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A warm summer weekend was just beginning in Salisbury, Maryland, and cars were pulling into the parking lots that surround the Wicomico Civic Center. People had come to see Bill Cosby, who would remind them, that night, that he was 'seventy-six and eleven-twelfths years old,' and who surely has neither the time nor the need to do anything he doesn't want to do. What he does want to do, even now, is comedy: he performs about a hundred times a year, mainly on weekends, following an itinerary that often leads him into what promoters call tertiary markets, where fans are not just happy to be able to see him in person but surprised, too.
The Civic Center arena had been converted for the night into a theatre with about two thousand seats, most of which were full by the time Cosby shuffled onstage, a few minutes past eight. When he began his career, more than fifty years ago, Cosby wore natty suits and narrow ties, but these days his performance attire tends to be casual, often flamboyantly so: T-shirts, sweatpants, sandals, socks. He had been provided a chair and a small side table, and as he settled in he rubbed his knees and looked around. 'Well, here I am,' he said. He asked what else the arena was used for. 'Rodeo!' someone shouted. 'The circus,' someone else said. Cosby brightened. 'I remember hearing about the circus as a child,' he said, and then stopped short. When other comics talk about Cosby, they often mention his willingness to pause without filling the silence, certain that the audience trusts him enough to keep listening. When he began again, he was talking about being too poor to go to the circus, which set him off on a twenty-five-minute riff about childhood and poverty and an armchair so rickety that his father had to sit perfectly askew so that it didn't fall apart.
Cosby has always been an economical but effective physical comedian; people howled as he shifted cautiously in his seat, imitating his father in that chair. But his greatest weapon is his strained and stentorian voice, which is easy to imitate but hard to parody, because Cosby's bewildered vehemence can scarcely be exaggerated. Often, his jokes come alive only in performance, fuelled more by the telling than by the words. In Salisbury, he reminisced about his wife, Camille, who was nineteen when he married her, in 1964. 'She was not who she is today,' he announced, and the audience was laughing already. 'She was a nice person.' More laughter, and then applause. 'You know what I'm saying. If you are married, then you know the way you look at him.' He imitated a wife's disapproving appraisal, his face serving as the punch line.
In Cosby's comedy, he returns endlessly, even obsessively, to this basic plot: the struggle of a man against the woman he has chosen and the children he hasn't. When 'The Cosby Show' made its début, in 1984, he was already one of the most successful comics of his generation, and a television star of long standing. The show made him an American archetype: the personification of fatherhood, a word that was also the title of his best-selling book of observations and advice. When he takes the stage, he remains more than anything an exasperated father. Confronting the cosmic impertinence of a child who moans, 'I didn't ask to be born,' Cosby responds, as always, with fond irritation. 'Yes, you did,' he says. 'About nine months before you were born, I released about sixty million-you were one of 'em. The idea is, first one to the egg locks the door. The others die.' He pauses to let the laughter subside, then turns accusatory: 'You could have hung a left.'
Cosby's current tour is part of a long comeback. His most recent comedy special, 'Bill Cosby: Far from Finished,' was broadcast on Comedy Central last year, and he is at work on a new NBC sitcom, tentatively scheduled for 2015, which would reunite him with Tom Werner, one of the executive producers behind 'The Cosby Show.' At the same time, he is living through an extended retrospective celebration. In 2009, he collected the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, and earlier this year Chris Rock presented him with a lifetime-achievement honor at the American Comedy Awards, calling him 'the greatest comedian to ever live.' Now comes 'Cosby: His Life and Times' (Simon & Schuster), a biography by Mark Whitaker, the former editor of Newsweek; the book, written with Cosby's participation, is invaluable but not, of course, impartial. Unlike most of the lions of American comedy, Cosby is known for routines that aim to avoid giving offense, and yet he has proved surprisingly controversial: for decades, he was regularly criticized for being insufficiently attentive to issues affecting black communities; more recently, he has been passionately attentive, transforming into a culture warrior to deliver fierce indictments of what he diagnoses as an African-American social pathology. And, in the years since 'The Cosby Show,' a series of revelations and accusations-including allegations of sexual assault-have jolted fans who had grown used to conflating his work and his life.
During Cosby's nineteen-eighties heyday, though, he seemed untouchable, and younger rivals, especially African-American ones, bristled at his dominance. In the 1987 concert movie 'Raw,' Eddie Murphy told a story about Cosby calling him up and urging him to use less profanity in his act, for the sake of his young fans, including Cosby's own son. Murphy recalled being so offended that he telephoned Richard Pryor, who offered some defiantly un-Cosby-like advice: 'The next time the motherfucker calls, tell him I said suck my dick.' Years later, the idea of rebelling against Cosby's old-fashioned propriety has itself come to seem old-fashioned, making it easier to appreciate his persona as a sustained comic performance, one based on an uneasy tension between fondness and disgust. His virtuosity endures, even as his age begins to dictate not just the content of his comedy but its form.
In Salisbury, Cosby held forth for two hours, without notes or an intermission, and at times he seemed to forget what he was talking about, only to recover with a joke designed to make it impossible for the audience to pity him. As he was sprawled on the stage, during an absurd explanation of how to fend off a bear attack, his face went blank. 'Um, this is embarrassing,' he said. 'Because I really don't know how I got down here.' People laughed and cheered, trying to figure out whether this was part of the act. 'I don't know why I started talking about the bear,' he said, and then he became once more an exasperated father. 'I mean, I know why: to save your lives.' He frowned. 'But why would I care enough?'
In 1962, the Times introduced its readers to a Temple University student who was spending his summer telling jokes at the Gaslight Café, the prototypical hipster coffeehouse, on Macdougal Street. The headline was ' Comic Turns Quips Into Tuition,' and the story portrayed Cosby as an accomplished athlete and a low-key provocateur: 'a young Negro comic who is working his way through college by hurling verbal spears at the relations between whites and Negroes.' What followed was a warm tribute to an unknown performer of 'considerable promise,' but Cosby wasn't flattered. 'He had opened up to the reporter, tried to show him how thoughtful he was, and he was pigeonholed as another angry Negro comic,' Whitaker writes. (The article had mentioned jokes about the Ku Klux Klan, neighborhood integration, and the first Negro President.) In the months that followed his appearance in the Times, Cosby began to reinvent himself, scrapping riffs on current events and instead describing for audiences a childhood that sounded more easeful than his own.
Cosby was raised in North Philadelphia, the grandson of a steelworker and the son of a man Whitaker describes as 'an unreliable drunk.' His mother, Anna, worked as a maid and moonlighted as the instructor of a makeshift charm school, which held its classes in the family apartment. Cosby dropped out of high school and joined the Navy, as a Hospital Corpsman, but he eventually earned a G.E.D. and enrolled at Temple, where he discovered, in a remedial English class, that his funny stories could take over a room. From the start, Cosby seems to have been unusually confident, rarely doubting that audiences would find him excellent company. He drew inspiration from the rapid-fire, multivoice style developed by Jonathan Winters, who would become a mentor to Robin Williams. But while Williams used this technique to conjure up a boundless universe of characters, Cosby used it to animate his own small world. He was a storyteller, not a joke teller, and he had a smooth style that borrowed only sparingly from the black vernacular. In one of his best early routines, he portrayed himself as a young boy, about to get his tonsils removed. The boy didn't know what a tonsil was, only that he had been promised all the ice cream he could eat, and he worked himself up into a delirious frenzy of anticipation:
Listen: you know what I'm going to do? When I get my first bowl of ice cream, I'm going to-I'm not even going to touch it or eat it or nothin'. I'm going to smear it all over my body, man. Just smear it all over my face and eyes and hair and everywhere. And then I'm going to put a green cherry in my navel. And I'm going to be the most beautiful chocolate sundae you've ever seen in your life. Ice cream! I'm going to eat ice cream!
Like more than one of Cosby's sixties routines, this one may have been a drug joke in disguise: the child's voice is suspiciously dopey. And, like a surprising number of his bits, this one has a sadistic edge. As the boy exults, the surgeon's knife draws ever closer, with Cosby playing both the unsuspecting victim and the cool-blooded narrator, chuckling at the boy's fate.
Cosby seems to have impressed everyone who ever saw him perform, and he was rewarded with more attention, some 'Tonight Show' appearances, and a meeting with a powerful television producer named Sheldon Leonard, who had an idea for a show built around an interracial pair of protagonists. The show was 'I Spy,' and when it had its première, in 1965, it became the first drama on television with a black actor in a main role. Cosby played a spy working undercover as a tennis coach, travelling the world with a white tennis player, played by Robert Culp, who was also a spy. Cosby and Culp agreed that the show should make a point of avoiding overt discussions of race, as a way of encouraging viewers to imagine a world where racism wasn't so powerful. 'Our statement will be a nonstatement,' Culp said. Compared with Cosby's high-spirited standup routines, 'I Spy' can seem muted, perhaps deliberately so. As a boy, Cosby had hated broad and boisterous Negro comedies, like 'Amos 'n' Andy,' which he found insulting. (Whitaker has him thinking, 'It was as if the show was making fun of all Negroes!') Cosby was determined to make sure that Alexander Scott, his 'I Spy' character, retained his dignity, and he succeeded. But that insistence on dignity also helps to explain why a modern viewer might find the show's eighty-two episodes less memorable than an audio recording of Cosby onstage, howling about ice cream.
By the time 'I Spy' went off the air, in 1968, Cosby had become one of the biggest names in Hollywood, tending to a growing number of miscellaneous pursuits. He co-founded a record label, Tetragrammaton, which released John Lennon and Yoko Ono's 'Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins,' an album best known for its cover, on which the artists wear nothing but each other. He wrote a fifty-thousand-dollar check to Melvin Van Peebles to help finance 'Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song,' one of the most politically militant films ever to have been widely screened in America. (Its poster advertised it as ' Rated X by an All-White Jury.') In his next television series, 'The Bill Cosby Show,' he played a hip but mild-mannered gym teacher named Chet Kincaid. His mixed record in Hollywood included a trilogy of popular all-black comedies, beginning with 'Uptown Saturday Night,' and a notably unpopular black Western, 'Man and Boy.' On the side, he became a children's star: the creator of 'Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids,' a didactic but funky cartoon, and the face of Jell-O pudding.
All of this activity demonstrated Cosby's ambition, and perhaps also some uncertainty about his place in the comedy world. He had begun his career by imitating Dick Gregory, who made jokes about racism the centerpiece of his act; once he resolved to stop following Gregory's example, he quickly eclipsed his former idol. But as Cosby ascended into the élite, he attracted his own imitators, none sharper than Richard Pryor, whose early routines were essentially Cosby pastiches, only wilder. (In 1966, Pryor ended a buttoned-down appearance on 'The Ed Sullivan Show' by stuffing a still-smoking cigarette into his mouth and scurrying offstage.) After a few years, Pryor gave up on what his friend and collaborator Paul Mooney once called 'copycat Cosby bullshit' and began to embrace the kind of excess that Cosby took pains to avoid: profane language, unsparing revelation, emotional turmoil. The two were friendly and sometimes worked together-Pryor appeared alongside Cosby in 'Uptown Saturday Night.' But although they were born only three years apart, they came to symbolize different eras. In Eddie Murphy's bit from 'Raw,' he begins by announcing, 'I've been a big fan of Bill Cosby all my life,' and he proves it-the heart of the routine is his accurate Cosby imitation. Cosby says that Pryor called him up afterward, to deny uttering the insults that Murphy attributed to him. Nevertheless, what follows sounds like an act of comedic patricide: Murphy killing off one father so he can claim another. 'Richard is the rawest motherfucker in show business,' Murphy says, adding, 'Richard's the one that made me want to do comedy.'
It's a shame, in retrospect, that Cosby had to spend so much of his comedy career making records, which forced listeners to focus on his lines, instead of on the facial expressions that he uses to animate them. In 1983, he released his first comedy movie, 'Bill Cosby: Himself,' which played briefly in theatres and endlessly on HBO, allowing peers and fans alike to study the way he made punch lines superfluous. Recalling the birth of his first child, he swells with naïve pride: 'Now, this is the greatest moment in our lives! This is what we asked God for! This is what we wanted to see'-pause-'if we could make. And I looked at it.' He closes his mouth, blinks five times, squints, leans forward slightly. 'And they started to clean it off. And it wasn't getting any better.' His nose wrinkles and he permits himself half a sniff. The audience is enjoying itself even before he mimics the way the infant's head lolls about on its feeble neck.
By the time the movie came out, Cosby was famous but no longer hip, which turned out to suit him fine; many comedians view 'Himself' as Cosby's greatest work. Marc Maron first watched it a few years ago, and he was taken by the casual way Cosby sat and talked, as if he had no fear of the audience members and no need to impress them. In a recent GQ retrospective, Larry Wilmore argued that the movie also marked a subtle change. 'Until that moment, he was always talking from the point of view of the child in relationship to his parents,' he said. 'In 'Himself,' he became the adult.' This evolution enriched Cosby's comedy: now his specialty was not just childish confusion but its more bittersweet adult analogue, too. It also gave him another chance to rewrite the harsh stories of his boyhood. Early in his career, he recalled his father as a drunken 'giant,' lumbering home and passing out while his children rifle through his pants pockets for change; when they're caught, their mother implicates herself in the theft, to spare them a beating. (He recounted this so cheerfully that listeners might not have registered the underlying terror.) In the adult version of that story, the giant is Cosby, sober and good-naturedly outraged at the 'thief' in his family who goes through his pockets while he sleeps.
Around the time that 'Himself' was released, Cosby set about creating 'The Cosby Show,' which he intended as a family program-that is, a program modelled on his own family, with a few improvements. In one early version, Cosby played a chauffeur, an idea that he liked until he heard objections from Camille, who is a perceptive but resolutely unfunny presence in Whitaker's account. ('Nobody is going to believe that you're a chauffeur,' she told him.) So he became Heathcliff Huxtable, an obstetrician married to a formidable lawyer, Clair, raising four children-and then, magically, five children, when Cosby decided that the cast needed a college-going eldest daughter, for mimetic reasons. Cosby also gave himself a loving father, a former jazz musician named Russell, after his own younger brother. Before they were America's favorite family, the Huxtables were a psychologically complicated exercise in wish fulfillment.
'The Cosby Show' was a great sitcom, perhaps a perfect sitcom, created just as the golden age of sitcoms was ending. It was only five years later that 'Seinfeld' and 'The Simpsons' arrived, each mocking the kind of idealized family life that programs like 'The Cosby Show' portrayed. But Cosby was skeptical of sitcoms, too. He hired the psychiatry professor Alvin Poussaint, a frequent collaborator, to make sure that the scripts weren't too jokey. 'Sitcom writers like to use a lot of put-down humor,' Cosby told him. 'I don't want any of that.' As Cliff, Cosby allowed himself to act like a comedian-illustrating simple points with absurd shaggy-dog stories, or mugging his way through extended set pieces-because he knew that he was playing an authority figure in a household that took authority seriously. In a famous exchange from the pilot episode, Theo, the recalcitrant teen-age son, earnestly explained his poor grades by telling Cliff that he just wanted to be a 'regular person' with a 'regular life'-not a doctor or a lawyer. 'Maybe you can just accept who I am and love me anyway, because I'm your son,' he said. Cosby waited for the studio audience to stop applauding before responding. 'Theo,' he began, softly. 'That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard in my life! ' This was a reprimand delivered both to Theo and to the audience, and Whitaker describes how the audience members reacted: 'They hooted and hollered and jumped to their feet to give him a standing ovation. The applause was thunderous, and it went on for several minutes.' They liked knowing that Cliff was in charge-and that Cosby was, too.
Even while delivering this message, 'The Cosby Show' made room for moments of ambiguity and daring. Theo seemed to inspire in Cliff a feeling of lingering heartbreak-you felt not only that Cliff cared about Theo but, more affectingly, that he cared slightly too much. Cliff took a grandfatherly delight in Rudy, the youngest, and maintained a faintly flirtatious relationship with Denise, the stylish high-school student. His marriage to Clair was, by sitcom standards, unusually decadent: episodes often ended with the couple in bed or on the couch, nuzzling and purring. Occasionally, the show would leave plot behind altogether. An episode called 'Jitterbug Break,' about Denise wanting to go to a concert, ended with the children moving the living-room furniture aside in order to have a dance party. Some of their friends are break dancing, and then a few older friends of Cliff and Clair's show up and start swing dancing, and soon the living room is playing host to a multigenerational dance battle, which doubles as a black-cultural-history lesson. The scene lasts nearly six minutes, with almost no dialogue and no explanation-it just keeps going until the credits roll.
For five of its eight seasons, 'The Cosby Show' was the most popular show on television, and its success earned its principals the kind of riches typically associated with less funny industries. (Cosby tried and failed to buy NBC; Tom Werner, the executive producer, succeeded in buying the San Diego Padres and then the Boston Red Sox.) Its success also inspired an ongoing argument about what it meant that so many white viewers were choosing to spend so much time with a fictional family that was black, rich, and content. The Huxtables didn't have much to say about black poverty, and some worried that their prominence somehow made black poverty easier to overlook. One reason the characters didn't often argue about race was that all the show's major characters were African-American. In that sense, the show reflected what Whitaker calls 'the segregated world of strivers' that Cosby knew when he was a boy, and perhaps it also gestured at the ideal of black self-sufficiency-the notion that, with enough time and effort, African-Americans could build their own communities, fix their own problems. Depending on the emphasis, this can seem like either a very conservative dream or a very radical one, and both interpretations help explain why 'The Cosby Show' made some racial liberals uncomfortable.
The morning after Cosby's appearance in Salisbury, he travelled across Chesapeake Bay to Hagerstown, near the West Virginia and Pennsylvania borders, where he had sold out two concerts at the venerable Maryland Theatre. Police blocked off streets and directed traffic, and the town's young mayor, Dave Gysberts, appeared onstage before the second set to give Cosby a key to the city. 'He does push the envelope, especially on certain social issues,' Gysberts told a local reporter. 'He keeps us on our toes, and we learn a lot because we laugh a lot.' In fact, Cosby's success has a lot to do with his career-long disinclination to mix comedy with social commentary. But Whitaker makes a convincing argument that issues of race and politics have preoccupied Cosby throughout his life. As a boy in segregated Philadelphia, Cosby sometimes encountered white people who went out of their way to help him, and in private he referred to them using a term of high praise: 'abolitionists.' He viewed his own ability to survive, and thrive, as an implicit rebuke to a racist system.
Cosby must have noticed the perception, particularly among blacks, that he didn't care about the project of liberation, and in the late sixties and early seventies he seized opportunities to strike a more defiant pose. In 1968, when he accepted his third straight Emmy Award for his role on 'I Spy,' he issued a proclamation from the stage: 'Let the message be known to bigots and racists that they don't count!' In one interview, he seemed to disown the gentle approach of 'I Spy,' saying, 'I just can't keep making the joyful noise.' And the next year, when Playboy asked him to reject the violent rhetoric of the activist H. Rap Brown, Cosby questioned the wisdom of Brown's approach while being careful not to impugn his message. 'Rap and the other militants all speak the truth when they let America know that the black man is not going to take any more bullshit,' he said.
Of course, Cosby did 'keep making the joyful noise,' which helped him amass a fan base that seems to be predominantly white. (There were very few African-American faces in the audiences in Maryland.) It is tempting to think of Cosby as a comedy idealist, insistent that his act should remain unsullied by the dirty business of politics. But, if anything, it seems that he took politics more seriously than comedy. Whitaker relates an explanation that Cosby once gave to Poussaint: ' 'The Cosby Show' was a comedy, and he didn't want to trivialize serious problems by trying to make them funny.' Unlike Pryor, Cosby didn't believe that a routine could encompass all of life's joys and sorrows. For him, comedy was smaller than life. When he was at work on 'Cosby,' his moderately successful follow-up to 'The Cosby Show,' he was asked about reports that he had intervened to make his character less cantankerous than the British character on which it was based. 'If the critics complain that Bill Cosby's got such a nice image he's afraid that he can't do evil things like this Englishman-well, that is correct,' he said. 'And that is nothing to be ashamed of if you're in show business.'
In 1976, Cosby earned a doctorate in education from the University of Massachusetts, after writing a dissertation about whether teachers found 'Fat Albert' useful. (His conclusion: they did.) In presenting his findings, Cosby noted the 'inherent racism in American schools,' and he deplored 'the pervasive racist myths that dehumanize our children.' Lurking beneath his prescriptions was a quasi-religious faith in the power of 'Fat Albert'-that is, the power of Cosby's own developing philosophy of self-improvement through stubborn striving. In the nineteen-eighties and nineties, plenty of African-American leaders and activists grew frustrated that the promise of the civil-rights movement seemed to remain unfulfilled, but Cosby's frustration was amplified by a fatherly sense of betrayal: young African-Americans needed help, but they seemed no more interested in obeying his commands than Eddie Murphy had been.
Cosby's anguish and anger found expression in 2004, in a monologue that he delivered during an N.A.A.C.P. banquet held to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education. It became known as the 'pound cake' speech, because of its shocking central anecdote, which portrayed the hypothetical killing of an unarmed young black man in a skeptical light:
These are people going around stealing Coca-Cola. People getting shot in the back of the head over a piece of pound cake! And then we all run out and are outraged: 'The cops shouldn't have shot him.' What the hell was he doing with the pound cake in his hand? I wanted a piece of pound cake just as bad as anybody else. And I looked at it and I had no money. And something called parenting said, 'If you get caught with it you're going to embarrass your mother.'
Cosby accused poor people of 'not holding their end in this deal,' and built to an expression of metaphysical disgust. 'You can't keep asking that God will find a way,' he said. 'God is tired of you.' The definitive TV father had run out of patience.
The speech said very little about public policy, yet it was widely interpreted as a political manifesto, earning Cosby a host of new allies and opponents. One of the most vocal opponents was the scholar and pundit Michael Eric Dyson, who published a book-length retort called 'Is Bill Cosby Right? Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind?' Dyson accused Cosby of being insensitive to the trials and triumphs that defined the lives of poor African-Americans, suggesting that his 'tough love' posturing masked a 'bourgeois disgust for the economically humbled.' Dyson linked Cosby's righteous indignation to a fear, historically held by 'the black élite,' of being humiliated and possibly harmed by the embarrassing behavior of 'poor black folk.' The 'pound cake' speech metastasized into a tour, and eventually a book called 'Come On, People,' a collaboration between Cosby and Poussaint, which combined stern exhortation ('We need to steel ourselves with the will to get better') with medical advice ('If parents choose to use formula, they should make sure it contains Omega-3 fatty acids'). At one point, the two issue a tart response to critics of 'The Cosby Show': 'People who don't like Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable don't like-or don't know-their own fathers.'
If 'The Cosby Show' helped establish Cosby as a cultural conservative, the 'pound cake' speech earned him a misleading reputation as a political conservative, a courageous African-American willing to stand up to the liberal establishment. Online, his name is sometimes linked, spuriously, to criticism of President Obama, whom Cosby has supported. And excerpts from the speech tend to resurface whenever the question of racial justice is in the news, as during the protests in Ferguson, Missouri. Along the bottom of Cosby's Web site, a band of photographs automatically displays people who have recently tweeted about him, and the lineup often includes a user sharing a quote from 'pound cake.' One day this summer, a tweet included a link to the speech, with a tendentious summary: 'Bill Cosby Bashes Negro Thugs and Black Welfare Moms: 'We Can't Blame the White People Any Longer.' ' The name on the Twitter account was @WhiteResister.
Cosby's comedy is a celebration of the inevitable. The birth of a baby, the rebellion of a teen-ager, the irritation of a spouse: these are things to be endured and, if at all possible, enjoyed. But with the 'pound cake' affair Cosby was calling for change, for a black cultural revolution, and in the process he inadvertently proved just how little influence he had, even-or especially-among African-Americans. For many who had been following his career, the dream of Cosby as the nation's wise paterfamilias began to fade in 1989, when he gave a startling interview to the Los Angeles Times in which he discussed his daughter Erinn, then twenty-three, whose time at a drug-rehabilitation clinic had recently been uncovered by the National Enquirer. The news of her struggles was surely less damaging than Cosby's intemperate reaction: he described her as 'really very selfish,' adding that she 'uses her boyfriends' and that she had the emotional maturity of an eleven-year-old.
According to Whitaker, Cosby reconciled with Erinn only after a tragedy: the death, in 1997, of his son Ennis, the model for Theo, who was murdered next to a California freeway by an eighteen-year-old immigrant from Ukraine. The same day that Ennis was killed, Cosby received a blackmail threat, via fax, from a young woman named Autumn Jackson, who claimed to be his daughter from an extramarital affair. Cosby denied paternity, and she was eventually convicted of conspiracy, extortion, and crossing a state line to commit a crime. But it was true that Cosby had had an affair with her mother, and the case forced him to acknowledge his infidelity. Whitaker acknowledges it, too, though he is scarcely more enthusiastic than his subject. He mentions Cosby's 'roving eye' twice and tells a brief story about an unnamed 'longtime girlfriend.' To mark the demise of their relationship, Cosby invited her on what must have been a very strange goodbye date with him and her own mother.
Stories like these can't help but inform the way we hear Cosby's routines depicting marriage as an ongoing project to train and socialize husbands. He once said that he knew he was getting older when he was no longer tempted by the prospect of 'sex with a young, beautiful girl who has plenty of energy.' But it's not clear that age has rendered him entirely immune to such temptations. One night in 2003, filling in for David Letterman, Cosby conducted a rather unsettling interview with Sofía Vergara, the Colombian actress, leaning in to her and murmuring inane questions in a pseudo-Spanish accent. And the lone uncomfortable moment in his Salisbury performance came when he singled out an elegant young mother in the front row and quizzed her about the financial details of her marriage, clasping her right hand in both of his. 'Whose money left the account to buy these tickets?' he said, imperiously.
' Our money,' she said, drawing applause, and Cosby sent her back to her seat with a warm kiss on the forehead.
In the past decade, the tales of infidelity have been joined by much more serious allegations. At least four women, using their own names and telling similar stories, have accused Cosby of sexual assault. The accounts, made public in outlets that include the 'Today' show and People, depict Cosby luring each woman to a private place, drugging her, and assaulting her. Cosby settled a lawsuit filed by one of the women, but he has never spoken of the allegations in public. (Earlier this year, his publicist dismissed one of the stories as 'discredited.') Whitaker doesn't mention them, either-a remarkable omission. Unlike Cosby's extramarital affairs, these alleged assaults can't easily be integrated into a consideration of his work: no doubt many of his fans will find it easier to put the claims out of mind or, especially if more information emerges, to put Cosby out of mind instead.
The older Cosby gets, the easier it is to be grateful, instead of frustrated, that he has kept his comedy separate from his other interests and troubles. This decision has come to look like an act of self-preservation, Cosby's way of making sure that, whatever else happens in his life or in the world, he will always be able to escape to the stage. The most recent evolution in his act has been a minor one: the famous father is now a grandfather, with failing eyesight and a sometimes unreliable memory, and he is adjusting to the reality that soon enough he may be, for the first time since childhood, someone else's responsibility. These days, if an audience member speaks out of turn, he will usually respond not with a sharp glance but with an exaggerated eye roll, letting his mouth hang slack-the beloved grandfather momentarily regressing into a petulant adolescent.
Cosby's career was made possible by his assurance that the public would appreciate both his stories and his advice. It's harder now to see him as an ideal father, which might just mean that it's easier to see him clearly. During one of his routines in Maryland, Cosby talked about bringing his children together-at gunpoint-to remind them of the father he used to be. 'I changed your diaper,' he said. 'I wiped your behind. When you threw up on yourself, I took the shirt off and cleaned you and put a fresh one on.' He asked them to fetch soap, a towel, some deodorant, a clean pair of underwear, and a bucket of warm water. 'Right now, I'm going to poop on myself,' he said, and he expected them to take loving care of him, just as he had taken care of them. 'First one tries to dial to put me in a home, you're dead-every last one of you!' This routine was a calculated risk, built around the striking image of a great comedian and proud father at his most vulnerable. The audience laughed and applauded, still happy to listen to what Cosby had to say, and to give him an excuse to say it. ♦
Watch Kelefa Sanneh's commentary on Bill Cosby's evolving comedy.