All stand-up comedians are asked the same question. This question is often asked of comedians newly discovered by media. It is seen as the perfect way to really get to know the comedian: “Who were your favorite stand-up comics when you were growing up?”
It’s a simple question. The press first discovered me in 2010 and it was really difficult. Bill Cosby, the comedian I adored growing up, was my favorite stand-up comic. I had known him all my life. From his cartoons to my own. Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids in the ’70s to his stand-up, and of course through The Cosby Show in the ’80s. For my high school graduation I wore a “Cosby sweater” instead of a suit jacket.
After the premier of my FX program, major media became interested in me. Total BiasedAlready there was a story about Bill Cosby being accused of sexual assault by women. They weren’t getting much traction in the press—and wouldn’t until several years later when the #MeToo movement ignited in full force—but it was enough that I couldn’t just say his name without reservation. On the other hand, if I didn’t say that I had loved Bill Cosby, I would be lying. And I would also look like the one Black kid who grew up in the ’70s and ’80s who didn’t like Bill Cosby.
Then I attempted to be clever. I would mention other comics and at the end I’d say, “and the artist formerly known as Bill Cosby.” It was my way of telling the truth but also acknowledging that there was something else going on that I couldn’t ignore. This was always a sign that the interviewer understood and moved on to more questions. It left me with a larger question that I have been asking myself ever since: How can we discuss Bill Cosby’s life? Is it possible to speak honestly about our own experiences while acknowledging the perspectives of others? What can we do to hold onto these divergent truths. The gap from “my hero” to “my rapist” is unfathomable. However, we must try. This is what I tried to do in four parts of the documentary I directed. Cosby is a topic we need to discussThis film premieres at Sundance Film Festival, before being broadcast by Showtime on January 30.
It is interesting to me that Tape 1One of the best things I’ve ever seen in a video rental store was the comedy stand-up special Bill Cosby, Himself. It was the early ’80s, I was 10 or 11, and I was already falling in love with comedy. The only way to see comedians before the internet was to stay up until the early hours to catch them. Johnny Carson on The Tonight ShowOr Saturday Night LiveWhen video stores were opened, I was able to rent tapes and enjoy comedy whenever I like. It felt almost magical. The other tape I rented was Eddie Murphy’s comedy special Delirious, although because of his R-rated reputation, I had to get my mom’s permission for that one.
But I didn’t need my mom’s permission to watch Bill Cosby. It was obvious that this one would be suitable for the whole family. At the time SelfBill Cosby spent more than 20 years as a top-rated comedian. Cosby’s content was more than just a good comic. For you. His role was even more important for Blacks. He was someone we could look up too when our heroes were most needed. Bill Cosby had his arm extended to you and was always there for you. When I watched him—especially on his shows aimed at kids like Fat Albert, Pictures Pages The Electric Company—I saw a Black man who wanted me to be smart, like he was. He desired me to succeed, just like him. He wanted me be good like he thought I was.
Bill Cosby is a Black entertainer that Blacks were proud to have supported throughout his life. He was successful without “bowing or scraping” or “shucking and jiving,” as it was called back then. And though he was loved and celebrated by white folks, he didn’t lose himself in the process. In a period when Black people were being beaten by the police, he was loved by all Americans. Cosby, who integrated TV and nightclubs in the 1960s when Martin Luther King Jr. advocated for Black people living together, was making that reality possible during this time. Martin Luther King Jr. was constantly threatened and called uppity. Cosby received Emmys as well as Grammys in a handful of cases. And what most of us didn’t know is that some of his most important work was being done behind the scenes. By insisting that his stunts were performed by Black actors and not by white men who had been painted black, he revolutionized the entertainment industry. Yes, it was possible. Cosby ensured that Black people were hired behind closed doors before everyone understood just how crucial this is.
I didn’t know all that when I was a kid. So much of the Bill Cosby story for me is about what I didn’t know then, and what I do know now. I also didn’t know that if you go all the way back to the early years of his career, there are women who have accused him of sexual assault or rape. These accusations have been consistent over his whole career. If you examine the accounts of more than 60 women who came forward to tell their stories, you will see a variety of women from different backgrounds and races. There were those who only knew him one evening and others who have known him for many years. He was a mentor to some. Others viewed him as a mentor. Some people only knew a little bit about him when they first met him. They all have the same commonality of Bill Cosby’s stories of him assaulting or sexually assaulting them. Admittedly, I didn’t look deeply into their stories until I worked on this project. My “artist formerly known as Bill Cosby” thing feels especially feckless and mealymouthed now.
Bill Cosby’s sentence to prison, I thought, “Well, the story is over now. He’s 81, maybe now is the time to talk about all this.” I started working on the docuseries in 2019. I reached out and got to know a few comedians who were interested in joining the discussion. That includes every comedian and comedian I was familiar with. I found out quickly that Bill Cosby was one of the few people who would like to talk with me. He was also not open to talking with many people. And of course since this is about Bill Cosby, many of these people who didn’t want to talk are Black. Blacks will find this conversation third-rail. It doesn’t matter if you believe Cosby to be a hero or not. There are far too many landmines. This comes with the reality that Black people in America have a lack of representation and role models, regardless how you feel about Cosby. This is not to mention the American reputation of criminalizing and murdering innocent Black men. It is not a good idea to take a Black man down.
It made me wonder if this was a mistake. This question has been a constant in my mind as I write this. COVID-19 then made it impossible to produce. And then on our last day of filming, in June 2021, the crew and I were in Philadelphia, waiting for our last interviewee to arrive, when I got a text message from a friend: “Your film just got way more interesting.” Bill Cosby was being released from prison, less than an hour’s drive from where we were. I’m sure that everybody who had said no to me before this moment breathed a sigh of relief. This third rail conversation just got another shot at electricity.
It feels like the end of my career. Many times, I wished it would end. Be canceled, or put on hold. Similar events had occurred to Bill Cosby documentaries. Then, every time that I had this thought I would then think of the bravery displayed by women during their conversations with me about these harrowing experiences with Cosby. These are real women who were subject to the abuse since they first came forward. Lili Bernard who alleges that Cosby drugged, raped, and assaulted her when she first appeared. The Cosby Show, says there has been constant “blaming and shaming.” Most of these women have learned to distrust the media as a whole. They trusted me to tell their stories. I couldn’t leave them on the shelf, even if my career is in the balance. At the very least, we need to have the dialogue. There is so much at stake.
This goes beyond Bill Cosby. America’s reputation is for not listening when women have been sexually assaulted. America’s history has been one of giving power to women for their own gain. America has been terrible at dealing with rape, and racism. In the Bill Cosby discussion, I hope we do better at dealing with these issues. He has one more lesson that we can learn, and it is up to us whether or not he wishes.
Bell is an Emmy-winning producer, stand-up comedian and host of CNN’s United Shades of America