Saturday, July 11, 2015

Is There Still a Place in Comfort TV for Bill Cosby?

 
This blog has always been a haven to focus on positive subjects. If you want grim headlines and sad stories you have plenty of other places to find them.

But in the wake of the most recent revelations about Bill Cosby, and given his remarkable television career, the subject becomes the proverbial elephant in my room. This is not just another pop culture controversy like the newfound denigration of The Dukes of Hazzard, which is beyond ludicrous. There are much bigger questions here.

Bill Cosby is more than a classic TV star or a famous TV dad. Over a career that spans 50 years he has ascended to a place in the pantheon of the medium’s most important and beloved creative talents. And in less than one year, he has fallen from grace to a point where he is now a pariah. That doesn’t happen every day.

We are technically still in the “innocent until proven guilty” phase of the story. Several of his accusers are represented by publicity-obsessed ambulance chaser Gloria Allred, which damages their credibility by association, and model Janice Dickinson’s story seems to change every time she tells it. But there are valid reasons why Cosby has already been tried and convicted in the court of public opinion. This was not one incident or one lapse in judgment. If the allegations of any of his 40 accusers are to be believed, this once-beloved comedian orchestrated cruel and calculated acts of abuse that cannot be defended.

So how are we to square that persona with the man who costarred with Robert Culp in I Spy (1965-1968) and won three consecutive Best Actor Emmy Awards for his portrayal of Alexander Scott? Cosby was already a rising standup comic who had written and performed such brilliant routines as the ark-building conversation between the Lord and Noah (“What’s a cubit?”). With I Spy he became the first black man to play a lead role in a prime time network television series. 



This was just one year after the passage of the Civil Rights Act that banned discrimination. It was a significant moment in the evolution of television, and had it been tried with another actor it might not have worked; Cosby had a charisma, charm and approachability that made it easier for audiences to accept him as a full equal in his on-screen partnership with Culp. He made that happen, and we can’t take it away now.

The Electric Company (1971-1977) is a show I watch more often than any adult should. I love the still-funny sketches and catchy songs and wonderful cast, which for a time included Bill Cosby. In the 1970s he was a passionate advocate for the role that television could and should be playing in educating children and teaching them to be tolerant, and kind, and better citizens of the world. 



These objectives were also incorporated into Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, the animated series he co-created and hosted, while also voicing several characters. It was not only another success (in 2013 TV Guide selected it as the best cartoon series of the 1970s) it earned Cosby a Doctorate in Education.

And yet it’s possible that throughout this entire time, he was also drugging and molesting women. Does that mean everything he did on behalf of kids was a lie? And if he was sincere does it even matter?

The Cosby Show (1984-1992) was as groundbreaking in its own way as I Spy, and once again Cosby was not just a hired actor but also the creative force behind the series’ concept and development.

For the first time, a series was built around an affluent African-American family, without the caricature overtones of The Jeffersons. It was a harbinger of the post-racial culture we all hoped we were headed toward, but that recent news stories suggest is still a distant dream. The result was #1 Neilsen ratings, more Emmys and as celebrated a comedy series as television has ever produced. 



So what do we do with all of this?

First, we need to identify the extent to which Cosby’s behavior has tarnished the legacy of his work. We’ve faced this type of decision before, from Danny Bonaduce and Todd Bridges to Woody Allen and Robert Blake. Blake's reputation fared the worst – but if you think murder is where we draw the line, tell that to Vince Neil, or Snoop Dogg, or Teddy Kennedy.

The other factor in the Cobsy case is that we still don’t have any closure, in the form of a conviction or an unambiguous confession. This makes it easier for fans to stand by him, as they did with Lance Armstrong through a decade of doping denials. At this point, however, it’s hard to imagine Cosby’s reputation getting any worse no matter what happens next.

Thus, there are only two choices: we could expunge his shows, films and comedy routines from public broadcast, because his flaws as a human being were more significant than his talent and philanthropy.

Or, we put Cosby’s abuse in context by keeping the work accessible to those who wish to see it, while reminding present and future generations that this man who could be so funny and insightful was also capable of awful things.

I understand the sentiments of those who never want to watch his shows again. However, I also understand those who can separate the artist from the art and still appreciate the exceptional entertainment he provided for half a century. Besides, a lot of other people worked on those shows too. Why should their hard work be punished? 



None of us are the sum of all of our virtues or the sum of all of our sins, no matter how exceptional the virtue or how despicable the sin. For that reason, my tendency is to concur with the latter option. But if and when I watch Bill Cosby’s television work in the years to come, I will never fully watch it in the same way again.

Next week we’ll get back to more pleasant subjects.

7 comments:

  1. Robert Blake isn't in jail, is he? He was acquitted in criminal court but found liable for her death in the civil trial. He did have to file for bankruptcy due to the legal fees and a tax lien from the IRS.

    No mention of his other somewhat ground breaking 1969-71 Bill Cosby Show. No laugh track (really unusual for the time), Quincy Jones' iconic theme "Hikky Burr", and and top 15 hit in its first season.

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  2. Thanks for catching that, Hal - I've updated the piece.
    I had considered mentioning the first Bill Cosby Show, as well as his brief but enjoyable runs on Kids Say the Darnedest Things and You Bet Your Life, but hopefully the point was made that Cosby's television career is one of the most accomplished we've seen, which makes his downfall all the most regrettable.

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  3. Actually, Ted Kennedy is now deceased.

    Mr. Hofstede, do you think TV Land's decision to pull reruns of "The Dukes of Hazzard" was ill-advised? John Schneider has NOT been happy about it.

    Vince McMahon has said the following regarding wrestler-turned-murderer Chris Benoit:

    "It's not right to pretend he didn't exist. It's one thing to include him as part of a historical perspective, which I believe is okay, and it's another thing to promote him, which is not okay. The situation is very similar to that of O.J. Simpson - despite his controversy, O.J. was still a part of the NFL scene. You can't deny that he existed."

    Yes, the above quote is relevant to the Bill Cosby situation.

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  4. Ted Kennedy may be deceased but his actions never held him back from achieving high office or capturing the admiration of most Americans.

    As I said in the piece, I think the ostracism of Dukes of Hazzard now is ridiculous.

    The Benoit comment is an apt comparison. He achieved great things and did terrible things. Does one obliterate the other? That's the question we face in all of these circumstances.

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    Replies
    1. Mr. Hofstede, you might want to listen to the first few minutes of a certain video. If you want to, check out the following URL:

      https://youtu.be/ssy2Op1_sjY

      Yes, the first few minutes of the video are relevant to the blog commentary.

      Delete
  5. This is a really good question, David - an excellent piece. I think not only of O.J. Simpson, but of Richard Wagner and his Antisemitism - to borrow Fr. Owen Lee's book about Wagner, can the terrible artist still produce truthful work?

    Lee's answer was yes, and I think that is my answer as well. I still love Wagner's music, still thrill to Simpson racing down the field, and although I've never been a Cosby, fan, I understand why he meant so much to so many. But there's no doubt that every time you see or hear the art produced by these people (and people like them), we're affected by what we know. Perhaps it teaches us the lesson that life is always a mix of triumph and tragedy, no matter whether you're a major star or just an ordinary Joe.

    Ultimately, I think you are right. We should allow Cosby's work to stand on its own, and combined with what we know about the man, allow viewers to draw their own conclusions as to whether or not they can enjoy his work. Like it or not, Cosby is part of TV history, and we ought not to be in the business of airbrushing people out of it, the way the Soviets used to.

    ReplyDelete
  6. This is a really good question, David - an excellent piece. I think not only of O.J. Simpson, but of Richard Wagner and his Antisemitism - to borrow Fr. Owen Lee's book about Wagner, can the terrible artist still produce truthful work?

    Lee's answer was yes, and I think that is my answer as well. I still love Wagner's music, still thrill to Simpson racing down the field, and although I've never been a Cosby, fan, I understand why he meant so much to so many. But there's no doubt that every time you see or hear the art produced by these people (and people like them), we're affected by what we know. Perhaps it teaches us the lesson that life is always a mix of triumph and tragedy, no matter whether you're a major star or just an ordinary Joe.

    Ultimately, I think you are right. We should allow Cosby's work to stand on its own, and combined with what we know about the man, allow viewers to draw their own conclusions as to whether or not they can enjoy his work. Like it or not, Cosby is part of TV history, and we ought not to be in the business of airbrushing people out of it, the way the Soviets used to.

    ReplyDelete