Trying to Understand Bill Cosby’s Stand-Up Now

Here are two things we know about Bill Cosby: He is a comedic genius, and a whole heap of his jokes aren’t funny anymore. Even worse, as suggested by the recent unearthing of a now-notorious bit about dosing women with Spanish Fly, some of his routines now scan as obvious hints of his alleged odious misbehavior.

Given the understandable rush to view Cosby’s work — which did so much to move stand-up comedy beyond stale setup/punch line structures and into a realm of vivid storytelling — it’s a little surprising that another perhaps representative bit of his hasn’t drawn attention. It’s called “The Difference Between Men and Women,” from his 1963 debut album, and so far, it hasn’t attracted the attention of the throng that perpetually dissects the output of the newly and deservedly loathsome.

We’ll get there. First we’ll ignore Team Cosby’s ill-advised suggestion that we generate memes. Then we’ll look past his recent, more ossified performances, which in recent years have been assessed as vitriolic men-only events that scratched away his longtime surface affability in favor of much more explicitly aggressive politicization. In increasingly casual attire — the man likes his loose-fitting sweaters — Cosby has come in the 21st century to more and more sternly offer proper definitions of manhood, suggesting that “today’s young African-Americans are somehow weaker, that they’ve dropped the ball,” as The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates put it, and derides his adversaries, including “women-hating” gangsta-rappers (a case of the pot calling the kettle …?).

It’s been widely suggested, most clearly by Coates, that Cosby’s latter-day activism — and his encroaching status as public figure rather than just an entertainer — has been a crusading shield that covers the rape allegations and acts as an outlet for both his hatred and self-hatred: that his reprimands against certain versions of masculinity in favor of others, and his creation of a perfect self-image (as ‘80s dad and as moralist) shows a recognition, conscious or subconscious, of his own problematic nature and a desire for self-discipline. Even during less overtly hostile periods, Cosby was known as someone quick to scold fellow comedians like Eddie Murphy for using profanity, and seeing himself, in general, as a sort of righteously patriarchal moral center. It’s tough, in a singer-is-not-the-song way, to make clear-cut general assessments about the complex relationship between his inner world and his outward displays, and deciding what has or hasn’t been repressed, but there’s value in paying close attention to his work, especially his pioneering early comedy, the true peak of his now-tarnished talent. I presume that, as we digest 15th accusation — one more, incidentally, than the current tally of women alleging a variety of abuses at the hands of ousted CBC host Jian Ghomeshi — and the pressure on Cosby mounts, the urge to reassess all of his material will hit Zodiac-killer levels of paranoid obsession. All of which is to say, looking at Bill Cosby’s “The Difference Between Men and Women” is very unsettling.

In the bit, the word that Cosby keeps coming back to when describing women is weird. He says it multiple times within the first few lines, and female foreignness is his constant refrain: “One woman will stand up to go to the ladies’ room, and they’ll all rise, and it’s weird.” When they return, “They say [indecipherable muttering],” and won’t tell you why they went there.  These are jokes, and represent a commonplace comedic perspective (“Women!”), but even in the guise of character work, a comedian’s monologue can’t help but somehow seem to reflect a personal outlook, a secular or not-so-secular mode of confession. (That’s a big part of why stand-up works.) Cosby can’t seem to understand a thing about the women that surround him. Of course, mutual misunderstanding has always been the main subject of comedy — tragedy, too — but there’s something worrisome now about how gendered this unavailability of the other is to Cosby. There’s an almost conspiratorial sense of women as a species against men, and a fear about his loss of control. Again, he describes female communication as “the weirdest thing” he’s ever seen, and that “they won’t say one single thing” to him. When he can make out a clear female voice, it becomes an insipid clarion call to the rest of the secret cabal: “No, girls — sit down, it was only a false alarm.” The Borg brain decides that a trip to the restroom is unnecessary, and the mutant pack of women remains seated, as one ominous entity. Hilarious.

Cosby goes on to detail the interplay between the sexes as a competition driven by women who “always try to get the upper hand,” and that women are resentful because they think they suffer more pain than men as bearers of children. He calls “bull” on this, and says that men feel so much more pain that “you can’t even find it on the pain chart.”

So, according to Cosby here, male suffering is the more important, hidden truth. He continues with a longer, angrier riff on male hurt, and the familiar rising action of his voice is chilling: “There’s no pain greater in the world than the pain a man gets when he goes on a date, plunks his date down in the seat in the movie, puts his arm around the chair in the movie, and leaves it there for two and a half hours.” Here the male is the active agent, the plunker-down of the passive woman, who sits mannequinlike and inscrutable as Cosby machinates. He’s angry about having to wait with his arm around the chair as “the blood from the center of his fingertips drains to the center of his chest.” We can only speculate about where he thinks he has the right to reposition this blood. To Cosby, his justifications are obvious, and he’s annoyed that he has to spell out his need for physical readjustment to his date: “What do you think I’m doing? I’m trying to save my wrist. What do you think?” Jokes, sure, but they don’t seem reflective of concern for this alien woman, or even suggestive that she has an intelligence capable of relating to. The very title of the album this is from, Bill Cosby Is a Very Funny Fellow … Right!, suggests a potential question — an openness to others’ curiosities, or to self-doubt — smothered by an immaculate self-assurance and the demand that others agree. I wouldn’t want to run too far with these speculations, but … there it is.

We can get carried away with interpretations as we poke around in Cosbyland, a world of near-infinite jest and, now, troublesome woe. We can’t assume that anyone’s comedy stylings equal some sort of ultimate latent perspective, but there’s something upsetting in November 2014 about a return to this routine, and that’s without time misspent reconsidering bits like “She’s Not Your Friend, and “Why Beat Your Wife.” The Cosby Show? That one I leave up to you.