Morris: Bill Cosby
by Leo Morris
You’ve already heard from Don McLean about “the day the music died.” Call this the day the laughter died.
It wasn’t until I glimpsed the monster inside him that I realized how much Bill Cosby had meant to me growing up. Back then, he was the funny man who helped me get through high school with my sanity intact. The monster was well hidden beneath wry observations about family life and urban hassles.
Most of my classmates argued a lot about music. There was the great debate about whether John or Paul was the coolest Beatle, and the life-and-death struggle over whether the Beatles or the Rolling Stones were the best band. A few oddballs on the fringe called them all crazy and said Bob Dylan was the only artist who really mattered.
But there was a very small group of us who ignored the whole thing because we spent our time listening to comedy albums. There was Bob Newhart’s “Button- Down Mind,” the first No. 1 comedy album in history. Vaughn Meader’s multi-million-selling parodies of JFK. Bill Dana’s incredibly politically incorrect depictions of Jose Jimenez. Redd Foxx’s hilariously filthy “party” records.
And Bill Cosby, who was the king of the superstars of comedy albums. People who marvel at how big he was in the 1980s forget (or never knew) how big he was in the 1960s. My brother and I wore out three of his albums. I think we went around the house for an entire week yelling this each other “Who died and made you Jell-O sheriff?” from one of his routines.
Now he’s been unmasked as the worst sort of user, a predator who drugged women into incapacity and then abused them. Since he’s been found guilty on three counts, I guess we can stop putting “alleged” in front of his crimes, although it felt pretty silly doing it after the number of accusers topped 50.
And you have to wonder why in the world he did it. He was rich, famous, good- looking and beyond well-liked by millions. I don’t think “beloved” is too strong a word. Forgive me if it sounds crude, but he could have had all the sex he wanted, voluntarily.
So whatever possessed him? Pure evil, I suspect, a twisting of the soul that deflected the simple decency that forms the basis of moral behavior.
I know it sounds naïve and shallow to say I feel betrayed. He never signed a contract promising to be a paragon of virtue. He just offered to make us laugh and, more often than not, he succeeded.
But that is a part of what I feel. Life is full of dark corners we’re afraid to look around, and people who find some humor in the absurdity of it all are special. We forgive them for occasionally succumbing to human weakness — their understanding of that weakness is the source of much of their sense of humor. But they abuse the privilege when they encounter human depravity and decide to stop awhile and enjoy it.
I don’t have any profound insights to offer here, just a small warning about whom we admire and why we admire them.
We tend, I think, to judge people we don’t know well by what they do. We can’t fathom their innate qualities, so their behavior is what matters to us. How they handle setbacks. How they treat other people. How they act when they think no one is watching.
But the people we are close to — our family, friends and loved ones — we admire for who they are. We know their strengths and weaknesses, their lovableness and wretchedness, their highs and lows. We put it all on the scale and balance it with our own human contradictions, and we forgive each other’s sins so we can cheer on each other’s efforts to be better.
Famous people are in a special category. We start out admiring them for what they do — the way they can sing or act or build a bridge or make us laugh. But somewhere along the way we start thinking we know who they are, and we admire them for that.
And when they turn out not to be who we think they are, we are bitterly disappointed, though we really have no right to be.
As I said, not that profound. And not the least bit funny.
Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is this year’s winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at email@example.com.