Last week, I was reading (and enjoying) Patton Oswalt’s new book Silver Screen Fiend, a memoir of his four-year film addiction, which occurred as he was simultaneously finding his footing as a comedian. In describing the latter progression, he writes: “I’d spent the first nineteen years of life memorizing every comedy album I could play on my parents’ turntable. I knew the exact timing for the pause between the words ‘waited’ and ‘July’ in Bill Cosby’s ‘Revenge’ routine.” That line, the first of several examples of his comedy obsession, jumps out and jars — due, of course, to timing beyond Oswalt’s control. The book was presumably put to bed long before the accusations of Cosby’s decades as a serial rapist resurfaced last fall; the line serves as a reminder not just of his vaunted position in the comedy community, but of how slow that community has been to react to the accusations. This week, the tide began to turn, first with Tina Fey and Amy Poehler’s jaw-dropping Cosby jokes in their Golden Globes introduction, then with a candid conversation the next day between Judd Apatow and Marc Maron on Maron’s WTF podcast.
“Something’s been eating away at me a bit,” Maron says in the introduction to Monday’s WTF, noting that he’s been hesitant to discuss the matter on the podcast, despite the show’s primary focus on the world of stand-up comedy — where Cosby still looms large. “My beat is the comedy community,” Maron explains, “and I felt bad that I was not talking about it, because I didn’t know how to talk about it. But now I’m talking about it.”
The trigger, for Maron, was simple: “Something happened onstage last week that kinda grossed me out.” He’s referring to Cosby’s performance last week in London, Ontario, where the comedian ad-libbed a joke about the accusations to a female audience member heading to the venue’s bar. “You have to be careful about drinking around me,” Cosby joked, prompting gasps, then laughs and cheers from the audience.
But Maron characterizes as “heinous” the idea of “using the platform of stand-up comedy to obfuscate, make light of, and trivialize what he’s playing off as empty accusations.” And his call-in guest Judd Apatow, who has been quite outspoken in his condemnations of Cosby, agrees. “One thing I do know is, I’m not comfortable with him running around the country doing stand-up like nothing’s happening,” Apatow says. “I don’t want him going around getting standing ovations… At the very least, go in your mansion and disappear for the rest of your life. He shouldn’t be rewarded and applauded for raping that many women.”
Apatow’s continuing interest and commentary on the Cosby case has prompted some criticism, and to that end, he tells Maron, “I can understand why someone would say Why does Judd care about this? I don’t know, I have two daughters. I’m a comedian. I see him a little bit as our comedy dad. It’s like finding out your comedy dad is a really evil guy… and when the community is pretty silent, I feel like, if no one’s gonna talk, I’m gonna talk.”
And the “comedy dad” angle is what’s really interesting here. Apatow has, since his teenage years, been a proud comedy nerd, his childhood obsession reappearing in fictional characters (like Freaks and Geeks’ Bill), film subjects (the stand-up comedy/drama Funny People) casting decisions (Albert Brooks in This Is 40, Harold Ramis in Knocked Up), and side projects (his anthology book I Found This Funny). He doesn’t mischaracterize the Cosby idolatry among comedians — watch the way Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld talk about him in Seinfeld’s documentary Comedian. Now that Joan Rivers is gone, there’s no one (aside from Don Rickles) who’s been doing it longer, and with his degree of durability and skill. When he played a theater I managed back in 2004, he did a pair of two-hour sets in one night, and the only bit that he did in both shows was the closer, which was also the only bit I’d heard before (and I have all of his albums).
So when we talk about Bill Cosby the comedian, we’re back in that difficult conversation about his legacy. But it’s a different conversation than the one about The Cosby Show — not because he wasn’t a groundbreaking stand-up (as one of the first black comics to “cross over,” he certainly was), but because of the inherently personal nature of stand-up itself. Though there were certainly shades of (what we perceive as) his own life and personality on The Cosby Show, he was ultimately playing a fictional character, and the importance of that show was equally anchored in other elements: the timing, the cultural impact, the writing, the performers, the influence of Phylicia Rashad’s Clair.
But stand-up is different. Stand-up is just one person and a microphone, and the best stand-up comedy is rooted in the idea of a conversation, preferably an unguarded and unfiltered one, between the performer and the audience. We feel as though we’re seeing a real person up there, and in the case of a famous comic, a person who we already know something about — which is why, as MSNBC’s Chris Hayes notes, Fey and Poehler were able to get away with their Cosby jokes in a way that, say, Ricky Gervais might not have. We know Amy Poehler, and we know Tina Fey (and we know how long she’s been talking about Cosby’s past), so we know where they’re coming from. And we thought we knew Bill Cosby; that incongruity between persona and accusation (the root of Fey and Poehler’s dueling impressions, by the way) is going to make it very difficult to find humor in his considerable body of work. Or, at the very least, bits like this:
(Lest you think that was a young man thing or a ‘60s thing, note that he was still giggling about drugging women for sexual purposes as recently as 1991.)
“I love Cosby as a comic,” Maron says, “and I don’t know what to do with that.” Apatow concurs, noting the prevailing feeling that “if we admit that Cosby did this, we’re not allowed to enjoy everything that made us so happy.” But if there’s an upside to losing our unvarnished view of Cosby’s brilliance as a stand-up, it’s that the entire ordeal has reminded us of the stand-up comedian’s greatest role, from Will Rogers to Lenny Bruce to Richard Pryor to Bill Hicks: to be a truth teller. It was, after all, a stand-up comedy bit that jump-started this entire scandal.
Sunday night (as Janet Mock notes), two female comedians used Cosby’s voice to make the confession that he’ll probably never make. And on Monday’s WTF, two comedians wrestled with the implications of these accusations, and — as the best comedians do — succinctly summarized an entire cultural conversation. “It’s innocent until proven guilty,” Maron grants, “but people in power are never proven guilty!” And in grappling with the issue, Maron issued an indictment not just to himself, but to all of us: “At what point do we start using due process as a rationalization to not engage our common sense, or our own logic? Or to overcome our own fear of speaking what we believe is true?”