Don’t for­get the good in the mid­dle of the Cosby tragedy

Daily Times (Primos, PA) - - ENTERTAINMENT - By Neal Zoren Dig­i­tal First Me­dia Tele­vi­sion Colum­nist

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...

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