In comedy it is often said that timing is everything. Last year on October 8th, McSweeney’s posted my unabashed love letter to an artist of tremendous stature and historical importance whose work I had always held dear: Bill Cosby. It was also a story about how Bill had shown me… and more importantly my family… great kindness. Nine days later, a video of comedian Hannibal Buress on stage calling Cosby a rapist during a performance in Bill’s native Philadelphia became a kind of “shot heard ‘round the world,” generating widespread media attention and prompting dozens of women to come forward and tell about the horrors they had been subjected to at the hands of “America’s Dad.”
Back when I was a young stand up comedian in the mid-1980s and early-1990s, I knew a charming and personable comic named Vince Champ. We worked the road together many times and became good friends. I wrote a lot of material for him, including an entire monologue about the 1992 presidential race for an appearance Vince made on A&E’s An Evening at the Improv. Vince even attended the bachelor party roast that was held prior to my wedding in 1993. Shortly thereafter, I pretty much stopped performing when I moved into TV development and Vince and I lost touch. Then in 1997, I got a call from another comedian friend asking me if I had heard about Vince. I guessed that he had gotten some big break as he had already done Star Search and a bunch of late night shows. But no. Vince had been arrested for an attempted rape. I never saw it coming. In the following weeks and months, the story unfolded and Vince Champ would be charged with a string of rapes on college campuses across the country. The dates and locations of the assaults lined up with his calendar of performances. He has since been tried, sentenced, and will likely remain behind bars for the rest of his life. I have never written about Vince and have barely even spoken of him since. The crimes were incomprehensible to me and the fact that I spent many years in Vince’s company without the slightest inkling about his unspeakable dark side, even in hindsight, troubles me to this day. I have always seen comedy as a noble pursuit. A calling to rescue us all from our worries and pain. And while I have seen many incarnations of the tragic face that sometimes exists underneath the comic’s mask, I didn’t know how to accept how anyone whose purpose was to bring joy and laughter could be that evil.
Bill Cosby isn’t just any comedian. He is a legend. A hero. An icon. And with that stature came power and influence. The power and influence to, in the words of his accusers, take advantage of women’s trust and admiration, drug them, sexually assault them and then control the story afterwards. And if I’m going to be really honest with you all… and with myself… I had heard rumors about Bill for years. But shockingly, even after the tragic Vince Champ ordeal, I’m ashamed to admit that I chose to dismiss them as just that. Rumors. Hearsay. I suppose I just didn’t want it to be true. But if it holds true that where there’s smoke there’s fire, I have never seen this much smoke. And once the smoke clears, all that will be left is the scorched earth.
Certainly this saga is continuing to play out and many other people way more qualified than me will continue to write about it. And although it’s far less important than the devastation to the lives of everyone involved, friends have called me onto the carpet about my relationship to Cosby’s work. To the affection I have felt for him in the past. To the essay that has remained on McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. To the signed LP cover that continued to hang on my wall. Until very recently, I sought sanctuary in my belief that it’s sometimes necessary to separate the artist from their art. That I could hold onto what always meant something to me and that Bill’s work and his legacy might remain unmarred. But here’s the problem. Especially with a comedian, the artist and the art are one and the same. You love the art because you love the artist. It’s not a disembodied, freestanding collection of jokes and stories. It’s a human being who is the vessel. The comedian is the art personified.
A couple of weeks ago, New York Magazine featured a cover story where 35 of the women who have come forward to tell their stories were pictured, seated side-by-side-by-side. Their interviews are archived, in print and on video, describing the heartless brutality they endured in excruciating detail. At that point, the dam burst. I wept. I knew it was time. I decided that I wouldn’t ask McSweeney’s to take down my pre-existing essay about Bill. It remains a true reflection of my feelings up to that moment. But I did feel compelled to write this follow up. Because a few days ago, I took Cosby’s signed LP down off of my wall. It’s over. I can no longer bring myself to watch or listen to Bill’s work. I have a little girl who is turning eight later this month. And while I will always love comedy, I love my daughter more.