would be the greater humiliation. Many root for that. I don’t. Cosby’s indecent assault conviction is one part of a total life. I realize it’s a criminal part and that the crime is egregious. In the current #MeToo era, it would rank as unpardonable.
I, like others, have my own Bill Cosby story. In ways besides sexual preying, he was not always the nice, affable man he played in television and movies. To the press, he was often supercilious and condescending, taking a “Who are?” and “What do you know?” attitude even when nothing controversial or edgy was broached, an no one was raising issues or challenging anything.
A common thread during Cosby’s years in court whines of betrayal by someone whose image was so wholesome, instructive, and cooler than thou. While not, alas, resisting temptation to use a popular term, Cosby, by virtue of his 1980s sitcom, “The Cosby” show was dubbed “America’s Dad,” a moniker that is being used too snarkily and ironically now for my taste.
The grumble is “He fooled us. He made us think he was one person when he was totally another. We was cheated. We was robbed.”
My answer to that is a big, and usual for me, “So what?”
The nature of show business, of performance in general, is persona. Almost everyone you see is doing an act, casting an image that may do one of several things from eliciting laughs to trading on an impression of villainy.
“Impression” is the operative word here. I received a good, matter-of-factly stated, and brilliant idea of persona from two queens of stand-up and other comedy.
One is Rosanne Barr, who, gratifyingly, is able to stick out her tongue at people who want to deny her a place on television, a la Tim Allen, and pillory her by placing her personal politics above her talent.
Before Roseanne was a star, she played in a small club near Glenside’s Keswick Theatre. A definite up-and-comer, Roseanne traded on the observational humor of which Bill Cosby is a master innovator and told stories about her domestic life with a drone of a husband.
There was no such husband, and though Roseanne’s observations were accurate and hilariously related, the stories that revealed them were fiction.
With that naughty, intelligent gleam that Roseanne has made famous, she told me about the persona she wanted to create of a suburban Midwest housewife, struggling to get along in every way and having, among other things, to put up with this husband with whom she can’t remember how she got saddled.
Her act was an act. Clear and simple and totally legitimate as a mode to entertain.
Roseanne was claiming to be a person she mostly invented because that’s what would get a response from the comedy club audience.
Her strategy worked. The world got its laughs, Roseanne achieved stardom that lasts to this day, and no one was harmed. Not even when we got to meet the real Roseanne.
The other comedy genius in Phyllis Diller.
What woman, working in standup, is or has been funnier or more successful?
No, Lucy worked in scripted narrative comedy. Carol Burnett was more of a variety artist. Diller is the tops. Diller was in no way off-stage who she was on-stage. There was no Fang. There were no wild or stupid experiences. People outside of a theater didn’t see outlandish outfits and unmanageable hair.
They would have seen a woman who liked to bake cookies and lead a fairly sedentary and quiet life on the millions she made portraying a madcap.
There was no Phyllis Diller in real life, only on stage. In real life, she was Phyllis Ada Driver and happy to be so. The woman we saw was all an act. Is that a betrayal? Should we be angry? Should Miss Diller’s career be erased because her persona, well-crafted and convincing, was an intentional fraud?
Nor should Bill Cosby’s image of many years as a smart, stalwart patriarch who had answers to every question and a way to sympathetically address any issue, possibly after lampooning or making fun of it, be a source of rancor.
Forget it. It’s one part of a complex person who had favorable and nefarious traits, as most of us do.
Cosby’s are just more extreme than mine or yours. They run a gamut that starts with brilliant and ends in with diabolical. But the brilliant exists and remains.
Perspective is the key. Bill Cosby is who he always was and deserves full credit for some monumental achievement that were matters of luck but vestiges of his native wit and ability to create humor in stand-up and narrative television form. He also rates excoriation, via his conviction, for reprehensible behavior towards multiple women who experience the negative side of Cosby’s personality.
Bill Cosby is not all villain or criminal because he has been declared guilty of illegal acts in a Montgomery County court. Nor is he totally a creative, instructive genius who knew how to bring life and life lessons to television and other media.
“The Cosby Show,” “Fat Albert,” seminal recordings such as “Bill Cosby is A Funny Fellow…Right?” do not lose luster or rate fainter praise because the man who created them is, for now, guilty of committing rape.
Certainly, I’m not excusing Cosby’s sexual misconduct.
But I won’t deny him his rightful place in entertainment history, a fairly high place, because committed crime or often treated people we met in professional setting with disdain.
A person is the sum of his or her part, not a percentage of them. Sure, some people go too far on a scale and rate imprisonment. Cosby’s tragedy may include jail time or even dying in prison.
That doesn’t preclude his being a master comedian, a media innovator, a man who Imparted wisdom he sadly did not embrace, or someone who accomplished a slew of “firsts.”
He was the first black performer to co-star prominently in a television drama series, “I Spy.” He was the first to create and star in a television situation comedy that crossed over and appealed to general audiences internationally in a way that blessedly overrode ideas of creed or race.
“The Cosby Show” is a television landmark and deserves to be. That fact does not go away because the show’s creator might, and in handcuffs.
One problem I see in today’s world is a vindictive penchant to curtail or deny any productivity if someone transgresses against a fashionable political code. Even one that might be just as invented as Phyllis Diller or Roseanne Barr’s acts.
It’s time for me to trot out my favorite quote, which I’ll paraphrase, “People do not have their vices and virtues in neat little sets. They have them randomly.” This comes, with some doctoring for clarity, doctoring that doesn’t change or diminish the original quote’s intention, from George Bernard Shaw’s “Heartbreak House.” It puts so much into perspective. A perspective is needed. Listen to Bill Cosby’s recordings from the early ‘60s. Note his acceptance into a wide community, a breakthrough for a black performer of his eras. See how we was chosen for “I Spy” and broke a color line that could be considered tantamount to Jackie Robinson’s. See how he earned a doctorate in education at the University of Massachusetts. Look at all he did to promote a rather brief alma mater, Temple University. Notice the brilliance in concept, writing, and presentation of “The Cosby Show.”
The “pro” side of Bill Cosby’ scorecard is chock full of positives, real and undisputed. The “con” side, no pun intended, is the tragedy.
You don’t have to feel bad for Bill Cosby. In the spirit of true tragedy, he sealed his own fate. But I find gloating at his collapse as distasteful as some mitigations I’ve heard spouted regarding his sexual behavior.
Perspective is called for. My hope for Bill Cosby and others embroiled in similar tragedy is that achievement will be noted as such even as justice, assuming that’s what occurred in Norristown, takes its course.
Actor and comedian Bill Cosby reacts while being notified a verdict was in in his sexual assault retrial last Thursday at the Montgomery County Courthouse in Norristown, Pa. A jury convicted the “Cosby Show” star of three counts of aggravated indecent...