Bill Cosby Shows Why We Need Off-Limits Jokes

Photo: Raymond Hagans/Corbis

It will be ironic if, in the end, Bill Cosby is brought down by a joke. Not only a joke, of course — it’s the testimony of, at last count (and the depressing fact is, you have to keep Googling “Bill Cosby accuser” to keep up with the latest tally), 16 women who’ve now come forward with allegations of rape and sexual assault against Cosby, according to a long and powerful Washington Post piece published this weekend. Not to mention this lurid Daily News account from a now-90-year-old ex-NBC employee of the years he spent as Cosby’s illicit fixer. It’s been a slow accretion, then a quick accumulation, of new and renewed allegations and cultural turning points that have led to the apparent toppling of Cosby’s career. And one of those turning points — maybe not the most important one, but certainly the most ironic — is that a young black stand-up comedian dared to tell a joke.

Here’s how Hannibal Buress put it during a show in mid-October in Philadelphia (Cosby’s home town, no less): “Bill Cosby has the fucking smuggest old-black-man public persona that I hate. He gets on TV, ‘Pull your pants up, black people, I was on TV in the '80s. I can talk down to you because I had a successful sitcom.’ Yeah, but you rape women, Bill Cosby, so turn the crazy down a couple notches. ‘I don’t curse onstage.’ Well, yeah, you’re a rapist. I'll take you sayin' lots of motherfuckers on Bill Cosby: Himself if you weren't a rapist.”

It wasn’t that long ago, back in 2012, when people were arguing passionately over what, if anything, constitutes “going too far” in comedy. In that particular case, the debate centered on rape jokes. Are rape jokes off-limits? What constitutes a funny rape joke? This all happened after Daniel Tosh joked about rape during a live show; a woman in the audience shouted out that rape jokes are never funny; Tosh responded that it would be funny if that woman was gang-raped; the woman blogged about the encounter; Tosh later apologized, sort of.

At the time, many comedians publicly argued that, in comedy, nothing should be considered off-limits. Critics countered that certain subjects are essentially impossible to joke about without perpetuating a fundamentally toxic status quo. Sarah Silverman was cited often, by both sides: After all, she is well known for making rape jokes. In fact, she has a rape joke about rape jokes. Her most famous joke, and arguably her best one, is, in part, a rape joke.

In general, I’m sympathetic to the idea that comedians should be allowed to say whatever they think might be funny and the audience should be allowed to react in whatever way they choose. You may laugh. You may gasp. You may boo. You may gasp, then boo, then laugh despite yourself (which is an awesome feeling). You may walk out in anger and blog about it. You may write a thoughtful essay in which you consider (and reconsider) the issues. In short, anything goes, on both sides of the microphone.

In the great rape-joke debate, however, many of the blanket defenses of comedians as taboo-tackling truth-tellers were, to say the least, unconvincing and disheartening. This is mostly because, in real life, that particular stance requires you to then ally yourself with lazy provocateurs like Tosh; or to laugh off the kind of careless fuck-up made by Daniel Handler at the most recent National Book Awards (for which he unreservedly apologized); or to queasily stand shoulder-to-shoulder with every boob like Artie Lange who reels off a series of absolutely idiotic tweets and then retreats behind the usual weak defense of Hey, dude, I’m just a comedian, and by the way, p.c. people are ruining the country. As a rule, any argument that forces you to side, even for a millisecond, with Opie and Anthony is probably an argument you want to reconsider. In the end, many words were spilled and many opinions proffered, and the great rape-joke debate was never really settled definitively, though the last word, for all intents and purposes, went not to a comedian, nor a critic, but to a poet, which seemed fitting.

Of course, talking about off-color comedy, you never, ever had to ask where Bill Cosby stood on all of this. Cosby doesn’t joke about rape. (He has, though, joked about slipping women Spanish Fly, in a bit that one reviewer in 1969 lauded for not “straying out of bounds.”) He doesn’t even use foul language in his act, and he vocally encourages other comedians to do the same. Not only that, but he’s long spoken out about perceived societal ills in the black community — ills that he, Dr. Cosby, had diagnosed and was happy to take people to task for. Just last year, a reviewer in the New York Times contrasted a recent Cosby comedy special with one by, yes, Sarah Silverman (giving an overall positive review to both), noting that Cosby “has been able to mine this all-about-family brand for decades,” while it’s “hard to imagine a Sarah Silverman stand-up routine 34 years from now, when she’ll be 76.” The reviewer continues: “Today’s other envelope-pushing comics face a similar uncertainty. Where do you go after you’ve built a reputation for scorched-earth humor?” Cosby’s humor never scorched anyone’s earth. So it’s ironic that Hannibal Buress’s humor scorched his.

When people argue that, in comedy, nothing should be off-limits, what they’re arguing for — or should be arguing for, anyway — is precisely this kind of Hannibal Buress moment. Buress’s joke was an anti-Cosby joke, and not just because it was about Bill Cosby. It was profane. It was intended to shock. It was designed to make the audience uncomfortable — perhaps primarily designed to make the audience uncomfortable. (“I want to just at least make it weird for you to watch Cosby Show reruns,” Buress said.) And not just uncomfortable in a “I can’t believe what that person just said” way, but in a “Well, there’s a thing I’d rather not confront, but now you’ve forced me to confront it” kind of way. It was off-limits in a way that caused you to question the utility and morality of the limits.

Last week, Silverman made another rape joke. It was a joke about Bill Cosby. She tweeted, “Bill Cosby gave me one of those ‘don't be dirty’ lectures but I was unconscious & he was talking about my a-hole.” Moreover, it’s a joke about the kind of person who preaches one thing in public and practices another in private, who poses as a saint and acts like a monster. The joke was retweeted 2,500 times and favorited over 5,000 times. Still, some people suggested to Silverman, on Twitter, that the joke went too far. Maybe so. She agreed and reworded it. But it was a good reminder that, along with Buress’s act, sometimes comedians can be taboo-tackling truth-tellers, in a way that’s very particular to comedy. Some earth needs to be scorched, and some envelopes need to be pushed, and sometimes comedians are uniquely well-positioned to do both. And that as long as there are powerful people in the world who monstrously go too far, there’s a use, even a necessity, for jokes that go too far as well.