The Weirdness of Realizing That One's Comedy Heroes Are Monsters in Their Private Lives
I was eight when I knew I wanted to be a standup. I sat in our family’s used mini-van for a road trip to visit relatives, and my mom put a Bill Cosby cassette into the tape deck. It was an old copy of To Russell, My Brother, Whom I Slept With, and it was the first standup I ever heard. I grew up on that tape, so much so that my sister and I would quote Bill Cosby when we were mad at each other, saying, “You’re not my real sister. The police dropped you off,” or mimicking the sounds he made with a mouthful of water, playfully threatening to spit it on each other while we brushed our teeth.
I never watched Roseanne as a kid or considered the importance of a female voice in sitcoms, but I did realize I was watching a lower-middle-class parent try her best while keeping the family together, and I could muster enough understanding to think, “Oh, that’s like Mom.” I didn’t grow up watching Fresh Prince of Bel-Air considering the class divide between black America and general society, but I knew enough to see someone who grew up under different circumstances struggle to live in a wealthy, predominately white (save for his family) space and think, “Oh, that’s like Dad.”
I, like so many other kids of the '90s, loved Full House, in part because it showed that sometimes uncles and cousins and family all need to live in the same house, and it normalized the relatives who came and stayed in my parent’s home out of need over the years. Full House was also the first show I ever saw have a “very special episode,” where the cast sat together and gave the number to a hotline to call if a loved one was in trouble. I remember writing it down and hiding it somewhere in case my sister and I ever needed it.
I don’t believe TV representation is what legitimizes individual experience, but it did help me normalize mine to see that nationally beloved characters could know what I knew. And while these shows spoke to me, nothing spoke of me until my grandmother sat me down to watch reruns of The Cosby Show. My family was not that well off, nor were we monoracial. But I had never seen black kids on TV before, least of all black kids like me, in different shades, who spoke “properly” and had parents like mine. And to watch a young Raven Symone, a light-skinned girl with a black father figure and an adorable excitement to learn, spoke worlds to me. I could finally think, “Oh, those kids are like me.”
This was before I developed any knowledge about class or knew about issues of black supremacy or heard about Bill Cosby’s tendency to police other realms of black culture or black parenting. And this was long before I came to understand the subliminal and seemingly monolithic remnants of house nigga/field nigga bullshit that plague every step any realm of black America ever tries to take toward equality. I was a child who was excited to see other children like me have fun with a goofy black dad. I was a child black kids called white and white kids were often uncomfortable to be around, and at a time in life where I really needed to know there were other kids like me.
When I was in the eighth grade, I still wanted to be a comic, but had no idea how to make it happen. I remember thinking that if you walked around being funny long enough, Bob Hope would part the clouds and offer you a sitcom. Then, if people liked your sitcom, someone would record you talking to people for an hour, and you would just naturally be funny after all that life experience.
I did a career project for school that year, and while other kids were making three-sided poster boards of collegiate goals showing information for veterinary skills or the business job market, I did my project on standup. My grandmother found a paperback copy of Careers in Comedy (a book almost dripping with '80s vibes) at a flea market, and I watched as much and as many comics as I could. At that age, Pryor, Bruce and Carlin were off -imits, but for the first time, I saw Bill Cosby: Himself. It was the first standup special I’d ever seen, and it was as amazing as everything I remembered Cosby to be.
It was while researching that project that my parents dusted off a copy of Woody Allen: The Nightclub Years, and taught me how to use their old record player. He was amazing. I loved the ridiculousness. I loved how thin the line between absurd fantasy and self-deprecation was. The voice and the flow were so distinct and unforgettable, and whether consciously or not, I came to know that the voice had to be a part of what set him apart from others. Where Bill Cosby had shown me how to make life funny, Woody Allen showed me how to weave fiction in and out of reality and still end it all on a punchline.
A few years later, in high school, I bought a used DVD copy of Richard Pryor: Live from the Sunset Strip. I really didn’t get it, and I was lucky enough to have lived a life that hadn’t familiarized me with that kind of poverty and drug abuse. But it still meant something to me. I could clearly recognize Pryor’s genius, and when he talked about his trip to Africa and his newfound distaste for the “n-word,” it said something to me that I needed to hear, and reminded me again that I was not alone in my thoughts and perspectives.
This was before I starting reading up on black leaders. This was before Letter from Birmingham Jail, The Fire Next Time or The Invisible Man. This was when the only black voices to reach me belonged to comics.
When I reached college and finally began to understand the steps it took to become a standup, I buried myself in documentaries about the craft and learned the name Lenny Bruce, which I had heard referenced in all the information of comedy I’d ever read, but was never able (or allowed) to learn more about. When I finally listened to his albums and heard him publically making jokes about how gay culture should be accepted in a time when drinking fountains were still separated by race, it became clear that the words, “before his time,” were more than just lip-service from talking heads in comedy documentaries—they were real and valid sentiments about his artistry.
Pryor and Bruce arrived in my life in my early 20s. It was a time when all the writers plagued by alcoholism were all anyone wanted to write like and the musicians who experimented with drugs played in the background like the theme to the college experience. Amy Winehouse, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, and Marilyn Monroe were everyone’s role models as we entered the age where the idea of a tortured genius was more attractive than its bland, conformist counterpart.
In many ways, part of my attraction was that these artists spoke to my depression and neuroticism. They validated the fact that I drank too much and depended on drugs and alcohol to have fun in a space where I was otherwise miserable. The idea that these brilliant minds also sought after toxic relief and self-destruction allowed me to set aside the suggestions that I should seek help, and let me fully embrace the self-indulgent notion that I too could be an artist who just needed something to help take the edge off. I could excuse my alcoholism, my depression and my thinking that arguments and shouting matches with girlfriends were how adults legitimately expressed love to each other as symptoms of my misunderstood artistry, rather than signs I was broken.
Lenny Bruce was a heroin addict. Anyone familiar with the pain of addiction knows that the story, while summed up quickly and casually in films and articles, does not simply go, “He was a brilliant addict and then he died.” There had to be destruction there. And though his crimes seem petty in comparison to his influence, something about it still strikes me as a problem. But he was the last face to be carved on my Mount Rushmore of comics, so I don’t give it much thought. And, perhaps ironically, his crimes offend me the least.
Richard Pryor was also an addict, though for his genius and his voice, I forgave him for it completely and without question. Then, when I was 22, Ramon Rivas, a comic in Cleveland to whom I owe thanks for whatever successes I may have had thus far in comedy, lent me a hardback copy of the memoir, Pryor Convictions. I simultaneously felt pulled toward and pushed away from this character in which I had so heavily invested myself. Richard Pryor also beat his wives and estranged his children, perpetuating the same cycles of abuse I originally turned to comedy in an attempt to escape. It hurt—like watching Superman fail you or any other metaphor for fallen heroes. I’m still not sure how to process how his career influenced me juxtaposed with how his gross mistreatment of women in his personal life disgusted me.
A few months after I returned Ramon’s book, Woody Allen’s sexual assault allegations resurfaced. I had, until that point, been too young to understand the severity of the accusations beyond bad high school jokes and the casual ignoring news stories you don’t care to hear. The disappointment I felt toward a childhood hero was very real. But I had appreciated Allen for his writing, and it was easier to distance the person from the work as he had never been a figure I invested personal energy in. Nonetheless, the men who’d influenced all the ideas I’d had about myself and what I wanted to do were becoming less than the heroes I’d once thought them to be.
And now Bill Cosby is accused of rape. He was accused of being a rapist years ago, but I’d never heard about it. It may be that my own blissful ignorance is to blame, or maybe no one wanted to tell a kid who loved The Cosby Show about Dr. Huxtable’s villainy. But now that I am aware of the alleged crimes of my heroes, there is no excusing them; and despite my love for what Bill Cosby has done for me and for comedy, if the accusations are true he cannot be forgiven for the pain he has caused. And there is still a part of me that can’t shake how sad it is that my children will never get a chance to view him as the man I felt I knew growing up.
No woman should ever feel silenced in reporting her rapist, and no man is deserving of more consideration than others when it comes to a crime so monstrous. I know that, and I in no way wish to sound sympathetic to Bill Cosby in this regard. My empathy and well wishes extend only to the women whose trust he allegedly abused; women who were forced to feel silenced all these years. No matter how famous, rich or influential, those who commit acts of sexual aggression and rape face consequences, and I am aware that what’s least important in the wake of all the pain Cosby’s secret legacy left behind is how it kinda hurts some kid who looked up to him in a time of need. But I really looked up to him. I wish any one of the men I looked up to could have been just half the man he was purported to be. I wish I could show my kids The Cosby Show with pride. And I wish the few leading black voices who haven't been murdered or assassinated would stop messing up their own legacies.
Comics are often asked, “What made you want to get into this business?” or “Who are your greatest influences?” For years I was confident of my answer: “I’ve wanted to do this since I was eight and I first heard a Bill Cosby cassette.” While I know that will always be true, I don’t know if I can say that anymore. I don’t know that I want to look someone in the eyes and tell them an alleged rapist is the reason I’ve been trying to be funny my entire life. I don’t know what to do with the realization that the brilliant minds of vile men are what paved the road I’ve spent my whole life trying to walk down.
I don’t expect to be influential or celebrated or recognized. I don’t even expect to be famous. But I know I still want to be a comic, and more than ever, I want to be a different man than so many of the male comics who came before me.