Her dress swirled, a shimmering silk sunset. Of all the memories of Cosby’s work woven through my childhood, the image of Claire Huxtable dancing through the credits of the Cosby Show inexplicably remains the most vibrant, but it hardly stands alone. I learned the rudiments of budgeting from Cliff teaching Theo. From my parents’ vinyl collections of Cosby’s comedy, I knew what it was like to drive in San Francisco before I had a license. I learned that Noah’s ark blocked the driveway in his subdivision. From Cosby’s book Fatherhood, I learned that the secret to being a good dad was loving your kids so much that your heart ached.
I laughed, too; Cosby made comedy, after all, but the lessons stuck, and Claire became an aspiration and inspiration. Portrayed by Phylicia Rashad, she was intelligent, elegant, dignified and a formidable foil to Cosby’s Cliff.
I cannot any longer endure his comedy. We now know that Bill Cosby, the man who was goofily selling pudding pops, collecting Black art and donating millions to historically Black colleges and universities, who was “America’s Dad”, drugged women and raped them, serially, systematically, over the course of his entire career. The man whose signature character once lectured his son-in-law on feminism has been convicted of rape.
Much of the discussion surrounding the #metoo movement and the seemingly endless stream of accusations has focused on the question of whether there is a moral obligation to abstain from the art of morally monstrous artists. To ask the question presupposes that one still finds the artwork valuable even in the full knowledge of the artist’s actions; there’s no point in trying to persuade someone to abstain from something they’ve willingly given up. The debates often presuppose that we can separate the artist from their artwork, and immediately turn to the question of whether we should. Yet in the case of some artists, including Cosby if my own conversations are representative, the revelations seem to make it impossible to return to their artwork in the same way. We feel betrayed. I can no longer watch or listen to his comedy without his crimes immediately coming to mind, thinking that while he was joking around, snuggling Rudy, doing Julia Child impressions while making soup, he probably had Quaaludes waiting backstage for his next victim.
Perhaps the feeling of betrayal results from cognitive confusion. We regularly confuse actors with their characters, despite our best intentions and the belief that we should know better. The emotions we have toward characters infuses the way we think of the actor, to the delight of those who play heroes and the chagrin of those typecast as creepy villains. Cliff Huxtable, the lovable respectable doctor in heavy gauge sweaters, is an admirable man, and so we mistakenly attribute those characteristics to Cosby. Learning that Cosby is guilty of serious crimes shocks us because we expected better from Cliff.
While it’s true that Cosby’s public persona leaned hard on Cliff’s paternal charm, we should not wave away our reaction as a mere quirk of human cognition. If those quirks were the whole explanation, then rationally we should regard Cosby no differently than we do any other elderly man found to have committed horrible crimes in years past.
Moreover, if we are merely cognitively confused, we would not have much reason to avoid Cosby’s comedy. His crimes came to light too late to derail his career. Watching low-fi clips of his comedy on YouTube won’t endanger anyone or enable his behaviour. Listening to an album purchased in the mid-80s won’t line his wallet now. Aesthetic appreciation of his comedy will harm no one. Cosby’s an old man who stands a reasonable chance of dying behind bars, and even if he walks free again, he will not be in a position to harm anyone further. He’s no longer on television, and the networks have pulled his shows from syndication. The foundations he began have removed him from leadership positions. Everything he built during his life has already crumbled under the weight of his crimes. Whatever thin threads of complicity in which we’d become entangled by enjoying Cosby’s comedy are far weaker than those in which we might find ourselves just by living our ordinary lives. Behind many great inventions lie monstrous men; I know no one who has stopped driving due to the anti-Semitism of Henry Ford.
Cosby’s hardly the first artist to be a less-than-admirable human being who nevertheless created morally uplifting art. Many great artists have been less than admirable human beings. Charles Dickens circulated a public letter in which he libelled his wife Catherine as mentally incompetent and an unfit mother, all so he could leave her and marry an actress young enough to be his daughter. He couldn’t obtain a divorce otherwise without it impacting his popularity as a writer. His behaviour, however, doesn’t seem to affect how we must interpret the redemption of Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, nor diminish the moral complexity of Pip’s journey in Great Expectations. His works strike many as morally valuable even if he himself was flawed.
If we can appreciate Dickens’s work despite his personal flaws, it seems that we should be able to laugh and learn from Cosby’s comedy. Nothing in The Cosby Show amounted to even a hint of a defence of Cosby’s actions. Cliff wouldn’t have tolerated a rapist. On the contrary, the nature of comedy explains why Cosby’s crimes are inseparable from his art.
Most of Cosby’s comedy is soft, warm, and non-threatening, by design; Cosby, as a trailblazing Black comedian had to be palatable to white America if he wanted to succeed. The Cosby Show starred him as an upper-middle-class doctor, a graduate of a historically Black medical school, married to a successful lawyer, surrounded by a gaggle of adoring adorable children and later grandchildren. Cosby is a supremely involved father, simply being around for his family. Most of the wit of the show presupposes a keen sense of observation of the dynamics of family. Huxtable wants his kids to leave home so he can have some well-deserved peace and quiet, but not so much that he really wants them gone.
One family of philosophical theories of humour explains laughter as the natural response to incongruity. We move through the world with certain expectations of what’s supposed to happen, and when we discover that concrete reality does not match our abstract conception of the world, we laugh. The German philosopher Schopenhauer writes that “the intentionally ludicrous is the joke”, an intentional attempt to bring about a discrepancy between reality and our concepts. While the theory is not complete, as not all incongruities are funny, and not everything that’s funny results from an incongruity, much comedy, including that of The Cosby Show works by setting up expectations only to undermine them.
One memorable sequence in the pilot features Cliff trying to impress upon his son Theo the importance of doing well in school. Theo characteristically struggles in school, and explains that he’ll just get a job like “regular people”. Cliff pulls out the Monopoly money to represent Theo’s future salary. He takes money out for taxes, and then rent. Theo starts bargaining, economising his future life. He’ll live in New Jersey instead of Manhattan, and live on baloney and cereal, although he’ll spend more on clothes. Cliff gets the last word – and the biggest laugh – by taking the rest of Theo’s monopoly money when Theo asserts that in this future life, he’ll for sure have a girlfriend.
The sequence finishes, after an interlude, with Theo passionately explaining to Cliff that he doesn’t need to be successful like Cliff and Claire, but that he should be loved and accepted anyway, because “I’m your son”.
Cliff waits for a beat, “Theo”, he says softly, and then continues, his voice rising sternly, “that’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. No wonder you get Ds!”
The sequence features two incongruities. The first lies in the trope of the father giving advice to the son. Typically, when fathers try to impart life lessons, the children don’t respond by bargaining their way out of the scenario. We might expect eye-rolling, or anger, or complaining, or acceptance, but not bargaining. The second lies in the inversion of the typical 80s sitcom dynamics. The studio audience coos after Theo’s heartfelt speech, signalling that they’re expecting the typical sitcom resolution to the conflict of the plot. Cliff will grudgingly, but lovingly, give into his son’s wish to be like “regular people”, accept his Ds in school, and stop pushing him to succeed academically.
When instead, Cliff turns into a stern father, we laugh. We laugh at the joke, but we also laugh at the studio audience, who had been approvingly cooing at the expected resolution the moment before. The artistry of this sequence is evident. It’s all too easy to imagine versions of this scene, that without perfect timing or intonation, sound abusive instead of funny. It’s clear, in the pilot and in the rest of the series, that while Cliff is unyielding he is never cruel.
To master this balance requires insight into both human nature, parenting, and the norms of comedy. It requires a genuine understanding of parenting, marriage, and relationships. To make comedy requires that one acquire a deep understanding of those abstract concepts in order to upend them.
Cliff is also a perfectly lovable husband, who supports and adores Claire. Claire is not only elegant and classy, but in every way his equal. In another episode, Elvin, his son-in-law, complains that his wife, who works, doesn’t have dinner waiting on the table every evening. Cliff asks him if his arms are broken, indicating that Elvin should not expect his wife to act as his servant. Elvin, however, draws the wrong lesson. Later, he expresses surprise when Claire offers him and Cliff coffee. Elvin had misunderstood Cliff’s earlier attempt to educate him, naively taking it as something like, “in an equal marriage a woman never does anything domestic”. Cliff sits back and watches the lesson begin, as Claire, with perfectly poised yet palpable anger, explains the basis of a good marriage as a give-and-take to an increasingly meek Elvin.
Within the show, certain abstract concepts like parenthood and a good marriage are explained through jokes, usually through the failings of some of the characters to live up to the ideal. If a joke is an intentional attempt to fabricate an incongruous situation by contrasting an abstract idea with a concrete example, a good joke presupposes a thorough understanding of the concepts involved. To joke about the family requires that one understands the family. It requires that the comedian understands the family.
One might be tempted to observe that the jokes are within the fiction, and the actors are merely repeating lines written by a team of writers, but Cosby’s comedy flattened the distinction between him as a mere actor and his persona as a comedian. Although Cosby played the role of Cliff Huxtable, one can argue that the persona wasn’t much different than the one Cosby pushed as a comedian. It’s called The Cosby Show not A Funny Aspirational Family; one is meant to treat the comedy of the show as an extension of the generally family-centric comedy of Cosby. The line that closes his conversation with Theo in the pilot (“I brought you into this world, and I can take you out of it”) is a variation of a line Cosby used in his stand-up routines about his own father.
Moreover, much of his stand-up comedy is first-person storytelling, seemingly about the comedian as a person, not as a persona. This kind of stand-up relies on authenticity, if not honesty. This means that it’s reasonable to think that the antics of Cliff reveals something authentic about Cosby’s way of seeing the world; it’s not a cognitive error to attribute the lessons of the show as understood by Cosby himself. If Cosby saw the world authentically as one in which good fathers guided their sons morally, and he had a sufficiently sophisticated understanding to be able to showcase the difference between tough love and overly authoritarian parenting, then we’re not wrong when we think of Cliff as a genuine role model for parenting. To enjoy his comedy is to be invited to share that vision, to regard Cosby as someone who understood the concepts about which he joked.
When we learn of Cosby’s crimes, we feel betrayed, and I suggest our betrayal is primarily aesthetic: we cannot laugh at his comedy. We are angered by his ethical failure, but we feel betrayed because his comedy relied on the authenticity of his insights. Someone who genuinely believed that women were his equals, could not have done what he did.
Cosby’s behaviour shows that the authenticity his comedy required, the claim to understand abstract concepts like fatherhood, had to have been a lie. Had he been an actor merely hired to play a comedic role, we could maintain the necessary distinction between the character, the comic, and the man. We could tell ourselves that actors just mouth the words others write and that we should no more expect Cosby to be like Cliff than we should expect an actor who portrays Superman to fly.
Cosby’s comedy requires Cosby to be the man he told us he was. With the revelations, we wonder: was it all just an act? Was his persona cover, so no one would suspect? Was he laughing at our naiveté all along? When we try to separate the comedy from the comedian, we find there’s nothing left of the joke.