Cosby: His Life and Times Simon & Shuster, 2014, 544 pp., $29.95
In October, when I began reading Bill Cosby: His Life and Times, by Mark Whitaker, the 77-year-old comedian was enjoying a bit of a boom: a new television series in the works, a new special set to get the Netflix treatment, an exhibition at the Smithsonian of 62 works of African-American art collected by Cosby and his wife Camille, not to mention this grand review of the man’s long and eventful life, written by an esteemed journalist who had been managing editor of CNN and the top editor of Newsweek.Now, Cosby’s reputation has plummeted with terminal velocity. During a performance on October 15th, a comedian named Hannibal Burress said that Cosby had the “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 rapist.” Burress was referring to allegations made by several women that Cosby had drugged and raped them, accusations that had been public for several years but that were nevertheless not well known. But in the uproar that followed, more women stepped forward, bringing the number of accusers to 19. No criminal charges were ever filed, and the one accuser who sued Cosby settled out of court. But in their staggering number and incriminating similarity, in the emotional strength behind the stories told, the accusations have a cold credibility. Perhaps under cross-examination all these stories would blow away like fairy dust. But in this era of media-accelerated justice, where Donald Sterling lost his business in a week because comments made in the privacy of his home were surreptitiously recorded, the presumption of innocence is a flimsy thing. Cosby has been judged guilty in the court of public opinion of being a serial rapist. Any comeback that he might achieve at this point would rival the Resurrection.Cosby’s plummet into infamy comes from such an eminence that the descent can barely be fathomed. He had been a comedy star for decades; he had been an influential figure in American culture before most people in this country were even born. He is a mountain who has always been there, and it must be remembered that he not only attained such heights almost entirely on the strength of his enormous talent and effort, but that he did so in the face of pressure and adversity. If Cosby did not break a color barrier in the manner of Jackie Robinson, he was nonetheless among the first into the breach. In the weeks and months after Martin Luther King Jr. challenged America to judge the Negro not by color of his skin but by the content of his character, Bill Cosby was one of the handful in the public eye who were scrutinized first.They were not all evaluated with the same criteria. The black athletes of the early civil rights era were framed by their games. They performed at fixed times and in regulated environments, and were judged by how they played, how they measured up against their peers and predecessors. The black actors were in large measure evaluated by the roles they took; Sidney Poitier never let much daylight slip between the dignified characters he played and his own persona. But Cosby was judged, first and foremost, by the thoughts he expressed, by the ideas and impressions that came out of his head.Those thoughts were funny. They were sharp, smart, specific observations about people, and for all the sounds he could make and the exaggerated expressions his prodigiously rubbery face could produce, the stories, rooted in familiar, everyday situations and events, were highly relatable. In his 1965 comedy album “Why Is There Air?”, Cosby does a bit about staying late at his girlfriend’s house, “kissing until our lips swelled up,” and finally taking a drowsy drive home “in a 1942 Dodge that I purchased for $75, my life savings from the service.” It had four bald tires and wouldn’t go over fifty miles an hour. “A leaf blew across the windshield,” he tells listeners, his voice rising in horror. “Oh I’ve hit a cow!” Speaking in the vernacular of young urbanite possessed with a sarcastic wit, he touches on dating, junior high, being in the service, jock straps, cheap cars, playing football, speeding tickets, girlfriends and dental pain.At no point on this album does he make any reference to race; he almost never did. In Cosby’s signature bit, where he plays the Biblical figure Noah, he displays no consciousness that he is suggesting that one of the great figures of the Judeo-Christian tradition is black, or that a black man might converse with God, or that God might choose a black man to carry on humanity and condemn all the whites to death. Ignoring the implications, Cosby plays the bit strictly for laughs. In doing so, he didn’t just echo King’s demand that black America be given the right to participate in American society; Cosby demonstrated that it was already doing so. Black America joined the army, black America played football, black America complained about the DMV. As radically as Thomas Jefferson, Cosby expressed the idea that all men were created equal. Only he did it in nightclubs.One has to believe some comic would have undertaken this approach. In the years after World War II, Jewish comedians like Myron Cohen, Henny Youngman, and George Jessel leaned heavily on ethnic humor. By the fifties, Sid Caesar, Milton Berle, and Jerry Lewis switched things up, and de-emphasized their Jewish roots behind characters that they played in skits and movies. By the sixties, comedians like Alan King and Rodney Dangerfield were simply suburban family men, finding humor in lawn care and familial relations. Cosby wanted to be like them, wanted his blackness to be as incidental as their Jewishness.Yet this strategy was hardly destined for success. The comedy of Cosby’s peers Dick Gregory and Godfrey Cambridge was highly dependent on an awareness of racism. Displaying a dry, intelligent pugnancity, Gregory sparred with bigotry, exposing its stupidity without ever sinking to its level. “Last time I was down South I walked into this restaurant,” he joked, “ and this white waitress came up to me and said, ‘We don’t serve colored people here.’ I said, ‘that’s all right, I don’t eat colored people. Bring me a whole fried chicken.’ Cambridge had a keen eye for the ironical underpinnings of racial attitudes. “I like to see white people drinking,” he joked. “It takes the pressure off of us. You ever get a drink, people say `You’re drunk.’ I get drunk, I blow it for a whole race.” Breaking in after Cosby got rolling, Richard Pryor at first adopted Cosby’s race-irrelevant approach, but for whatever reason couldn’t pull it off. He stepped out of the limelight for a couple years; when he returned, he placed race consciousness at the core of his humor, and somehow accomplished the amazing artistic feat of getting laughs while rubbing white America’s face in the tragedy of the black experience. Gregory and Cambridge and Pryor fought against racism in their acts; Cosby, like MacArthur bypassing certain Japanese-held islands in the Pacific, just ignored it. As a model of political action, this approach might leave something to be desired; as a personal statement of independence, it is unparalleled.Cosby underscored this attitude in 1965, when he took a role on the NBC series I Spy. Although much was made in the news media of his becoming the first African American to co-star in a prime time dramatic television series, his blackness was a non-event on the show; the characters played by Cosby and co-star Robert Culp conducted themselves as though the idea that the color of their skin was different had simply never occurred to them. In 1984, when The Cosby Show, Cosby’s greatest artistic and commercial triumph, debuted on NBC, this attitude again underlay the show’s approach. The show was about Cliff and Claire Huxtable and their amusing adventures raising five troublemaking children. Race was only subtly acknowledged, in the songs by black artists that the Huxtables liked to listen to, or the art by black artists that hung in their home. Race was no longer a dividing line, but a lifestyle choice.That Cosby was a key figure in racist America’s transformation neither obviates nor is obviated by his alleged status as serial rapist. But any clues to how a man might harbor such a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde personality are hard to find in Mark Whitaker’s biography. Whitaker clearly came to praise Cosby, not to bury him. He even begins the book with Cosby on a leg of a victory tour of sorts, going to play a date in Richmond. Between the airport and the concert hall, the beloved Cosby is greeted by the great and near-great, by baggage handlers and passengers, by disabled veterans and former Governor Douglas Wilder. The encounters are linked by mentions of Cosby’s triumphs, his TV shows, Jello Pop commercials, and generous philanthropy. As openings go, this beginning is rather unimaginative, but it does get the story off the ground. Unfortunately, this lack of imagination persists throughout the 468-page book.Cosby is heavily dependent on interviews Cosby gave Whitaker, broken up with comments from interviews Cosby gave other writers, occasionally interspersed with comments taken from speeches and addresses Cosby delivered. Cosby, however, is infrequently quoted directly; Whitaker tells the tale almost entirely through the voice of an omniscient narrator. Perhaps this is a device to disguise the fact that Cosby is the sole source for nearly everything in the book. Thus we have a biography that offers little outside perspective on the man, and not much introspection from him, either; the book is largely a collection of events, shedding little light on the why and how. Whitaker might have compensated by being more of a psychologist, explaining his subject’s make-up; he could have been more of a historian, analyzing Cosby and his peers and figuring out what factors led one man to adapt one approach and not another. Whitaker seems mostly to have been a stenographer.This may not have been entirely Whitaker’s fault, however. In the inevitable piling on that has followed Cosby’s wounding, several journalists reported that Cosby was a difficult subject to interview. David Carr of the New York Times wrote that his interview with Cosby, for the magazine Hemispheres, “was deeply unpleasant, with a windy, obstreperous subject who answered almost every question in 15-minute soliloquies, many of which were not particularly useful.” When Carr protested, Cosby said, “Young man, are you interested in hearing what I have to say or not? If not, we can end this interview right now.” But the lack of outside voices and views leads the reader to a choice with unhappy conclusions: either Mark Whitaker is a profoundly incurious biographer, or Cosby controlled the book. Or perhaps both.Already Whitaker has suffered collateral damage from Cosby’s alleged actions. Shortly before November, he tweeted, “I was wrong to not deal with the sexual assault charges against Cosby and pursue them more aggressively. I am following new developments and will address them at the appropriate time.” He shouldn’t bother. Cosby’s next biographer, if there is one, needs to be someone who can comprehend Cosby’s comic brilliance and his heart of darkness, who can explain why a man who was so bent on representing himself as the perfect paterfamilias could indulge in such destructive, predatory practices.Good luck with that.