“What are you doing watching this pervert?” my roommate asks me, gesturing toward the Bill Cosby special, Himself, playing on the TV. Naturally, I’m aware that it is now impossible to engage with Cosby in any politically neutral way, even though one year ago hating Cosby was tantamount to hating The Beatles (which, to be fair, some people do). Yet I can’t help but wonder, if it were discovered that Paul McCartney had been torturing puppies throughout the entire sixties, would we feel the need to eliminate all Beatles albums from existence? Pre-Hannibal Buress, Himself was widely regarded as the most influential standup special of all time – so is it even possible to remove this integral thread from the fabric of comedy?
My intention was to write a devil’s advocate piece about how we all need to come to terms with Himself being the nucleus of modern standup; and while it’s greatness shouldn’t excuse any wrongdoing or silence any condemnation, it should nonetheless be appreciated as a transcendent work of art on its own terms. Yet by the end of the hour and 45 minute special, the only thing I will need to come to terms with was the virtual impossibility of watching Himself as an objective comedy fan.
Filmed in Hamilton, Ontario in 1983, Himself is the apotheosis of Cosby’s then-20-year standup career and the progenitor of what would become The Cosby Show. It features a profoundly relaxed Cosby sitting in a chair, the mic resting low at his lap, as he patiently unloads anecdotes and observations about marriage, fatherhood, trips to the dentist, and why people who do drink and do drugs are idiots.
In June of 2013, GQ celebrated the 30th anniversary of Himself by gathering together a host comedians young and old to wax with adoration about the legendary special. Patton Oswalt, Jerry Seinfeld, Sarah Silverman, Larry Wilmore and even Hannibal Buress (!) all tackle Himself’s greatness from different angles, as if they were musicians in a VH1 special about Pet Sounds.
In the two years that I was a comedy reporter for Denver’s alt weekly Westword, it became a nearly weekly occurrence for some comic I was interviewing to say he/she decided to become a comedian while watching Himself as a kid. I also am not exempt from this cliche, as I first heard the album version while traveling to Canada on a church fishing trip in 1995, and subsequently had my mind blown by the range of characters, storylines and imagery Cosby could put into my head using only the sound of his voice.
Everyone has these stories, which speaks to how large a role Himself plays in standup comedy history. It influenced the way comedians perform comedy, and the way fans absorb it.
Which is what makes it so difficult to rip off the band-aid that is Himself. So many comedy nerds I know want to completely abolish Cosby’s albums and specials from public discourse and never again acknowledge the scope of his influence. But is that necessary? While our opinion of Cosby should rightly change, should our objective opinion about what constitutes a good joke change? If Paul McCartney had suddenly been found to be a puppy torturer throughout the sixties, would I suddenly stop believing that “Eleanor Rigby” is a melodically infectious song?
I didn’t think so going into this project. But only minutes into watching Himself for the first time since Cosby’s career went extinct, I find myself completely unable to laugh.
Granted, I’ve always been a little annoyed at Cosby’s condemnation of people who enjoy drink and drugs – which is the segment that dominates the first twenty minutes of Himself. It was what my church friends and I loved about him as teenagers, but that quickly subsided in my adult life of bars and concerts. Yet there’s something new about my distaste for this bit watching it now in 2015, something far more unsettling than just his sober smugness: Cosby is really good at imitating drunks.
So was Richard Pryor, but he was one. Cosby’s whole identity revolved around sobriety and wholesome living. Watching how expertly he stumbles and shakes, twitching his eyelids and slurring his speech, it makes me wonder what circumstances he was in to have observed this behavior in others. Cosby’s admitted to colluding with his wife’s doctor to illegally obtain Quaaludes throughout the 70s and 80s, both of them knowing they weren’t for him; and dozens of women have accused him of drugging their cocktails and sexually assaulting them. Was it during these evil moments that Cosby observed the physicality of being unable to walk, confused and incapacitated, and was inspired to parody it on stage?
After entertaining the idea that Cosby’s anti-drinking bit was possibly inspired by several incidents of rape, I am completely unable to view Himself through any other kind of lens.
When I make a note of how confident Cosby is, allowing giant pauses to hang within a framework of rambling, longform stories (a daredevil move that would destroy most comics), it reminds me of how Denver comedian Sam Tallent often describes his approach to an audience with the line: “I assert my dominance.”
It’s probably safe to assume that Cosby didn’t have trouble finding women who wanted to voluntarily have sex with him, and we know that rape is often more about power dynamics than sexual fulfillment. So now I’m wondering if the quality that made Cosby such a good comedian is the same quality that made him such a good rapist, the way that being good at pro football can make you good at murdering someone.
(Note: This observation is not meant to imply that one follows the other; so no, not all comedians are rapists. Obviously.)
When we reach the Chocolate Cake For Breakfast scene, I’m momentarily in awe of Cosby’s use of surreal hyperbole describing the mother of his children, like something out of a William Blake poem: “My wife’s face split, and the skin and hair split and came off of her face so that there was nothing except the skull. And orange light came out of her hair and there was glitter all around. And fire shot from her eye sockets and began to burn my stomach and she said, ‘WHERE DID THEY GET CHOCOLATE CAKE FROM?’”
This leads me to realize that nearly half of Himself is made up of jokes at his wife’s expense (as opposed to 2013’s Far From Finished, which is nearly all jokes at his wife’s expense). Cosby has been married to his wife Camille now for fifty years – a year for every woman who has accused her husband of sexually attacking them. So, essentially, I think to myself, this marriage has mostly existed within the context of the husband cheating on his wife via forcing himself on other women, then he walks onto a stage, night after night, to complain about how terrible his wife is. What a dick.
When Cosby describes his children’s lack of impulse control when they reach for things they shouldn’t have as “brain damage,” all I can’t think is: surely you can relate.
For whatever reason, the fact that Hunter Thompson was a bit of a misogynist and once engaged in homophobic violence doesn’t stop me from enjoying the Fear and Loathing books any more than knowing Thomas Jefferson owned slaves keep me from admiring the Declaration of Independence as an eloquent political document. Eddie Murphy, Sam Kinison and Bill Hicks all have jokes in their specials that are quite literally homophobic – and that’s in the comedy itself. There’s no separating the artist from the art there. And yet I’ve never felt the need to boycott their greatest work like I suddenly do with Cosby’s Himself.
Ultimately, Cosby’s sex scandal is not unlike those of megachurch pastors like Jimmy Swaggart or Ted Haggard (except that those were, reportedly, consensual). These were the people who said your music was evil, you dress like a gangster, your inability to curb your sexual appetite will be your undoing – and then wham! They’re exposed to be more debased than you ever were. That was essentially the crux of the Hannibal Buress bit that took him down. “Pull your pants up black people, I was on TV in the ‘80s,” Buress said, imitating Cosby’s moral crusading. “Yeah, but you rape women, Bill Cosby,”
Bill Cosby’s humor is inextricably linked to empathizing with him. We all know what it’s like to be stuck with a screaming child on an airplane, or deal with a spouse who has temporarily lost it. And so we celebrate Cosby’s exhaustion as a source of empathy for ourselves. But when the rug is pulled out from under us with the knowledge of Cosby’s brutality, it becomes difficult to feel bad when his wife forces him out of bed early to make the kids’ breakfast.
This man should be in prison, I think to myself, who gives a fuck if he doesn’t get to sleep in?
I honestly did not set out to write this kind of a story. My intention was to argue in favor of Himself retaining its title as one of the greatest specials of all time. And maybe it still can be some time in the future. But for now I don’t see any way to extract the knowledge of Cosby’s cruelty from the experience of Cosby’s comedy.
And that’s not likely to change anytime soon. Today’s generation of comedians and fans won’t be passing Himself down to the newcomers. Journalists will stop putting it on their Top 100 lists, and most internet streaming services won’t include it in their comedy sections (as Netflix did with their aborted Cosby special in 2014). Maybe then, after 30 or 40 years pass, our grandchildren will discover Himself within a completely different framework. They’ll know about his sexual assaults, but they won’t have grown up with the man’s face on their TV every other hour, drawing them Picture Pages, selling them Kodak film and Jell-O, or dictating how high or low they’re allowed to wear their pants.
Through this currently unimaginable lens, I could see how a comedy fan could view Cosby as just a goofy old man who told some great jokes and had a dark sexual side. Similar to how we view Jerry Lee Lewis today. But for now, I’m done with Himself. I have plenty of memories of enjoying it throughout the years, but I can’t imagine ever shouting to a new girlfriend “What do you mean you’ve never seen Himself? Alright, sit down. We’re doing this.”
And I can accept this.