Bill Cosby was a real presence in my life growing up. I remember waiting for days to see the Fat Albert Halloween Special and loving it. I remember listening to his records constantly, and being influenced by them oratorically. I was the most long-winded twelve year-old you ever met thanks to years of imitating Cosby’s style in the back of buses and classrooms. One of my fondest memories ever is sitting in my grandmother’s living room with my mom, listening to Cosby spin out his bit on Noah building the ark on a crappy cassette player. I still regret never having held an actual Picture Page in my hands. I was one of the twelve people who paid to see Leonard Part 6 when it came out in theaters. I don’t even have to explain what my family’s house was like on Thursday nights when an episode of The Cosby Show was on because the same message was playing out in every other house in America: “don’t call during Thursday church.” I even watched Cosby Mysteries even though I knew it was a crock of shit.
Back in 2005 or so, when allegations first came out against Cosby, I wasn’t one of those Neanderthals you encounter nowadays looking to lawyer up on Cosby’s behalf in the face of scores of women coming forward, but I was not removed far enough away from them to do anything productive with that information. When the first round of allegations about Cosby hit my radar, like most people, I didn’t flinch nearly hard enough. It’s easier for me to say why that dismissal was true in the larger, communal sense than it is for me to say why that was true of myself. As near as I can recall, to me they were allegations. And I while I didn’t take a stand that the incidents recounted didn’t or couldn’t have happened, I think I was leaning toward waiting for more details and truth to come out before taking a stand. I was willing to take that stand against him back then, but thanks to a settlement that buried the whole case, no more information ever came. The money did what it was designed to do. The story fell away, just like every other story caught in our ever-churning news spin cycle. I wouldn’t say I was consciously withholding judgment until I heard more. I wasn’t nearly that pragmatic. I just wasn’t in the tank for Cosby like that a decade ago. My Cosby heyday was mostly a childhood thing, and Cosby had been quiet for most of my adult life, his influences on me as an artist largely passed through as I acquired other influences, experiences and actual ability. In the end, I believe to the point of intractability that Cosby did at least some of what he is accused of, and whether or not every instance can be proven is irrelevant. Any one of them would be enough to make the point.
Grappling with all of this led me to a key question: was there anything about Cosby’s art that hinted at his potential for this kind of behavior? Did he at any point in his career, let on that he might be a rapist? Were there hints in his earnestly funny and genius work to suggest that anything worse than his already apparent misogyny might be at play? To this end I went through my collection of Cosby material – significant almost to the point of completion and mostly on vinyl, you hipsters – and looked for evidence. Below are my finds, my theories, and my oh-dears.
Bill Cosby Is a Very Funny Fellow…Right! (1963)
Cosby’s debut offers nothing of note to weigh. The references to women here are relegated to one track, “The Difference Between Men and Women”, and are fairly innocuous: women going to bathrooms in groups, debating with a woman about the difference between labor pain and leaving your arm around your date during a movie for two hours pain. Not much to process here in aid of the experiment.
Why Is There Air? (1965)
A couple of albums later on a track called “Baby” women appear only as infant ovens, which by itself is not atypical in comic circles whether you think the comic is a rapist or not. He does make a comment about forcing his wife to have more kids than she wishes, which even as a kid I used to chalk up to hyperbole, but now seems imposing and rapey:
“Well, I’m gonna’ have about thirty kids. My wife can’t do a thing about it ‘cause she’s Catholic. If she refuses me, I’ll take her right to the pope. ‘Uh, pope?’ Pope says you gotta’ do it! A-ha ha!… Marry a Catholic. She’s beautiful.”
He further extends the metaphor of women as baby-making automatons by wanting to shorten pregnancies by having Polaroid invent a way for women to spit babies out like instant photos, but that’s just a logical comic extension of the bit in an era when waving pictures dry was a really popular thing to do with your time.
Cosby briefly plays up the idea in “Two Daughters” that he prefers sons to daughters, even going so far to “demand” that his wife deliver unto him a son. He mentions wanting a son so he has someone he can “sic on the girls. Go get ‘em!” Throwaway macho dad talk so over-the-top and short that it’s easy to overlook the foundation he starts to lay here for how he will paint men and women throughout his career. More damning is the track “Wives”, a routine full of the put-on venom he reserves for the watering hole he will draw from over the majority of his career: how women become wives and mothers, and how these transformed women immediately begin to negatively impact the joy of the men they are with. He describes single women as “hungry”, in a constant search to entrap men and ruin their lives through marriage:
“She’s out there, trying, please, somebody, let me have a man somewhere…I’ll do anything…”
Yeah…so that’s an actual, real red flag that, coming from your dad is two-beer bar grumbling, but coming from the mouth of someone faced with dozens of rape allegations sounds downright hateful toward women as a species.
Side note: This is the first mention of Fat Albert and his trademark “Hey hey hey!”
To Russell, My Brother, Whom I Slept With (1968)
The bit to pay attention to here is a short piece on Adam and Eve called “The Apple.” The red flag is how Eve as “The Woman” – meaning all women – is portrayed as teasing Adam, “The Man”, in a constant state of “come here/get away” and how frustrating that is to slavering troglodytes who can’t help but do what women command. This sounds worse now than it did in 1968 not only because of the allegations, but because of what we’ve learned since then about the mentality of rape justification. In 1968 this was just a conversation about a tease. In 2015 this is a testimony to a philosophy that sees all women in a state of confused love/hate with men as a natural state of being, only degrees away from suggesting women are constantly “asking for it.” It’s not a long bit, but it’s telling.
200 M.P.H. (1968)
This was my go-to Cosby record, the one I wore out. I didn’t understand all of the references about cars that ate up the second half of the record, and the album starts with a classic bit on the differences between mothers and fathers, but I didn’t really relate because my mother raised my brothers and I by herself my whole life, and she treated us more like a father would than a mother. He pretty much nailed her punishment philosophy here, which endeared him to me because I knew I was not alone in my many whuppin’s. That preamble out the way, the politics of this album mostly play up stereotypes of women – crying, doting on children, and browbeating their husbands through constant states of argument, a staple of his comic philosophy.
The album starts off with an extended rehash of “The Apple” from his To Russell… album. The problems you had with it before you’re still going to have. There is a reference to chasing women that graduates to a full blown admission about seeking out some bathhouse fun on the sly in Japan on the track “Foreign Countries”. But let’s quit playing around: the REAL damage on this record comes from his nearly-infamous track “Spanish Fly”. It’s basically three minutes of shameless, gleeful riffing on his lifelong search for a date rape drug that drives women crazy. That track languished for decades without criticism until the early 90s, when he mentions it again in his book, Childhood. Not much came of it then either, and when allegations about rape first started popping up in 2000, it still didn’t blow up as a reference. In 2014, with the internet on full blast 24 hours a day, 7 days a week? That track didn’t stand a chance at obscurity. Somehow, half of the people defending Cosby probably still don’t know this bit exists. Poor fools. He tried to tell us.
For Adults Only (1971)
With salacious titles like “Why Beat Your Wife”, “Masculinity At Its Finest”, and “Be Good To Your Wives”, you’d think this one was the political worst of the lot. It’s not. It’s primarily bits on marital dysfunction for a drunk casino crowd, filled with bits that remain off the books largely because it isn’t G rated. He speaks at length to the sexual back and forth of married couples, but it never really rises above PG, and despite the topics, there’s nothing in it that any two couples doesn’t face. I found it fascinating that the one time he had a chance to really let it rip on women he actually tuned back hard into his marriage foibles instead.
Note: if you ever wanted to hear Cosby say “goddamn” a few times, here’s your chance.
My Father Confused Me… What Must I Do? What Must I Do? (1977)
More mother work, mostly of the barking, beat-you variety. If you don’t like corporal punishment, Cosby pretends to side with you here, but really, you know better: he gets down with the whuppin’. This album contains one of his rare references to blackness, couched in having it knocked off of you by – what else? – your mother beating you. You see here the seeds of the character that would become Claire Huxtable. The track to pay attention to here is “Marriage and Duties” because it’s when he’s talking about women as women and not just as mother figures. The Women’s Liberation movement takes a shot here, but not an overly egregious one, and mostly to set up a joke about wives keeping money from their husbands. Generally harmless marriage talk.
Bill Cosby Is Not Himself These Days (1976) and Disco Bill (1977)
Cosby put out a handful of musical comedy records, most notably these two. The tracks that noticeably deal with women – “Yes, Yes, Yes”, “Chick on the Side” and “A Simple Love Affair” – are parodies of Barry White that turn The Maestro’s penchant for praising all things sensual about women into soul-rich satires of deep-voiced silliness about women who steal from and abuse their men. The songs are so over-the-top you can’t take them seriously in any context, even this one, where I’m actually trying to build a case. These are songs that anyone given the challenge to lampoon Barry White would have done.
FYI: the music on BCINHTD is kind of the shit.
Bill Cosby: Himself (1982)
Arguably his most famous record thanks to the classic stand-up film it borrows from. As women goes, this one is exclusively another wife-as-mother foray, and she’s resigned to the role of harpy for much of her trouble. This is the album that lays out the philosophical template for what would become The Cosby Show a year later.
And that’s about it. Cosby released a few comedy records after 1982 but they were post-Cosby Show, when he was in full America’s Favorite Dad regalia. By that point in his career his comedy had completely exorcised anything that wouldn’t have been safe for a 1980s primetime TV show audience, even when it wasn’t 1985 anymore. His routines became chanty and routine, and eventually the albums stopped altogether until 2013, where we learned that he still had the ability to find a joke, even if the engine was extremely slow and laborious. 2013 was set to be Cosby’s year to make a proper comedy comeback, but all of that momentum was halted by the 2014 explosion sparked by two minutes of leaked footage from a Hannibal Burress show and Cosby’s piss-poor attempts to ignore or squash the firestorm burning everything he touched to the ground. We will never know the Comeback Cosby that could have been, but then, looking back over all his work with new eyes, we never really knew the Cosby we thought we did.