Rape can’t be funny

I paid to see a rapist once, only I didn’t know it at the time.

To be more specific, my parents paid for the excursion and came with me.

I had to come to grips with that this morning when I got the “Bill Cosby told a woman ‘you have to be careful about drinking around me’” story in my CNN feed.

Cosby is still packing shows across the continent with his “I’m Far From Finished” comedy tour. He’s also packing parking lots and sidewalks with protestors who won’t let him forget that they haven’t forgotten about the rape allegations leveled against him.

I’ve dodged the Cos issue a lot in my writing and in my mind because knowing something and believing something aren’t the same as resigning yourself to something.

I was about 13 when my parents offered me anything I wanted for my “eighth-grade graduation” present. I had my eye on a shiny Cleveland Indians Starter Jacket and some cool baseball equipment, but I chose tickets to see Bill Cosby without any reservation. He was coming to Milwaukee’s Marcus Amphitheater that June as part of the Bear Aid charity event and mom and dad took me out there.

I had loved Bill Cosby since I was about 8 and I heard his “Himself” routine on cassette. I played the thing over and over and over until my Walkman ate it.

At an estate sale a year or so later, I found a treasure trove of his classic records: “Bill Cosby is a Very Funny Man. RIGHT!” “Why is there Air?” “Revenge!” “I Started Out as a Child.” They all came home with me and I played them on the old record player in our computer room, filling in the gaps in his routines with my own thoughts when the scratches obscured his words.

Every time we went on a trip of an extended length, I was allowed one new tape and one book. I always bought a Bill Cosby tape, adding “Wonderfulness” and “To My Brother Russell Who I Slept With” to my mix. After my parents listened to it and made sure it was OK, they allowed me to buy the “Bill Cosby: For Adults Only” tape. Turns out, you get more “filthy” stuff on TV these days when compared to Cosby’s foray into the late-night show comedy.

The show was my chance to see the master in living color.

June in Wisconsin is a variable time for weather and the amphitheater was an outdoor venue. The temperature dropped to near freezing and we bundled up in coats and hats and gloves to see the man, as they refused to cancel the show.

As we were looking for our gate, my dad (ever the joker) said to me, “Hey there goes Bill Cosby!” I figured he was pointing at some random black guy just to punk me, but when I scoffed, Dad yelled out, “Hey, Mr. Cosby!”

The man turned to us. It was really The Man.

He was clad in only a thin suit and was smoking a cigar. Without removing the lit tobacco product from his mouth, he called back in a semi-muffled voice, “How you doin’ there, sir?” He then walked on.

I don’t remember much about that night other than when he walked on the stage he was bundled up in what I can only assume to be something an intern was forced to go find for him. He wore a lined, satin Milwaukee Bucks jacket, Bucks stocking cap and thick gloves. He still had his suit pants and dress shoes on. His opening lines were about how he got off a plane less than 24 hours ago and how the hell did the weather change this much in that amount of time?

I laughed at that line and anything else he said for the next three hours.

I can’t think about that event now and even think about laughing.

I saw a rapist that day. I have finally come to grips with that. And although I’m sure my pain is nothing compared to the pain of his victims, this final resignation still hurts.

I know defenders of Cosby, like Felicia Rashad, will argue that this is really just an overarching attempt to tear down the man’s legacy.

I know people still think he’s a funny man and that whatever comes of this set of allegations (or the next set or the set after that) can’t diminish his role as a break-through African-American entertainer and living legend.

I know that in this country we are all innocent until proven guilty by a jury of our peers and that none of this is likely to ever see a courtroom so we will never truly “prove” what we hear every day from protestors and accusers alike.

But I also know what I learned from A so many years ago when she was covering the sex scandals of the Catholic church.

I once asked her, “How do you KNOW when an allegation is true and when it’s not? I mean, when you publish an accusation, obviously there will be push back, but how do you know who’s right?”

I use her answer as an example in every class I teach about reporting:

“When you publish a fair and balanced story about an allegation, if nothing else happens, it might not be 100 percent perfect or the priest might not be the guy. However, when you publish a fair and balanced story and the allegation is true, you know it because these guys never do it once and they almost always do it the same way.”

She told me how stories of kids being offered baseball tickets in exchange for molestation and stories of how kids were given ridiculously specific rules for seeing the priest and why the kid should never speak of it. In each case, when one person cracked the shell of silence, more virtually identical stories came flooding in.

Cosby’s accusers are telling the same stories. They vary enough to know the people aren’t copying notes, but the stories mirror one another in a way that should leave almost no doubt in the minds of anyone who is paying attention to this.

I paid to see a rapist once. I don’t think I’ll ever be OK with that.

I just wonder how people can continue to pay for that “privilege.”

7 thoughts on “Rape can’t be funny

  1. (I have no good answers, but…)

    At what point do you separate the art from the artist? And when do you – can you – not?

    I am able to listen to and enjoy Phil Spector produced music even though he sits in jail, convicted of murder; Cat Stevens before whatever it is Yusef might or might not have said/done; Roman Polanski movies; etc etc.

    Is a comedian somehow ‘different’? More personal? Harder to ‘separate’?

    (And then there’s Woody Allen…)

  2. I listen to the talent not to Spector and he screwed over a lot of them. Polanski? I wouldn’t want the life experience he carries with him but I still feel guilty watching his work. Woody Allen has always ooged me out.

  3. I was channel-hopping the other day and came across “Hogan’s Heroes”.
    Did my mind jump to Bob Crane’s sex addiction, surreptitious filming of group sex, and subsequent bludgeoning to death?
    Of course it did.
    Watched the episode anyway.

  4. My little brother and I listened to his records over and over and over as kids.

    Entertainers, great ones, tell us not about them but about ourselves. Confusing the person with the story he tells is something we do at our peril.

    I mean, Ty Cobb was a damn good ballplayer.


  5. I’m going to have to disagree with The Boss on this one, just this once (please don’t fire me…).

    I agree that I can listen to Skid Row songs and not feel (as) horrible that Sebastian Bach once wore a shirt that stated: “AIDS: Kill Fags Dead.”

    I agree that while it’s a little creepy, I can still watch Hogan’s Heroes or a Roman Polanski movie.

    I can even think Ty Cobb was a hell of a baseball player, despite his horrible racism.

    This is different. The thing that made Cosby “Cosby” was his humor and how it exposed to all of us his life as a husband, parent and man about town. It’s what made him special. Granted, his routines were given to hyperbole and it’s likely that many of the things he relied on for effect were beyond the incidents themselves. Still, his routine, like all the great ones, was personal and it was told “just to me” as a listener.

    This was also what made Richard Pryor revolutionary: All of the things that would have led most of us to die quietly of shame, he turned into comedy gold by letting us see them. He talked about his father dying while fucking an 18-year-old hooker. (I wanna die like my father. Fucking.) He took his arrest for tax evasion and made us laugh. (I told the judge, Your Honor, I forgot! He said, You’ll remember next year, n—–.) He even made his arrest on domestic dispute charges part of his routine. (All I did was kill a car… I thought it was fair. My wife was going to leave me and I said, Not in this motherfucker you ain’t.) His near death experience? Yep. (When you are running down the street on fire, people will get out of your way. Except one old bum. “Hey buddy, got a light?”)

    The reason we kept “forgiving” Pryor was that we knew who he was: a troubled, wrecked soul who used his own pain to power through and make all of us laugh. Very early in his career, he realized he wasn’t Cosby and he went the other way. Cosby built his career on convincing us he was the warm, caring dad who navigated the rigors of life with an “aw heck” kind of approach and some solid logic. Watching Cosby now would be like going to a Paul Reiser show after finding out he was a wife beater and child molester: Those “couplehood” and “fatherhood” routines are gonna feel way different. Some things are too horrible.

    And yes, at one point, I owned a really nice O.J. Simpson retro jersey. I could never bring myself to wear it and I sold it for about $20 at a card show.

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