When I first proposed this project of revising Bill Cosby’s illustrious career, the reality of why I was doing this was because of the slew of rape and sexual assault allegations that had returned to his doorstep. I wanted to know if it was possible, (based on what we already know about him), to determine how he got here. It’s been odd, uncomfortable even, seeing Cosby in this kind of dimmed light of despicable choices.
As I began my research, it was like uncovering the case of The Multiple Bill Cosbys. A virtual tug of war between a man whose level of Black excellence and comedic revelations about everyday day were lauded by critics and appreciated by TV viewers, and the man that had allegedly subjected multiple women to sexual horrors while to continuing to project a good guy guise. It is now undeniable: Cosby has crushed his overall “wholesome” image, but was he always so clean-cut to begin with?
I wasn’t able create some kind of Clue-esque conclusion of Cosby’s progression from “Wholesome African-American Boy Next Door” to now “Disappointing Pop Culture Icon”but I did have an “a-ha!” moment or two along the way.
Let’s see where you stand…
1960s: Bill Cosby, The “Wholesome” African-American Boy Next Door
He paved the way for comedians like the liberal Richard Pryor, but was William Henry “Bill” Cosby, Jr. ever an edgy comic himself? The 1960s would rival his prime in the 1980s as his most “wholesome” time as an entertainer. At the age of 19, the Philadelphian, former U.S. Navy, temporary college dropout had migrated to New York City in pursuit of comedy. While watching videos of Cosby on The Tonight Show in 1963, and vintage stand-up clips, I did enjoy witnessing a young man enthused to be noticed but self-assured in what he had to say. I’ve been so used to seeing a wise but cynical man of a certain age, I appreciated this more gee-whiz, gregarious side.
His first album, 1964’s Bill Cosby Is A Very Funny Fellow…Right!, harbored tame material. In ’65 he was cast in the show I Spy, becoming the first Black actor to star in a drama series. While his celebrity grew, he maintained a chipper reputation (cleanly shaved, always in a suit and tie), and in comparison to the cabal of Black comics back then, including the raunchy Moms Mabley or keep it real swag of Dick Gregory, Cosby was solidified as the African-American “version” of the boy next door. But, a closer analysis from his vintage clips revealed a comedian that as wholesome as he appeared, could be greatly sarcastic and occasionally a total nuisance. Like in this vintage clip from a December 11, 1965 stand-up, with memories ranging from his Temple University days to visiting a then girlfriend from Trenton, NJ, he recalls always trying to take the easy way out, while retrospectively acknowledging his tendency to see things at face value.
See him in action below:
By 1969, our friend Bill was moving past the neighborhood shenanigans and onto the battle of the sexes, with controversial segments like “It’s The Woman’s Fault” (a spoof reasoning that because Eve ate the apple is why women get pregnant), but it’ll be the specific skit of “Spanish Fly” that today will raise eyebrows. From his (now ironically titled) LP It’s True! It’s True! that Cosby casually spoke of a story he was told about an incoherent (drugged) girl under the pretense of a drink called “Spanish Fly“. He was neither sympathetic to the girl or reprimanded the juvenile that told him. He instead recounts the story as an amused voyeur of careless decisions. Due to the nonchalance of his conduct here, this skit would later be the harbinger of Cosby’s interactions with drugs, women, and in possibly missing a sensitivity chip.
VERDICT: Cosby in the ’60s was a smart-ass, too cool for school comic that charmed.
1970s: Bill Cosby, the Pro-Black, Reformed Youth Counselor and PSA Magnet
The 1970s would be an oscillating time for Bill Cosby. He exercised his newfound ability to be a walking billboard for products like Jello-O and Crest toothpaste, but he was also looking to transition. He needed a new forum for his talent and a purpose beyond television recognition as a friendly guy about town telling jokes. He joined the cast of the children’s variety show The Electric Company, where interestingly, one of his characters was called “Honest John” and also delivered an odd one man show on discrimination titled Bill Cosby, On Prejudice in 1971. On a KCET sound stage and wearing what looked to be reverse blackface with pale green hooded eyelids and a painted faded yellow mouth, he motionlessly gave a rant about racial stereotypes. If you’ve seen Spike Lee‘s The 25th Hour and recall the scene of Edward Norton popping off about each and every culture, socioeconomic, and racial group in New York, On Prejudice was the original but very campy epilogue to that. After initially forgoing the mentioning of racism a decade ago, he was now dishing it out, method actor style.
In 1972, the debut of his own first series Fat Albert and The Cosby Kids premiered as a Saturday morning cartoon. It was a spin-off of the original 1969 primetime special Hey, Hey, Hey, It’s Fat Albert, and both cartoons were a disarming interpretation of his growing up in Philadelphia with his friends. Yet for The Cosby Kids, the comedian made sure to include his characters taking on real-life situations like bullying, violence, poverty, and in spreading compassion. In every episode, the close group of friends would work together to find a solution (with some definite hijinks along the way) to a problem and at the end, they’d have a jam session at their beloved junkyard hangout.
While embracing this newfound responsibility of advocating academics and morals, he also enjoyed some box office clout with hits like with Let’s Do It Again, an all-black ensemble, co-lead by Sidney Poitier. I liked this pro-Black era of Cosby. He wasn’t necessarily a radical Black Panther, but he was contributing to the betterment of community with fun but scholastic programs and discussing race in America.
Scandals wise, he seemed to be far from it…or least from what the public knew. As mentioned before, allegations of the sexual assaults against him occurred during his time, but were kept hush-hush.
VERDICT: Cosby became a well-to-do member of society
1980s: Bill Cosby, “America’s Dad”
Let’s just get to it. This would be the decade of The Huxtables. The fictional Black family that resided in a Brooklyn Heights brownstone, ushering a much-needed new era of the American dream for all of the world to see. It was a much needed image of African-Americans on television–the cast even reflected a real Black family’s range of skin tones!–as the show contained a noticeably charismatic outlook on life. In the previous decade, ’70s faves like Sanford and Son and Good Times were great and lead the path for The Cosby Show to display the Black family unit, they was a delicate air of fatigue to it, like they knew good times would not last forever. On The Cosby Show, there was perpetual hope that they could.
Cosby worked almost exclusively on The Cosby Show in the ’80s, and was coroneted as America’s Dad. Still, it was the decade that was defined by the crack epidemic and devastating crime rates for urban cities across America, and especially for its epicenter, New York City. By 1988, some viewers felt The Cosby Show was a fantasy compared to the lives of just trying to get through the day Black-Americans. The show faced criticized for being out of touch or at the least not talking enough about racism and injustice, topics that Cosby actually tackled in the cartoon Fat Albert, which was designed for children . In 2013, in the show’s defense when asked by Oprah Winfrey about the The Cosby’s Show cast-iron purpose as a positive presentation of African-Americans, Phylicia Rashad, the actress who played Cosby’s TV wife as Claire Huxtable, responded:
I guess it just depends on who you and what you now. People will always have something to complain about. It piggy backs to what [actress Alfre Woodard] was saying about your life and who and what you are. You can stand in that and it doesn’t really matter. [The Cosby Show] introduced you to the world. Those were the golden years. When the show ended, it seemed like the industry was determined to present the antithesis on everything it did. They are parents today who grew up in that era and are asking, where is it today? We wish we had that today.
If they were any scandals during the Cosby era, they centered around young co-star Lisa Bonet who posed for a racy Rolling Stone cover and starred role in Angel Heart that featured a sex scene. “America’s Dad” ridiculed Bonet for rebelling against her wholesome, Black middle-class TV family image, and two would go on to have creative differences.
In 1992, The Cosby Show said au revoir to much fanfare.
VERDICT: As the Huxtables became extended family to millions of viewers, Bill Cosby enjoyed the greatest decade of an already admirable career. The success and impact of The Cosby Show would be canonized as a voice for Black hope, ambition, and values.
1990s: Bill Cosby, Cool Senior
After the ’80s, Bill Cosby was officially a living legend, and still keeping busy with various projects and specials that ranged from old-people fare like The Cosby Mysteries, re-teaming with Phylicia Rashad for Cosby, and the live-action folly of Kids Say the Darndest Things. Yet by end of the decade Cosby would face much adversity.
On January 16, 1997, his only son Ennis was robbed and murdered on the side of a Los Angeles highway. Though Cosby continued to work months after his death, it was evident his heart was heavy. Also in ’97, Cosby was hit with a $40 million lawsuit from Autumn Jackson who insisted Cosby was the father of their supposed love child. She was later jailed at 26 months for extortion, but Cosby admitted to an affair. At the time, he had been married to, his wife and mother of all five of his children, Camille for 33 years.
VERDICT: Life got real for Mr. Huxtable
2000s: Bill Cosby, Grumpy Old Man
Ah, the New Millennium…the decade where Bill Cosby went rogue. He wasn’t looking to be the affable elderly (anymore). He was beginning to behave perpetually pissed off… at the media, at youth, and at the Black community as a whole.
His 2004 laughably nicknamed “Pound Cake Speech” cemented his transition from Cosby: Influential Black Icon to Cosby: Grumpy Old Man. As a speaker at the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education case, Cosby spoke (according to his research) about the lack of progress in Black America. He harshly criticized single-parent homes; hip-hop/street jargon and fashion; Black people obtaining low-income jobs; and a general sense of young Black people’s ungrateful behavior towards Black heroes and important situations like B v. B and misguided priorities. The possibly well-intentioned speech came across as judgmental, hurtful, and non-constructive. Scholars and journalists attacked Cosby for his less than graceful oration. Here’s an excerpt from the speech for example:
“Ladies and gentlemen, listen to these people. They are showing you what’s wrong … What part of Africa did this come from? We are not Africans. Those people are not Africans. They don’t know a damned thing about Africa— with names like Shaniqua, Shaligua, Mohammed, and all that crap, and all of them are in jail.
The speech became a lightning rod for the conversation, and many of his detractors challenged whether or not it was even a millionaire’s place to discuss progress for the working class. Michael Eric Dyson was compelled to pen and title his 2005 book “Is Bill Cosby Right? Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind?,” and cartoonist Aaron McGrudder responded through his typically raw and uncensored comic strip The Boondocks (he practically declared war on Cosby and used as a symbol of White person approved sanctimony).
Cosby was unapologetic and surly about his stance and many fans began to wonder, what had happened to Bill Cosby? He seemed to be changing into a hypercritical leech, kicking many while they were down. Cosby had made himself an easy target of obnoxious saintliness.
Prior to the “pound cake” speech, Bill Cosby was honored with accolades for his legendary career including the Presidential Medal of Honor in 2002, the Bob Hope Humanitarian Award in 2003, and the live-action adaptation of Fat Albert was released in 2004, but trouble followed him like a determined mosquito. In 2000, Lachele Covington in a police report claimed that Cosby groped her. In 2004, Canadian basketball player Andrea Constand accused him of fondling and giving her drugs, leading to an underground media circus. In 2006, it was settled out of court for an undisclosed amount, and said information was surprisingly and mainly kept out of the public. In 2007, a writer (now for Newsweek’s The Daily Beast) wrote an expose for Hollywood Interrupted on the sexual crimes of Bill Cosby, but his investigation went somewhat unnoticed. In 2008, Ta-Neshi Coates unleashed a lengthy and curious observation of the man Cosby had become as a post-Cosby Show motivational speaker, obsessed with demanding Black people in America to do better (the title is a quip from a speech of his), ‘This Is How We Lose to The White Man‘.
VERDICT: Bill Cosby (accidentally) appointed himself the new public enemy.
2010s: Bill Cosby, Disappointing Pop Culture Icon
This year, Bill Cosby has faced a barrage of sexual assault claims from an upwards of fourteen (and still counting) victims, a few even well-known such as model Janice Dickinson. Bill Cosby–to a public that’s watched him for years, many having grown up with The Cosby Show–is boldly being labelled across the media as a rapist. Following the mountain of allegations, projects that were in the works were subsequently cancelled and it’s been a disastrous year for Cosby.
VERDICT: A legacy dismantled.