I heard my first Bill Cosby album when I was five.

Memorized my first Cosby routine when I was seven (it was the “Noah…Right!”).

Performed it before an audience of hundreds at age eight (I received Honorable Mention).

Once I heard those early stories of reckless go-cart racing and playing buck-buck in the projects of Philadelphia, I was hooked.

I credit much of my interest in performing and comedy to the childhood laughs that overwhelmed me as I sat in my bedroom listening to those 33rpm records on a tiny shoebox turntable with a mono speaker. I recited the routines in my head until they flowed out of me without thought or concentration, at-the-ready for a passing neighbor, my parents’ dinner guests, or a visit from extended family.

I have vivid memories of sitting in my PJs on Saturday mornings, cup of dry Froot Loops in hand, crunching away on sugary mouthfuls, just happy as a clam, while the infectious intro music of “Picture Pages” imprinted itself on my brain.

Picture Pages, Picture Pages, Time to get your Picture Pages.
Time to get your crayons and your pencils!
Picture Pages, Picture Pages, Open up your Picture Pages!
Time to watch Bill Cosby do a picture page with you!

To think of all those boyhood hours spent worshipping—glorifying, even—an alleged serial rapist now sickens me.

Not so much because of the creepy thought of me munching and bouncing in my beanbag to the creative directions of a sociopathic defiler of women (though that does make me shudder), but because we’ve gone and lost yet another of our consecrated heroes, and to one of the worst scandals imaginable.

Of course, it’s unrealistic to expect public figures to live up to our untainted images of them. They are, after all, human. And usually, we can quickly stomach whatever transgression comes to light (and in most cases, I contend, it’s really none of our business).

Arnold Schwarzenegger has an illegitimate child—fine. Brett Favre sexts women—big deal. Chris Farley had a drug problem—what a shock. Tiger woods is a sex addict—in his shoes, I probably would be too.

Who among us truly thought these people were without sin?

But we’re talking about one of America’s most sacred public personalities. His brilliant comedy routines are heralded for being clean, universal, inoffensive, and yet still hilarious. The Cosby show was one of the most watched television shows in history.

Stories of Fat Albert’s clan transcended racial and economic divides simultaneously by entertaining children of all walks with antics set in an urban, low-income housing project—emphasizing another notable page in Dr. Cosby’s “American success” story, his bootstrapping ascension from a housing project in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia to becoming one of the most famous and most loved personalities of the late 20th century.

And we’re talking about one of the worst transgressions—one that, because of its recurrent nature and serious harm to others, is certainly our business—serial rape.

Picture Pages, Picture Pages, Open up your Picture Pages!
Time to watch Bill Cosby drug and rape young women for kicks!

How the hell does this happen?

Lifelong legacies of revered and respected public figures, decimated by shockingly horrendous violations of the law, ethics, the public trust, and even common sense, over and over and over again. And I’m not talking about simple sex, or drugs, or saying stupid things. I’m talking about the real stuff: mass embezzlement, rape, murder, pedophilia and the like.

OJ Simpson
Jim Bakker
Michael Jackson
Oscar Pistorius
Joe Paterno

Guilty or not guilty, sane or insane, liable or not, these are examples of those who fell furthest, fastest and hardest, often taking sacred parts of us with them.

I mean, whose legacy will be tarnished next?

Fred Rogers, the cannibalistic Presbyterian pederast?
Jim Henson, the murderous druglord of the Public Broadcast Service?
Mother Teresa, the Queenpin of human trafficking?

After this, almost nothing would surprise me. Maybe the Mother Teresa one.

Now, I don’t know that Bill Cosby is guilty of everything he’s been accused of; no one does except Bill and his accusers. But the recent discovery that Cosby admitted under oath to giving quaaludes to women with the intent of having sex with them, combined with the disturbing number of women who have come forward with accusations, one’s suspicions must be at least a little piqued.

But frankly, the question of his guilt is now irrelevant. In my mind his image is tarnished; the damage is done. And I’m left with a dilemma that I’m not sure how to resolve.

See, I’d written off Bill Cosby as a comedian over ten years ago, after I saw him “perform” in Madison, Wisconsin. The precisely one-hour-long show consisted of 56 minutes of the most incoherent, uninteresting, and unfunny ramblings I have ever endured outside of conservative talk radio. After which, Dr. Cosby looked at his watch and instantly launched into his famous “Dentist” routine, pared down and rattled off without the slightest sense of comedic timing, cramming a well-known ten-minute routine into the last four minutes of the hour.

“Oh well,” I thought, “He’s old. He’s tired. Now I never have to see him again. At least I still have all the old albums to enjoy, revere, and reminisce of his glory days.”

Now I’m not so sure.

Yes, I’ve forgiven numerous trespasses of many an artist before, if for no other reason than to preserve my affinity for the art that sprang forth from them.

Bob Dylan lied to and betrayed Joan Baez (and the entire folk music scene) after she had launched him into stardom. Suze Rotolo had nabbed his heart and he’d found his true sound in rock ‘n’ roll.

He also shut out The Band on profits from The Basement Tapes and inadvertently taught Robbie Robertson a thing or two about sticking it to your buddies (or so I’ve read).

I’m not about to burn Blood on the Tracks in protest of his heartlessness and betrayal.

Like these, the mistakes and sins for which I’ve forgiven many artists are small potatoes next to the whopper I’m wallowing over with Bill Cosby.

Alcoholism, addiction, and depression are diseases, and they make people do bad things.
Vanity, egotism, and megalomania are disturbing traits that inevitably lead to a fall.

But given the power, I don’t think I would “revise” my heroes’ existence to exclude these characteristics just to obtain a more romantic portrayal of them, lest it despoil the accomplishment or art that I love them for. After all, it came from the people they are, not the people I wanted them to be. Besides, who among us is without sin?

But when it comes to Cosby, I’m not sure if I’ll be able to hear his telling of boyhood escapades and not think of the dozens of terrified women who’ve accused him of sexual assault. I don’t know if I’ll watch “Himself” again and wonder which impressionable ingénue he might’ve lured to his hotel room after the show. And I’m not confident that I’ll ever see another episode of “The Cosby Show” without wondering what occurred in “coaching sessions” with female cast members behind the closed door of his dressing room.

And this is the most grievous casualty when idols of this magnitude fall to crimes of such extreme wickedness:

  Not only do we lose the champion, we are also robbed of his victories.

We may be disheartened to learn the true nature of our heroes, but we feel truly violated when their medals become tarnished by the sins they’ve committed. Alas, Lancelot’s betrayal begat his own fall, yet it took all of Camelot with him.

Will I ever be able to separate Bill’s alleged deeds from his seemingly benevolent life’s work? Have I truly been robbed of that childhood joy forever?

I don’t know. But right now, I can’t bring myself to revisit any of it.

Advertisements