Bill Cosby, the man once fondly known as “America’s dad,” is going to prison. And while it’s a lesson we have learned time and again in the past, it’s hard to think of a more profound juxtaposition in terms of the need to separate the public image from the private man.
Other famous people have been accused, and even convicted, of terrible crimes. Each time, such events serve as a reminder that skill in some high-profile endeavor – entertainment, sports, politics – doesn’t prevent bad behavior, and in some ways, thanks to the power and privilege associated with those fields, can rather serve to magnify it.
Still, Cosby erected an entire career – and became one of the wealthiest performers ever – on the strength of his projected wholesomeness. Small wonder that corporate America loved him, turning him into a product pitchman supreme.
As a stand-up comedian who easily bridged color lines in the turbulent 1960s, Cosby worked clean when others went blue, talking about his childhood and family. Moving to TV, he starred in a popular primetime drama, “I Spy,” but left a more enduring legacy with an animated Saturday-morning program, “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids,” which adapted his exaggerated childhood memories.
In the 1980s, his sitcom “The Cosby Show” became such a massive hit as to almost single-handedly lead a network-wide turnaround for NBC, while shifting the focus from Cosby, the kid, to Cosby, the parent, in a series that loosely mirrored the contours of his own family.
The widespread embrace of Cosby’s sitcom was seen as a healing balm on America’s racial history. Yet when the program aired its final episode in 1992, Cosby had to record a message for NBC’s Los Angeles station because of the urban unrest there in the wake of the verdict in the Rodney King beating trial – a stark reminder that there was still more to be done. “Let us pray for a better tomorrow, which starts today,” Cosby told viewers.
Cosby was wooed back to primetime a few years later by CBS, and beyond a new sitcom, again leveraged his special relationship with children in a revival of “Kids Say the Darndest Things.” As recently as 2013, Cosby headlined a Comedy Central stand-up special, “Bill Cosby: Far From Finished,” and continued to tour and perform.
Ironically, it was Cosby’s status as a moral arbiter – as someone who felt empowered to lecture the African-American community about the need for personal responsibility – that helped hasten his downfall, after comic Hannibal Buress called him a “rapist” in a routine that went viral.
As Adam Serwer wrote in the Atlantic, the renewed attention to years-old accusations against Cosby might not have happened “had Cosby not made the decision to scold poor, black Americans for not engaging in the same superficially ‘respectable behavior’ that allowed him to hide the allegations of dozens of women across decades.”
Because his routines were so personal, and his recollections so vivid, it was easy for fans to feel like they knew Bill Cosby – a sensation that tends to apply to many public figures, but perhaps more so to someone whose life and experiences were such a fundamental part of his act.
But it turns out, we didn’t. And that might be Cosby’s last, if unintended, message.