Just a couple of weeks after the murder of his son Ennis, Bill Cosby appeared on The Late Show with David Letterman to talk a little about how he was feeling. He received a thunderous standing ovation from an audience that both respected his cultural significance and was sympathetic to him over the loss of his child. Ennis wasn’t just any kid, he was someone Cosby had worked into his stand-up routines for years — the real-life child of “America’s Dad,” which sort of made him America’s child — and during the Letterman guest spot Cosby reminisced about him. Cosby’s demeanor was striking: He seemed at times distance or forcibly composed, and at others wildly gregarious, like the regular Cosby most of the country knew. But there was no doubt something was wrong. He basically hijacked Letterman’s show, talking in circles over and over before spending the rest of the hour goofily mugging to the camera and playing cowbell with Paul Shaffer and the band. It was, sincerely, one of the damndest things you’d ever seen on TV; even Letterman had to apologize for the fact that two guests, one of whom was Tina Turner, were bounced in order to accommodate Cosby. Both the host and the audience were obviously forgiving, however, chalking up Cosby’s behavior to that of a father suffering from unbearable grief.
Bill Cosby admitted to suffering from horrible nightmares following the death of his son. He said that he often pictured Ennis with “blood coming out… of his nose, mouth and eyes.” But on Letterman that night, he was trying desperately to be the Cosby his audience expected, the Cosby it knew and loved. Maybe he did this because he felt like laughter was the best medicine; maybe he did it because he thought that the show had to go on; or maybe he did it because it wasn’t about the audience and was solely about himself, because there was some form of narcissistic sociopathy lurking under his comic façade that led him to push the artifice of that façade even harder whenever ugly reality started to intrude. To keep being “Cos” no matter what. Who was the real Cosby? It was impossible to tell, just as it was impossible to know if he was simply a complex man and a master of show business who could be many personalities at once. When the crisis that struck Cosby was the brutal murder of his son, it was easy for us outsiders to overlook his strange behavior or write it off as understandable, but when that crisis is a firestorm of sexual assault and misconduct allegations from around 35 different women, the behavior suddenly appears both shocking and incriminating.
Over the weekend, Cosby shot his first official video appearance since the controversy surrounding him began back in November. The ten-second promotional clip is, as The A.V. Club points out, a surreal and almost incomprehensible act of self-delusional theater. In it, Cosby sits in an easy chair in a pair of pajamas, on a hastily and poorly constructed “set” made to look like a living room, talking on an old rotary phone to someone who obviously isn’t there. Whoever he’s talking to in his head isn’t interested in any of the nastiness that’s swirled around their “friend” over the past several months, only in Cosby’s upcoming tour dates. “Yes!” Cosby says to himself, likely in more ways than one. “I’m gonna be in Wheeling, West Virginia, Capitol Music Hall! 8 o’clock show, that’s right!” Then he wraps it with what may be a momentarily self-aware nod to his own ego: “You know I’ll be hilarious! Can’t wait!” Attached to the clip is a signature that seals the deal on the whole thing and makes Cosby appear less like someone who understands what’s going on around him and more like one of the myriad cast-members of Too Many Cooks. “Dear Fans: I hope you enjoy my wonderful video message that’s filled with laughter. Hey, hey, hey, I’m far from finished.” Again, as A.V. says, it’s a Bizzaro-world statement that shows “Bill Cosby has completely lost touch with what his words sound like.”
Cosby is 77-years-old, which means that, controversy or not, it’s possible to chalk his demeanor up to being an old man who’s desperately trying to hold on to former glory. But even if you do remove those allegations, Cosby’s exhibited odd behavior for the past 20 years and maybe more. There are stories about him requesting that female interns and P.A.s on Letterman join him in the green room and watch him eat curry before his appearances on the show. They weren’t supposed to say anything to him, just stand there and — watch him. In addition to that, he’s regularly seemed to go off the rails during interviews with other late night hosts, including Jimmy Fallon. Looking back now through the lens of the accusations he’s facing, which contend that he’s spent a good portion of his lifetime drugging women so that he could lord over them in the bedroom, it would be easy to view the personality he’s put on display as that of a man who believes he’s the center of the universe and an icon so beloved by the public that he can just say anything and “you know he’ll be funny.” It could easily be read as impenetrable narcissism.
These days whenever a famous person is accused of a horrific act which seems to reveal a life kept hidden far away from his or her benign public persona, amateur sleuths always tend to comb through their history looking for clues that were right in front of us all along. This isn’t that. This isn’t pointing to a bit Cosby once did on Spanish Fly and wondering whether it proved years ago that he was a threat. This is about the entire persona Cosby’s exhibited for decades, certainly since his icon status was cemented. It’s impossible for me personally to write about Cosby without admitting that I grew up on him, learning to repeat his old stand-up bits nearly word-for-word from the very first day I stumbled across his comedy albums in my parents’ record cabinet. When Hannibal Buress first attacked Cosby onstage, I found it disrespectful given the trail Cosby had blazed that led directly to Buress. But there’s no denying that even if the hypocrisy wasn’t there in Cosby’s criticism of modern black culture — which Buress was criticizing — there was still an insufferable arrogance to Cosby’s endless scolds, going all the way back to Eddie Murphy. It takes an imperious sense of self-righteousness to believe that it’s your place to dictate how other people behave and Cosby obviously had it. This isn’t proof, but as they say in court, it “goes to character.”
Throughout this whole thing, Cosby has never even acknowledged that there’s been a whole thing. He officiously brushed off and castigated a reporter from Philadelphia who did her job and attempted to ask him about the accusations he’s facing. He hasn’t made a single public statement about them, letting his wife, daughter and attorney speak for him. Granted, it’s certainly possible that he has nothing to gain by speaking up since it would take having Jesus Christ as a P.R. guy to even begin to repair the damage done to him. But it’s the hubris and knack for self-deception required to not only ignore the allegations but to pretend as if nothing is wrong and that you’re still the same old cultural legend everybody loves which speaks volumes. It’s insulting to not even recognize the crisis, unless you can’t recognize it because your mind won’t allow it. And that could be the most frightening thing of all in Cosby’s case.
Cosby’s façade has already crumbled and now he seems to be tearing down the few remaining pieces. But the thing is, maybe that façade always was the real Cosby. Maybe it was as real to him as the blackness underneath that he refused to show us — or even acknowledge to himself.
Chez Pazienza was the beating heart of The Daily Banter, sadly passing away on February 25, 2017. His voice remains ever present at the Banter, and his influence as powerful as ever.