A couple of years ago, in conversation with a childhood friend on Facebook, we began recalling the hours spent in my basement listening to the early comedy records of Bill Cosby. Suddenly, a business associate from my adult life joined in, demanding to know how we could reminisce about this, given the many allegations made against Cosby, and the one out-of-court settlement, regarding his sexual assaults on women. Because the dialogue was focused on fond memories, not Cosby himself per se, and because this associate wouldn’t let it go, I unfriended him. I did so despite the fact that I knew of the charges, believed them, and had already ceased to enjoy Cosby’s new work. At that moment, however, I just wanted reverie.
I did not then, nor do I now, countenance any of the actions with which Cosby is charged. I abhor them. I feel deeply sympathetic towards, and supportive of, any woman who may have been harassed, drugged or assaulted by him. I wish that he could stand trial for what he’s been accused of, so that he could be tried in the judicial system and not solely in the media. This is a case in which justice will likely never be done, in which there will always be unanswered questions – especially from Cosby himself, whose silence, as they say, speaks volumes.
But I can’t deny how much Cosby’s comedy meant to me in my youth. Long-unseen friends recall it readily at a distance of 40 years. The only time my brother and I came together peacefully as kids was to listen to comedy recordings, which we committed to memory. Later, when I lived with my parents for a year post-college, my family gathered in the room in our house where my godmother spent the final year of her life, promptly at 8 pm on Thursday, to watch The Cosby Show.
So what do I do with treasured recollections in which an alleged predator played a central role? How can I even remember the work with warmth – work which in and of itself seems timeless in much of the material – even as I disavow its creator?
Audiences in England faced these same questions when the pedophilia scandal at the BBC arose, first over the late Jimmy Savile and a bit later over Rolf Harris. I followed those stories in horror and disbelief, though it was Harris whose work I actually knew: his novelty hit “Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport” was a staple on the Dr. Demento radio show, another touchstone for me. In the case of Harris, who also became known as an artist, communities began removing his paintings and eradicating his murals. This is akin to what TV Land has just done by removing The Cosby Show from their line-up, to dissociate themselves from the now irrevocably tarnished brand and likely because no advertiser would accept the association. But in each case, those who were entertained, unknowing, must reconsider their relationship, to the men, and to the work. Let’s not forget that Stephen Collins, who portrayed the father on the popular family drama 7th Heaven, is under scrutiny for what appears to be self-admitted incidents of child abuse, surfaced during his contentious divorce proceedings.
In the cases of Savile, Harris, Collins and Cosby, the issue is criminal actions against others. Unconscionable. As an aside, it’s worth recalling that Paul Reubens was immediately shunned two decades ago following his arrest for masturbating in a porn theatre – a crime, at odds with his role as a Saturday morning children’s performer, but in that case a victimless one. Though he managed to secure acting roles intermittently, it’s only in the past few years that his Pee Wee Herman persona has been publicly embraced once again. I wonder whether his resurrection would have been possible had his transgression occurred in the era of social media – or whether he might have been rescued by it. Certainly it is social media which has allowed the long-standing allegations against Cosby to engage the public consciousness at last.
I could go underground with my appreciation of Cosby’s work, but that feels hypocritical. I cannot rewrite my past, even as it is – and should be – impossible to reconcile it with what has reemerged in the past few weeks, with greater traction than ever before. Given the enormous influence of The Cosby Show, I’m certainly far from the only person in this confused state; I suspect my affinity for the comedy recordings may be somewhat more rarified, especially among those younger than I am. No doubt I Spy and Fat Albert fans are experiencing profound dissonance as well. In fact, I hope they are.
I normally write because I have something very specific I want to say. In this case, I write because I’m grappling with deeply conflicted feelings. What do we all do when our childhood heroes are alleged, or revealed, to be profoundly different from the work and personae for which they became famous? How do we stand with victims, and against all such crimes, yet harbor genuinely warm memories created by the same artist? I can rethink my feelings about Cosby the man, and I have, but I don’t know that I can rethink my childhood, and the role he played in it. Should I? Can you? And if we truly can’t, where does that leave us? Are we hypocrites, or dupes, or forever divided as truth intrudes, maybe forcing us to even rewrite our own memories.
Addendum, 5 pm, November 20: As I discuss this post on Twitter, Facebook and e-mail, another corollary presents itself, though its not as clearcut. Phil Spector was convicted of murder, yet no one seems to shun the classic records he made as a producer. Is it because he’s not the named artist, and so the line is less clear? But let’s remember, whatever Cosby has done, his alleged crimes aren’t Phylicia Rashad’s, or Lisa Bonet’s, or Robert Culp’s, and so on. Must their work be excised and shunned because of their co-star’s actions? For that matter, have people stopped watching the Police Squad movies because of O.J. Simpson? It may be difficult not to view them through the prism of true-life revelations, but there seem to be no correct or consistent actions or reactions.