The Real Tragedy Of Bill Cosby Isn’t About The Fall From Grace Of “America’s Dad”

The tragedy of Bill Cosby lies not in the downfall of a man once known as "America's Dad," but in the fact that a man who was, in fact, a sexual predator was allowed to evade justice for far too long.

In a post about Bill Cosby’s conviction on three counts of sexual assault, Dave Schuler makes this comment at his site:

It’s hard to overestimate how momentous this conviction is. Cosby was the first African American man to star in a television series, the first to have his own television series (he had three of them), and his role as Cliff Huxtable in the Cosby Show was held up as a role model, not just for young African Americans but for all young Americans. He joined with Sidney Poitier and other black actors in the 1970s to make movies that opposed the blaxploitation movies of the time in their portrayals of African Americans.

This is a genuinely tragic story.

In a comment, Dave makes clear what he means by “tragic”:

I’m talking about Greek tragedy. In Aristotle’s words “a reversal of fortune, involving persons renowned and of superior attainments”.

I fully understand where Dave is coming from here. Bill Cosby was a member of that small class of celebrities who transcended race, age, and economic class to appeal to almost anyone, and he has been a fixture of American culture for more than fifty years. His career includes groundbreakingly successful comedy albums and an appeal that reached across all demographic boundaries to the point where he was chosen to be the spokesperson for one of the most American of brands, Coca-Cola, as well as being the long-standing spokesperson for Jello Pudding and other well-known products. In 1965 he became one of the first African-American actors to have a starring role on television with his role alongside Robert Culp in I Spy, a show that ran for three seasons during the height of some of the most racially tense times in American history. Those of us who grew up in the 1970s remember him as the host of Fat Albert And The Cosby Kids a show that ran from 1972 until 1985. Beginning in 1984, he began playing the role that he is still best remembered for Heathcliff Huxtable on The Cosby Show, a show that presented America with an upper-middle-class African-American family that dealt with many of the same issues that the people who watched it dealt with in their own lives. It was because of that show that he earned the title of “America’s Dad” and became the megastar that he is most remembered for. Off-screen, Cosby also became known for his charitable work, his involvement with Temple University, and his outspokenness on issues ranging from education to the state of the family in African-American communities. He was, in other words, one of the handful of celebrities that pretty much everyone loved.

Beneath the surface, though, there lurked another Bill Cosby, and it was nothing like the characters he played on television or the image he projected to the public. This Bill Cosby was a man who spent the better part of fifty years taking advantage of women, many of whom had approached him with the promise and hope that he could help them in their careers or be a mentor as they started out in their own careers in television or academia. On the record, we know of dozens of women who have said that they were taken advantage of by Cosby over a period that stretches back more than four decades and seems to have begun as early as the mid-1960s even as he was first establishing his own stardom. The consistency with which these women have described the manner in which Cosby took advantage of them is really quite remarkable, to the point where the title “serial rapist” seems like the only appropriate one at this point. Given how often he was able to get away with what he was doing, one can only assume that the women who have come forward are only some of the women he took advantage of over the years, and that many of them have, at least until now, chosen to remain silent about what happened to them. While I understand the context in which Dave refers to all of this as a tragedy, I don’t see “tragic” as the right word to apply to him. The title he deserves is something else, such as predator, rapist, and now convicted felon.

Just like practically everyone else, I was a huge fan of Cosby back in the day, but when I look at him now I don’t see tragedy and I don’t feel sorry for him. When I look at Bill Cosby now I see a sexual predator who was allowed to get away with preying on women for more than 40 years while maintaining the affable public image of a comedian and, in the 80s, “America’s Dad” in the form of Heathcliff Huxtable. Additionally, I suspect that there were plenty of people over the years who were aware that there was something going on with Cosby, but who chose to remain silent about it. In that respect, this was a situation much like what happened with Harvey Weinstein, who used his position as a Hollywood mogul to get away with decades of harassment and assault against women or Larry Nassar, who used his position of trust to take advantage of young women who were aspiring to become Olympic gymnasts, or Jerry Sandusky. In all three of those cases, there were plenty of people who were either aware of what was going on, or who should have known had they paid attention to what was going on around them. Instead, they looked the other way, and it appears that much the same thing was happening during the decades that Bill Cosby was sexually assaulting women

There’s a tragedy here, but I would suggest that it lies in what happened to these women and the fact that Cosby went unpunished for decades, not in the well-deserved downfall of a man who was, it appears, a complete phony. Bill Cosby was not America’s Dad, and he wasn’t the moral compass that he liked to pretend he was in many of his public comments. He was, and is, a sexual predator. If we’re going to feel sorry for anyone, it needs to be the women he victimized. The fact that he’s now an old man who may very well die in prison is either irrelevant or a reminder of the injustice that lies in the fact that it took so long for someone to have the courage to bring him to justice.

FILED UNDER: Crime, Entertainment, Law and the Courts, Popular Culture,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. HarvardLaw92 says:

    OT, but Meehan (R-PA), who had already indicated that he wouldn’t be seeking reelection in November, just upended things by resigning today, effective today.

    Cue up another special election.




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  2. Kylopod says:

    I understand where you’re coming from, but we need to consider also that the two factors are interrelated. Weinstein didn’t get away with what he did for so long because he was loved by the public, he got away with it because he was a powerful executive. With Cosby, on the other hand, it was in many ways his public image as “America’s Dad” that led other people in Hollywood to keep the lid on it it for so long.




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  3. wr says:

    “Additionally, I suspect that there were plenty of people over the years who were aware that there was something going on with Cosby, but who chose to remain silent about it.”

    Everybody who worked with Cosby knew “there was something going on” — we knew what a terrible person he was, vicious and narcissistic and ugly. And we all knew about the constant streams of women he was having sex with. But when this first broke, I talked to a lot of other people in the Cosby club — refugees from The Cosby Show, Cosby, A Different World or, my own personal hell, The Cosby Mysteries — and everyone one of us was stunned. And everyone said the same thing — this is a man who could (and did!) have sex with just about any woman he wanted. He was rich and powerful and famous and beloved by millions — who could imagine he’d be doing something like this?




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  4. CSK says:

    @Kylopod:

    Weinstein and Cosby made a lot of people a lot of money. Who was going to halt the gravy train?

    @wr:

    There’s some considerable pathology involved here. Maybe drugging the women and raping them was the major part of the thrill.




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  5. Gustopher says:

    There are few African-Americans that were as universally beloved as Bill Cosby was in his role in The Cosby Show. It was one of the first popular portrayals of an upper middle class black family, without any hints of poverty, race or otherness. Previously, you had the Jeffersons (racist black Beverly Hillbillies), Sanford & Son (dirt poor), What’s Happening (Dy-no-mite!)… but here the race of the characters was almost incidental most of the time.

    It was a show that said “you can have everything white people strive for.” It was a time when we were saying “everyone is basically the same” rather than “celebrate the differences”, and the Cosby Show really embraced that and represented it.

    And, he was accepted by almost everyone outside of the KKK without complaint, other than perhaps the sitcom being a bit too stodgy. Probably the only other black man who had gained such acceptance was OJ Simpson.

    Now, it’s obviously not fair to tar the entire race as rapists and murders because the two most universally beloved black men of the 1970s and 80s turned out to be one rapist and one murderer, but it really is a shame that there were so few other prominent and accepted black men.

    And that’s a tragedy.

    White folks have lots of backup celebrities, so when we discover that Dick Van Dyke was a cannibal, and that Alan Thicke was a Canadian, we can just move right on to Bob Newhart.




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  6. Tony W says:

    @Gustopher:

    Wait, are you suggesting Alan Thicke is a Canadian? That’ll get you sent up on slander charges in these parts….




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  7. Kit says:

    This was no tragedy in the ancient Greek sense, only in the watered-down American one of a cryin’ shame.

    When a great artist becomes disgraced, there’s always the chance that his art will transcend the man. But Cosby the artist was Cosby the man. No one can ever go back to his work and laugh now.

    I honestly hope these women find some small measure of relief and vindication in witnessing a justice so long delayed. Still, I’d like to come in defence of one point I feel is being overlooked, namely his legacy. Yes, the man was a fake and a criminal, but he seemed to have played a real if minor role in race relations, and inspired some as a role model. The man did some good, too. And I say this knowing that Americans are not comfortable with moral ambiguity: things must be either black or white, a man a hero or a fairy-tale monster. The good doesn’t pardon the bad, but neither does the bad erase the good.

    Thinking about it, if there’s one thing tragic about this, it’s the uneasy frisson the spectator feels at seeing justice finally served.




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  8. michael reynolds says:

    @Kit:

    When a great artist becomes disgraced, there’s always the chance that his art will transcend the man. But Cosby the artist was Cosby the man. No one can ever go back to his work and laugh now.

    I disagree. Cosby was not 100% of the Cosby show, there were other actors, there were writers and directors. The artist is not his work. A lot of artists are assholes of one type or another. Gauguin was an asshole, should I be unable to enjoy his work? John Lennon was a wife-beater, can we no longer listen to Imagine? Jack London was a stone-cold racist, does that really affect Call of the Wild?

    We are making a fundamental error is trashing art along with creators of same. The art is for us. We’re only depriving ourselves. Maybe every single person involved in designing your car was an asshole. Should you stop driving the car?

    Art and artist are not the same thing, not even actors, not even comics. This is one of many reasons I dragged my heels and still do in using social media. It’s why as much as I enjoy looking out over a crowd of 900 kids listening rapt as I prattle on, I always feel queasy about it. It’s why I despise celebrity culture. It’s all of it wrong. An artist’s interface with the world should be his art. That’s his product, just like my phone is a product and my jeans are a product. The artist presents his work to the market and the market buys the art, it does not buy the artist.

    If you go through a library or an art gallery and remove everything produced by some contemptible person you’re left with big, empty rooms. And who does that hurt? The artist, if he’s still alive, but all of us far more. It is self-harm as virtue-signaling, and we should outgrow this stage.




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  9. Gustopher says:

    @michael reynolds: I have Jewish friends who will never buy a Volkswagen because of the association with Hitler, and the use of slave labor from concentration camps back in the day. I tend to agree with them, and would say that the wealth generated from these crimes should have been destroyed, and not allowed to continue.

    I have similar thoughts about the plantation owners after the Civil War. The aristocracy that built their wealth on the systematic abuse of slaves should have been destroyed. The Reconstruction did not go far enough.

    But it’s all a matter of degrees.

    I think Roman Polanski’s next film should be shot inside of a jail, and that it might be great art that will enrich us all. It helps that he is behind the camera, and not a constant reminder, scene after scene.

    But, it would be hard to watch the Cosby Show and not see Bill Cosby as the face of it — the real Bill Cosby, not the character. Maybe as time gives us some distance, it won’t feel that way, but in the here and now, it’s unwatchable.

    If Trump Steaks were the best steaks, would you eat them? Would you rationalize away the implicit moral support for Donald Trump, and the actual financial support, by saying that there are all the cattle ranchers and farm hands and meat packing people and lawyers involved in the production?




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  10. Slugger says:

    I agree that the Cosby story is not fit to be included as a fourth episode of The Oresteia. We do need to provide a way to end crimes by advantaged people by paying better attention to the victims of those crimes. The rub is that we need to avoid reacting to every rumor and bit of gossip to avoid baseless destruction of people. I am not clear on how this can be achieved.
    I agree with Michael Reynolds that we should not conflate the creator with the creation. Nabokov was not Humbert Humbert, and Bovary was not Flaubert despite Flaubert’s assertion. However, in today’s culture of celebrity the person and the character are closely tied. I doubt that is a person other than the public persona for many of the creations that fill People magazine.




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  11. michael reynolds says:

    @Gustopher:
    I’m nominally Jewish and I drive a German car. Collective guilt is the foundational idea behind anti-semitism. ‘We’ didn’t kill Christ, some Romans with some Jewish collaborators did, 2000 odd years ago. I don’t blame groups for the actions of individual members of that group. That is bigotry. Present-day Germans did not run the gas chambers, they are guiltless and have the same right as anyone else to bring a product to market.

    Is the Cosby Show effectively unwatchable for me? Maybe, but more because it just hasn’t aged all that well. I thought it was condescending pabulum the first time around.

    I don’t like this creeping Orwellianism I see on the Left. It is ill-considered and will bite us in the ass, is already biting us in the ass. We cannot support freedom of expression and the memory hole simultaneously. Erasing, disappearing, declaring ‘unperson’ people who disappoint us is overkill. I’m not suggesting that’s happening here, not yet that I know of, and I suspect the market will decide for itself whether people still watch the Huxtables saga. But the market should be allowed to decide for itself without vendetta being declared on anyone who laughs at a Cosby routine.

    It’s as if the Left got tired of its own professed goal of tolerance. I’m not talking about tolerating this rapist, he should be in prison. I’m talking about this absolutist rejection of anything that can be declared ‘tainted.’ This is an immature world view, it is selective and unfair and amounts in the end to self-harm. Is there a reason we should have Merchant of Venice on library shelves but feel the need to erase Jeffrey Tambor? To be consistent we would have to toss most of art and literature in the memory hole, and the fact that we will not, in the end, be consistent, shows that we are not working on principle, but out of anger and spite.

    When movements are just they attract, when they are unjust they repel. Treating every defense as proof of guilt is unjust. Assuming that accusation equals proof is unjust. Extrapolating from some bad actors to an entire profession or gender or race is unjust. What Cosby got was justice. I hope he dies in prison. But his work had value in itself and it is the height of folly to deny ourselves the good he did because he also did bad. That is not a standard that any of us, in or out of the arts, could possibly survive if we were put under the microscope. People are not just the worst thing they’ve ever done, and the art they produce may do good for us, and we should not deprive ourselves of it.




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  12. wr says:

    @Gustopher: “But, it would be hard to watch the Cosby Show and not see Bill Cosby as the face of it — the real Bill Cosby, not the character. Maybe as time gives us some distance, it won’t feel that way, but in the here and now, it’s unwatchable.”

    Yes, but the tapes will survive, as will his brilliant comedy records. You may never be able to listen to “To Russell, my brother whom I slept with” again, but that doesn’t mean a generation just being born, or one after that, won’t discover it.




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  13. Kit says:

    @michael reynolds: What Cosby got was justice. I hope he dies in prison. But his work had value in itself and it is the height of folly to deny ourselves the good he did because he also did bad. That is not a standard that any of us, in or out of the arts, could possibly survive if we were put under the microscope. People are not just the worst thing they’ve ever done, and the art they produce may do good for us, and we should not deprive ourselves of it.

    This is pretty damn close to what I was trying to say the first time around. As (bad) luck would have, I just don’t have the time to reply at greater length today. Let me just say that an artist like Cosby plays a character pretty damn close to his true self (or at least appears to). So knowing what we do gets in the way of appreciating what we once found funny. If some people, either, now or in the future, enjoy him, well I have no problem with that whatsoever.

    Allow me a quick sketch of an idea that I cannot flesh out: a monster of a man can be a great metaphysician but not a great ethicist.




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  14. Gustopher says:

    @michael reynolds: art has to be exceptional to live apart from the infamy of its creators.

    John Lennon’s “Imagine” manages that, despite allegations that he beat his wife.

    For all of Jeffrey Tambor’s actions, “Arrested Development” will still be genius, aided in part by being an ensemble.

    “The Naked Gun” remains what it is despite OJ Simpson. An ensemble cast helps, plus his character keeps getting abused the way the actor deserves.

    But The Cosby Show, does not surpass its creator. It’s just not good enough, and he is too much of the focus.

    And German car manufacturers that profited off the slave labor of concentration camp victims should have been destroyed. The factories, the names, the designs and the wealth. They may be fine cars, but there’s a really high bar on what you have to do to justify profiting from genocide.

    (Another friend of mine was upset that VW committed fraud with the deisel engines, and his cars resale value was now lower. I was of the opinion that if you buy a Nazi car, and all they do is hurt your pocketbook, you’re doing well)




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  15. M. Bouffant says:

    Is there any record of Cosby “mentoring” men who wanted help & advice? If all his “mentorees” were attractive women, that alone should have given it away long ago.

    P.S.: Preview results in “Preview error”.




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  16. Kylopod says:

    @michael reynolds:

    We are making a fundamental error is trashing art along with creators of same. The art is for us. We’re only depriving ourselves. Maybe every single person involved in designing your car was an asshole. Should you stop driving the car?

    I agree with the general principle here. But Cosby wasn’t simply an “artist” whom you can easily separate from the human being. Nobody describes The Cosby Show as the greatest sitcom of all time. It was Father Knows Best for the ’80s. People liked it because it featured good-hearted, moralistic pablum, and it had the addition of being regarded as a slap in the face of racist stereotypes by showing a well-adjusted African American family who were “just like everyone else” (to the point of barely ever referencing their race). Of course Cosby was also an immensely talented and influential stand-up comic. But the public never loved George Carlin the way they loved Cosby.

    I don’t have any problem enjoying and appreciating Polanski’s films in light of his crimes. His films were never about Polanski the person. He was just the guy behind the camera. I admit the revelations make me look a little differently at films like Repulsion. For whatever reasons, despite his own actions he was quite capable of evincing sympathy for a female character who was the victim of sexual assault. But that doesn’t make me like the films any less.

    My admiration for figures like Polanski–or Kevin Spacey, or Woody Allen–was never based on the kind of personal warmth that Cosby exuded in his public persona. Indeed, some of these people always struck me as creeps. (Try watching Manhattan and coming away with a positive impression of Woody Allen as a person.) In contrast, Cosby’s entire public image was constructed around the idea of his being a mensch. As I’ve said before, it would be like finding out that Mr. Rogers was a pedophile.




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  17. Jim Brown 32 says:

    @michael reynolds: In my social circles, which are predominately black, this is a pretty dominate sentiment–even amongst people that Cosby got what he deserved. They’ll continue to watch the show..did Keshia Knight-Pulliam or Ms. Allen rape anyone? Maybe in white wonderland the show was solely about Cosby…but for many of us, the identification was with the other characters that broken the tired white stereotypes of the time. Claire Huxtable nor her kids were wise-cracking, contemptuous minstrels white audiences demand. Neither were they a poor family struggling against The Man. The show was about family dynamics between black couples and their children….something that was fresh and new to people programmed by Hollywood to seeing black families as dysfunctional, and black men and women as bottom feeders of society.

    Want to know another common theme resonating in my circles? That despite white moralizing about sexual harassment and predation….Bill Cosby, one of the few black men to ever consistently project a positive image of Black men, who sent countless black boys and girls to college, who donated money to numerous historically black colleges and universities is the ONLY man to be charged and convicted. Everyone already knows that no white man is ever going to receive similar treatment…ever.

    A little history lesson about black men and white women….alot of black men and boys were sent to early graves because the word of a white women was taken as unquestioned truth. They “had to be believed” . This is recent history. Many people see similarity between Cosbys case and that not-so-ancient history… “modern day lynching” is a common phrase. Alot of black people already felt marginalized in the “majority minority” coalition of the Democratic party. Hence, the low turnout numbers for Dems and bump for Trump. Double standards this big will turn that marginalization into alienation.




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  18. Kylopod says:

    @Jim Brown 32:

    the ONLY man to be charged and convicted

    Polanski was charged and convicted. He just managed to avoid prison by fleeing the country.




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  19. James Joyner says:

    @Gustopher:

    Previously, you had the Jeffersons (racist black Beverly Hillbillies), Sanford & Son (dirt poor), What’s Happening (Dy-no-mite!)…

    I watched those shows as a kid and had a very different reaction. “The Jeffersons,” one of many “All In The Family” spin-offs, was about a very low class black man who worked his ass off to become a “thousandaire” and move his family into an upper middle class lifestyle, leaving behind the Archie Bunkers of the world. Yes, George was in some ways a black Archie Bunker. But Louise and Lionel (both of them) were very decent people. “Sanford & Son” (an American version of a British comedy, “Steptoe & Son,” that I never saw) was more pure comedy, built as it was around stand-up Redd Foxx. There was something of a crazy cast of characters, some of whom were certainly ghetto stereotypes, but most of them were really good folks. “Dy-no-mite” was Jimmy Walker’s JJ character from “Good Times.” Walker was another standup and his character was something of a buffoon. But the show was originally built around the Esther Rolle character (who had been the maid on “Maude,” itself another spin-off of “All in the Family”) and her husband, played by James Amos. He eventually left the show, dismayed that it became increasingly dominated by JJ’s antics. “What’s Happening!!” was a different show entirely, that I also watched. Like “Good Times,” it started out based on an aspirational lead character, Raj, and quickly degenerated into the buffoonery of a funnier character, “Rerun.”

    @Kylopod:

    a well-adjusted African American family who were “just like everyone else” (to the point of barely ever referencing their race)

    Yes and no. They absolutely ignored racism as a fact of everyday life, which is in hindsight quite weird. But they went out of their way to celebrate African American artists and musicians as well as HBCUs.




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  20. Jim Brown 32 says:

    @James Joyner: The show did not ignore racism. Racism simply happened to be beyond the scope of the show….which, as I mentioned earlier, was mainly about family dynamics and relationships. It also happened to be set in the NorthEast, where post civil-rights racism is primarily about separation from white people, not the shoves toward perpetual poverty and educational deprival southerners are known for. There wasn’t a natural place to write it into the show without it looking forced.

    Racism comes into play when I interact with the outside world, when I interact with my family, it does not come into play. The Cosby show was a realistic look at how most 2-parent black houses work behind closed doors. Sure, Claire and Cliff’s occupations and income were on the aspirational side; but their characters were not, their relationships with each other and their children were not. Despite the occupations and the trappings of financial success, most black people that grew up in 2 parent homes….which at that time was most…saw the essence of their own family (blue or white collar) in the Huxtables. That’s what made the show what it was and different that the other sitcoms; which were based on caricatures of black people. Esther Rolle and John Amos being the lone exceptions, who as you noted, left Good Times as it devolved into the minstrelsy of Jimmie Walker.




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  21. Joe Sawyer says:

    I have a hard time believing anything from Cosby’s trials. Seems as though the outcome was one of demand.




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  22. James Joyner says:

    @Jim Brown 32: While all these shows are rightly noted for giving realistic or even aspirational depictions of black characters and the huge impact that had on a black audience, it’s noteworthy how much of an impact it had on young whites to whom blacks were mostly depicted as buffoons and criminals. I was too young for the significance of Cosby on “I Spy” or Nichelle Nichols on “Star Trek” to be apparent. But I grew up watching “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids” as just another Saturday morning cartoon. That would have been unfathomable even a few years earlier.




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  23. wr says:

    @Gustopher: :But The Cosby Show, does not surpass its creator. It’s just not good enough, and he is too much of the focus.”

    But The Cosby Show was hardly the sum total of his work. His real masterpieces were the comedy records that made him a star in the first place. Brilliant writing, brilliantly performed.




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  24. wr says:

    @Kit: ” Let me just say that an artist like Cosby plays a character pretty damn close to his true self (or at least appears to).”

    I’m going to assume you never met Mr. Cosby (as he demanded to be called). He was nothing like Cliff Huxtable. That was a character he played. You, like so many in the audience, chose to conflate actor and character and now are stuck trying to reconcile the two. But Cosby was no more Cliff than Carrol O’Connor was Archie Bunker or Roy Scheider was Chief Brody.




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