In 2013, Bill Cosby walked across an airport terminal in Virginia all alone, carrying a leather duffel bag and wearing the baggy, old-timer get-up of brown lounging pants and a white sweatshirt. The septuagenarian stand-up and actor was on his way to a comedy gig, one of 60-odd he did that year, and he was in a generous mood. Across his chest were printed the words: “Hello, friend.”
Those who approached him really were his friends, or felt like they were, even if they had never met him before. And stopping to chat, shake hands and even sing with them, he was their friend, too – or, perhaps, something closer still. He was family. After all, he had spent three decades as “America’s dad”, ever since The Cosby Show first aired in 1984 and became the era’s most successful TV comedy. “Thank you for my childhood,” one passer-by called to him, before hurrying away bashfully.
A year after Cosby’s biographer Mark Whitaker witnessed this scene at Richmond International Airport, a 31-year-old comedian called Hannibal Buress, who had briefly been a writer for Saturday Night Live and the NBC series 30 Rock, launched into a tried-and-tested routine at the Trocadero club in Philadelphia. Riffing on the older comic’s long-held conservative and patronising attitudes to poor black men – most explicitly articulated in his notorious “pound cake” speech, delivered to the NAACP in 2004 – Buress said: “You raped women, Bill Cosby. So that kind of brings you down a couple notches.” (Cosby has consistently maintained his innocence.)
Buress had performed the skit several times over the previous six months to little controversy, but when a video clip of the performance made its way online, it quickly went viral. An artist called Barbara Bowman wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post in which she alleged that Cosby had “drugged and raped” her when she was an aspiring actress in the mid-1980s. Others came forward to accuse him of similar crimes; the earliest of the alleged incidents dates back to the mid-1960s.
Cosby’s legal representatives immediately dismissed the sexual assault claims as “discredited” and warned: “The fact that they are being repeated does not make them true.” The actor has never been convicted of the crimes, and was not formally charged until December 2015. On 17 June this year, exhausted jurors at a Philadelphia court finally emerged after 52 hours of deliberation still unable to reach a unanimous verdict on whether Cosby had drugged and indecently assaulted a woman called Andrea Constand in 2004 (Cosby says the encounter was consensual). The case ended in a mistrial.
“Mr Cosby began this trial presumed innocent and he leaves it that way,” said the actor’s lead lawyer, Brian J McMonagle. Yet what is presumed in a court of law and what is presumed in the court of public opinion are two different things. Almost 60 women have accused him of indecent assault. After the allegations emerged, reruns of The Cosby Show were pulled from several stations; plans for a new NBC comedy series starring the actor were scrapped; and he was dropped by his agents as a client. Academic institutions such as the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and the Berklee College of Music, once proud to be associated with such a vocal champion of education, distanced themselves from him unceremoniously. Cosby’s career as a public figure, as a comedian, as an actor, as America’s dad, seems well and truly over.
But can Cliff Huxtable – the gynaecologist father of four, former high-school athlete and proud graduate of the prestigious Hillman College – survive Bill Cosby? Wesley Morris of the New York Times was “bewildered” when he first heard the accusations, because The Cosby Show had “made him seem like everybody’s father”. The scandal felt like a refutation of our youth. I wonder what the woman who thanked the actor for her childhood at the airport would say to him today.
Cliff was a goof who loved jazz and wore endearingly silly jumpers. He was the kind of dad who would interrogate his daughters’ partners before begrudgingly giving his blessing. He volunteered at community centres in his free time, and his day job consisted mainly of helping pregnant women prepare for parenthood. The Huxtables lived in a big house in a posh area of Brooklyn, New York; every kid had his or her own bedroom, though the kitchen table was the base of the family’s operations. Here, heartfelt confessions mingled with dinner-spoiling snacking and all the usual minor arguments that close relatives have. They were impossibly wholesome, rich and sometimes smug about it, but otherwise they were normal.
This sense of normality was The Cosby Show’s gift. Morris wrote that the Huxtables “were notable not simply because they were black but because there was nothing flamboyant or ideological about their blackness”. Yet to present black Americans as identifiable and even aspirational figures in the mid-1980s was itself an ideological gesture. The show was a negation of decades of negative racial stereotyping, a utopian world in which African Americans could claim the same share of success as whites, and even the same sort of family traditions: that of attending a college like Hillman, for example. Both Cliff and his wife, Clair, were high-earning professionals who were more likely to agonise about their careers or social engagements than civil rights, which were rarely mentioned. This was a United States that had moved on from racism a long time ago.
The Cosby Show was, however, sometimes painfully moralistic in tone, and watching too many episodes of it in succession will send you running to, say, Roseanne, to bask in its down-to-earth meanness. Roseanne was the far better family comedy, but perhaps that was because it didn’t have to bear the burden of pushing a relentlessly positive image of a race.
Bill Cosby is a moralist and he couldn’t resist infusing his show with a piety that, today, seems overly prescriptive. In speeches and in books, often on the subject of parenthood, he has located the “bleakness” of life for young black Americans in a decline of family values. He has blamed the “catastrophe” of social breakdown on the absence of fathers, complaining, “There are whole blocks with scarcely a married couple… In 1950, we still feared our parents and respected them.”
In his 2004 NAACP speech, he called out “the lower economic and lower-middle economic people” among the African-American community for failing to hold “their end of [the] deal”, allowing their kids to cut class and church, and only bothering to care “when their son is standing there in an orange suit”. He ignored wider socio-economic reasons for black suffering and put the responsibility of progress squarely in the hands of the poorest. The Cosby Show, thankfully, treaded more lightly in terms of its social diagnoses, but this stiflingly conservative world-view is there for those who care to see it. Perhaps that’s why it was so popular in that long morning of Ronald Reagan’s America.
When the sexual assault allegations emerged, Cosby’s history of public moralising was invoked to highlight his alleged hypocrisy. Not only was he Cliff Huxtable, the loveable dad, but he was a loud advocate of self-control and good behaviour (he even won a Grammy in 1972 for an anti-drugs record for children). Whether the actor will eventually end up in jail remains to be seen, but his best-loved character has certainly been tainted by the man who played him. It’s difficult to watch him now, lecturing his daughters Vanessa and Denise about the dangers of men, when the man who embodied him is accused of being just such a dangerous man.
Should it be so difficult? When I listen to Phil Spector, I don’t think about the killer who shot a woman in the face. “Be My Baby” remains one of the greatest pop recordings in history. Likewise, the cinematic worth of Chinatown and Rosemary’s Baby is untouched by the predilections of Roman Polanski, their alternately disgraced and celebrated director.
The Cosby Show had Bill Cosby’s name in the title and starred him in the lead role, so it’s harder to extricate him from our feelings about the programme as a whole. But the screen character would never have done the awful things that the actor is accused of. Cliff wasn’t a sleazeball. He may have been preachy and, occasion, downright annoying, but he lives in my mind as a pretty decent guy. I bet when fans saw the words “Hello, friend” on Cosby’s sweatshirt, it was Cliff they felt was greeting them, not Bill. Maybe one day it’ll be easier to remember that America’s dad was Cliff Huxtable, not Bill Cosby, all along.