Can Bill bounce back? It seems extraordinary that Bill Cosby, who was convicted and imprisoned in 2018 for drugging and sexually assaulting Andrea Constand, and faced more than 60 similar accusations, would ever emerge from behind bars. Yet on 30 June, the 83-year-old comic shuffled free from his Pennsylvanian prison.
His conviction was overturned on a legal technicality. Video footage showed him defiantly flashing a v-sign to the cameras. “Mr Cosby’s conviction being overturned is for all the world,” said his publicist Andrew Wyatt. As far as Cosby and his team are concerned, he is innocent – and besides, his litany of alleged crimes cannot now be prosecuted under the statute of limitations.
But in the world of comedy, those limitations do not apply. From Hannibal Buress – whose routine first brought Cosby’s alleged assaults to light – to Seth Rogen and Eddie Murphy, comedians have long been at the forefront of keeping Cosby’s disgrace in the public eye. For many of them, “America’s Dad” was a mentor and father figure. Now, in an Oedipal twist, they’re sticking the knife in deepest.
Cosby’s off-stage reputation was sticky with rumours for decades. After the accusations against him broke in 2014, Barbara Bowman wrote in an op-ed for The Washington Post: “Cosby won my trust as a 17-year-old aspiring actress in 1985, brainwashed me into viewing him as a father figure, and then assaulted me multiple times.”
At the time, Cosby’s sitcom The Cosby Show was in its ratings-raking pomp. Based on his observational stand-up, Cosby played a squeaky-clean obstetrician, Cliff Huxtable, who guides his family with a stern but loving hand. The show cemented his avuncular public image: it was the number-one rated programme on television for all of its eight seasons; Cosby’s Huxtable was voted “Greatest Dad on Television”.
Today’s most prominent comedians grew up in his shadow. The Bill Cosby Show almost single-handedly revived the sitcom’s fortunes as a genre, paving the way for other gently-mocking family comedies, such as The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Malcolm in the Middle and Two and a Half Men. And his stand-up routines, garrulous and mumbly, but rapturously received by talk show audiences, laid some of the turf for the success of other observational comics like Jerry Seinfeld and Joe Pera. Cosby was the twinkly godfather of America’s comedy scene.
Yet as with Harvey Weinstein, his abuses were an acknowledged monster in showbiz’s closet. By the time the Constand trial was prosecuted in 2018, he had already settled out of court with multiple women for alleged assaults. But he continued to appear on talk shows, and executive-produced a children’s TV show, Little Bill. Despite the rumours, most comedians chose to stay silent during this time. Whether this was because of lack of evidence, or deference to Cosby’s standing, is impossible to tell.
A recent episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee sheds some light, though. In it, Seth Rogen and Jerry Seinfeld recalled their brushes with Cosby. “I was a massive fan [of his standup],” says Seinfeld. “And talking to him about comedy was the greatest thing in the world. And he said some of the nicest things to me.” Laughing awkwardly, the duo turned to his downfall. Rogen remembered being backstage with Hannibal Buress. Rogen excitedly pointed out Cosby. “I was starstruck because it’s f______ Bill Cosby,” says Rogen. “And Hannibal said: ‘F___ that dude, that’s guys raped hundreds of women. It’s known.’ And a month later he started telling the joke.”
That “joke” was the jolt that started the landslide of accusations against Cosby. In 2014, Buress, an up-and-coming black comic, had begun incorporating a skit satirising Cosby’s finger-wagging attitude to young black Americans.
“Bill Cosby has the f_____’ smuggest old black man public persona that I hate,” the skit ran. “He gets on TV, ‘Pull your pants up black people, I was on TV in the ‘80s! I can talk down to you because I had a successful sitcom!’ Yeah, but you rape women, Bill Cosby, so turn the crazy down a couple notches.” The gag continued: “When you leave here, Google ‘Bill Cosby rape.’ That s___ has more results than ‘Hannibal Buress.’”
The routine had been knocking around for a few weeks until shaky footage of it surfaced online. The joke went viral. And then the trickle of accusations became a flood, as more and more women who claimed Cosby had assaulted them began to come forward. “For 40 years, I didn’t say anything because I thought it was just me,” radio host Kathy McGee told The Hollywood Reporter soon after. “[I thought] no one would believe me.”
The tide began to turn against Cosby with New York Magazine’s cover story, published in July 2015, which was dedicated to 35 of his alleged victims. But only Andrea Constand’s accusation was still within the statute of limitations. And even, it was a close run thing – the case was brought just days before Pennsylvania’s 12-year limitation expired. It would eventually lead to his conviction in 2018.
Buress, though, played down his involvement. “That wasn’t my intention, to make it a part of a big discussion. It was just something I was doing at that venue right then,” he told Harold Stern. Yet the dam had burst. Cosby’s aura of inviolable wholesomeness was washed away. And his fellow comedians began to circle, scenting blood.
First to strike were Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, hosting the 2015 Golden Globes. Their speech began riffing on that year’s big hitter, the Meryl Streep fantasy vehicle, Into the Woods. “In Into the Woods, Cinderella runs from her prince, Rapusansuel is thrown from a tower,” teed-up Poehler, “… and Sleeping Beauty just thought she was going for a coffee with Bill Cosby.”
The duo then launched into an growlly impression of Cosby: “I pull the pills in the people, and the people don’t want the pills.” A wash of gasps and oh-no-they-didn’t applause followed. It was skin-pricklingly uncomfortable. And very funny. Fey and Poehler’s gag flipped a switch in the comedy world. Now it was Glorious 12th, and Cosby was in the firing line.
The Canadian comic Katherine Ryan started to begin her sets by asking the audience members whether they had raped anyone. The answer was always “no” – a straightforward denial that Cosby, always indigent, always mealy-mouthed, was apparently incapable of giving.
And later that year, Jon Stewart had a crack on The Daily Show. Discussing the energy company TransCanada, he said: “TransCanada can’t just lay pipe anywhere it wants to without permission, it’s not Bill Cosby.”
But it was Judd Apatow, the director behind Knocked Up, This Is 40 and The 40-year-old Virgin, who appeared to take Cosby’s accusations particularly to heart. He used Twitter to launch a salvo of acid-tipped mots about the comic, and made his feelings clear on Marc Maron’s WFT podcast. “I absolutely would like to see him in jail,” Apatow told Maron. “That’s where people who commit sexual assaults go. I have two daughters. I’m a comedian. I see [Cosby] a little bit as our comedy dad. It’s like finding out your comedy dad is a really evil guy.”
He also questioned why Cosby’s career was rumbling on. IMDB lists four shows Cosby worked on as writer and director after the 2014 watershed, while he appeared as a guest in dozens of other programmes. And between criminal trails in 2018, Cosby found time to perform a bizarre, free-wheeling stand-up routine at a jazz club in Philadelphia. He played the drums, jammed with the band and told rambling stories about his uncle. Despite facing an imminent re-trial, he made no mention of the allegations.
Apatow was unflinching about this behaviour: “At the very least, go into your mansion and disappear for the rest of your life. He shouldn’t be rewarded and applauded for raping that many women.”
Eddie Murphy certainly didn’t think so. Even before the accusations broke, the star of Norbit and Beverly Hills Cop had been locked in a feud with Cosby. Its origins are murky, but Murphy suggested in an episode of Comedians in Cars that it was driven by Cosby’s jealousy – and fears that he might be usurped by the sparky, ambitious young upstart.
“He had a weird thing with me that he didn’t have with other comics,” he said. “It was mean. He wasn’t doing that with everybody, he was doing that with me specifically. He was s____y with me.”
The two constellated around each other throughout their careers: Murphy’s live-wire routines throwing shade on Cosby’s folksy stage persona. That is, until Cosby’s star fell dramatically to earth. Then, Murphy was merciless. At his 2015 acceptance speech for the Mark Twain Prize for American Humour, Murphy said: “Bill has one of these [awards]. Did you all make Bill give his back? You know you f_____ up when they want you to give your trophies back.”
And on a 2019 episode of Saturday Night Live, he took another pop at the then-imprisoned Cosby by reflecting on their unexpected role reversal. “If you would have told me 30 years ago that I would be this boring, stay-at-home house dad and Bill Cosby would be in jail, even I would have took that bet,” Murphy joked in the monologue.
But in a sign of how nettled he was, Cosby’s representative unusually shot back. Murphy, the statement claimed, was “a Hollywood slave”.
It continued: “One would think that Mr. Murphy was given his freedom to leave the plantation, so that he could make his own decisions. Bill Cosby became legendary because he used comedy to humanize all races, religions, and genders; but your attacking Mr. Cosby helps you embark on just becoming click bait. Hopefully, you will be amenable to having a meeting of the minds conversation.”
Hopeful as the statement was, it seems unlikely Murphy and Cosby will have that conversation. Though no longer incarcerated, the one-time elder statesman’s patch on the American comedy scene is salted earth. And while comedy is often criticised for punching downwards, the long, tawdry Cosby saga is a heartening example of comics rallying together and clearing house. Laughter, as so often, proves the best disinfectant.