April 6, 2015
Oh Bill, for Heaven's Sake...
1st & 4th album covers. See it?
In the years 1963 through 1966, when I was seven to ten years old, my life
revolved to no small extent around the doings of two titanic heroes then
at the peak of their powers: Sandy Koufax and Bill Cosby. These two could
do no wrong in my eyes, apart from their stubborn and selfish insistence
on remaining, respectively, Jewish and black.
Koufax pitched—and willed—a Dodgers team with an offense more impotent
than a Cialis-deprived Hugh Hefner to three World Series in four years,
but when he refused to pitch the Series opener in ’65 because it fell on Yom Kippur, I felt like the “Say it ain’t so,
Joe!” kid from the Black Sox scandal or a random Koch brother sadly watching
yet another bought-and-paid-for Republican governor succumb to the siren call of Obamacare.
That he was still able to start three games in an eight-day span and win
two of them –including the decisive seventh – with complete-game shutouts,
all with constant arthritic pain, only slightly assuaged my deep-seated
mistrust of Sandy’s nettlesome Hebreity.
As for Bill Cosby, my older brother purchased his first several comedy
albums, which came out during that same decade. Much of his act consisted
of ruminations on his childhood, some of which tickled me pink--a hue that
I hoped my hero would someday aspire to. But what led me to play those
LPs over and over was the hope that my prepubescent mind would somehow
become able to crack the racy bits, which grew more common as his career
progressed—e.g., the story about borrowing Midol from his landlady to alleviate
a persistent toothache, and of course the now notorious “Spanish Fly” riff.
My mother would engage in aerobic tongue-clucking when she caught me playing
such tracks and fake-laughing at them as if I got the innuendo (or even
grasped what innuendo was), but her reaction only endeared me all the more
to this articulate, effervescent storyteller whom I did so adore. If only,
I would often muse, he weren’t so gosh-darned black.
But then one day I happened to line up those album covers on the living
room rug. On the 1963 debut he was very dark, but then seemed to grow progressively
more coffee-hued with each release. On some level, I surely must have understood
that this was merely a function of lighting (and today I rather suspect
deliberate retouching aimed at making the comic more welcome in the homes
of closed-minded rural Midwesterners), but I talked myself out of that
notion and into the more pleasing theory that, somehow, Bill Cosby was
And so as the Sixties rolled on, ever more turbulent in the outside world but as quiet as ever in Mortonville, Illinois, I prayed occasionally for Sandy Koufax to renounce Judaism and Bill Cosby to abandon Negritude. To my pre-adolescent mind, having the one cast off the faith of his ancestors and the other adjust his melanin seemed a much less troublesome way to resolve my discomfort than for me to challenge my assumptions about enigmatic “others.” Talk about your white privilege.*
Over time, I somehow managed to continue admiring the two icons despite their
genetic flaws, and now here they are both chugging along toward the big
8-0. Koufax mostly faded from view after his Hall of Fame ascension, but
apart from a dust-up a while back in which he rejected rumors of gayness a little more forcefully than was called for, he has lived out an exemplary
childhood hero’s life. And somewhere along the way, I made my peace with
his obstinate Jewishness. I’m prepared to burst into heartfelt tears at
a moment’s notice upon hearing that he has passed away. Been practicing
for it, in fact.**
And then there’s Bill Cosby. Hoo boy.
Naturally, my eyes widened some dozen years ago when the first spate of
accusations came out. The exact news items that I read at the time are,
of course, long gone. All I can remember is bizarre terminology along the
lines of “serial manual violation,” and the fact that his MO seemed insanely
specific, almost OCD-like - at least in the reports that I remember reading.
He would lay the drugged victim out on a sofa (and you just had to imagine
the Huxtable living room sofa) and create a sort of double-bunned hotdog
by wrapping her hand around his Fat Albert and then jerking it with his
own hand while using his free one to grope her upper body.
It was, without question, a form of rape, but a weirdly ritualized one.
And, to the extent that one can project oneself into the mind of a creature
who thinks that all that is a perfectly acceptable thing to do to another
human being, it made a diabolical sort of sense. Little cleanup was required.
The victim would wake with no physical discomfort or sense of having been
penetrated and perhaps only vague memories.
Over the decade following those initial accusations, as the reputations
of Woody Allen and others went down in flames, Bill just kept steaming
ahead. Whenever I would see him waddling off somewhere to make another
speech excoriating young black men for their unslightly pants-wearing and other behaviors, I would squint
at him and remind myself, “That guy likes to make unconscious ladies jerk
him off,” and wonder why it didn’t seem to bother anyone else.
Of course, the more recent reports make clear that far, far more went on than this double-bunning and feel-copping
business and that Bill Cosby is a full-blown monster who needs his hot
dog chewed off piece by piece by gonnorrheic piranhas. Among the many condemnations
that have been launched against him, there is a subgenre that attacks his
art: He was never funny, they say, or Who on earth every laughed at his comedy? This line of attack incites within me a fleeting flicker of an urge to stick
up for the man. I assure you, for prepubescent boys in the Sixties, Bill
Cosby was a laugh riot when he wasn't going over our heads. But the operative
word here is fleeting.***
For all I care, he can stay black, turn white, or break out in polka dots
like a Katy Perry swimsuit. There will be no tears for Bill around here
when he goes. Maybe some fake laughing, if I can muster it. Bill, I'm very
disappointed in you.
|*Then again, given the melanin-adjusting escapades of Michael Jackson and John Boehner in recent decades, how hard can it be?
|** Sandy keeps himself so fit and buff that he stands a good chance of outlasting
me. Always impeccably well-groomed, too. Hmm...
|*** On the other hand, I'm all in with the not-funny crowd when it comes to
The Cosby Show.
I forced myself to watch several episodes in search of materials that I
could use in English classes, and came to know by heart the two that I
selected for classroom use. (The one where Vanessa wants to give up the
clarinet until Dizzy Gillespie shows up to practice with her, and the one
where Denise sews Theo a shitty knock-off designer shirt.) The (predominantly
female) students of NU loved Bill Cosby for his crisp, stentorian diction,
which made him much easier to understand than any other sitcom character
of the era. Ironically, the show's wholesome vibe vis-a-vis later options
like Friends or Roseanne added to its appeal and kept me recycling it in classes as late as 2004.
For me, it was pretty excruciating. What few chortles The Cosby Show coaxed out of me were Theo-based, and even those moments didn't hold up
very well after the fifteenth viewing.