I’ll be honest. For me, Bill Cosby is Cliff Huxtable. A wise yet wisecracking, sweater-loving, deeply human father figure who coaxed no small amount of comedy from struggling with his household’s overwhelming female energy. As someone who came of age during The Cosby Show‘s juggernaut run 30 years ago, hearing accusations that the comedian drugged and raped an ever-growing number of women is akin to seeing my favorite uncle dragged away in handcuffs.
Cosby has never been criminally charged and through his attorneys denies all allegations of misconduct. But the 77-year-old also has yet to respond to any questions about being a serial rapist — instead replying by shaking his head, a wordless gesture that renders my childhood hero unrecognizable. The Jell-O Pudding Pops guy recast as a manipulative sexual predator whose crimes may stretch back decades? My head is still exploding.
I have to ask, though: Should Cliff Huxtable pay for Bill Cosby’s alleged acts? The beloved sitcom patriarch was all but banished from basic cable last week when TV Land decided to yank reruns of The Cosby Show. Media outlets such as GQ are already proclaiming, ”Bill Cosby is done.” What was once a story mostly covered by outlets like TMZ is now on the front page of The New York Times. Netflix indefinitely ”postponed” the launch of Bill Cosby 77, the stand-up special that was set to begin streaming on Thanksgiving. NBC halted development on its previously announced Cosby sitcom. The legacy of the Everydad seems to unravel more and more each day.
Still, BET’s sister network Centric continues to air repeats of The Cosby Show, and the series — one of the most successful sitcoms in the history of syndication — remains available on Netflix and Hulu Plus.
If we have learned anything from the sex-abuse scandals of Woody Allen, Michael Jackson, Roman Polanski, and R. Kelly, it’s that great work doesn’t get scrubbed out of public consciousness by private misdeeds — at least not in the long run. After outcry, there often comes acceptance if not forgiveness. Mike Tyson was convicted of rape in 1992, but thanks to success in The Hangover, on the Broadway stage, and on the new Adult Swim cartoon Mike Tyson Mysteries, he’s attained a cult-status level of cool that suggests a triumphant third act.
But until I get a clearer read on Cosby, I’m not sure I want him in my living room. Two weeks ago I considered showing my 10-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son YouTube videos of Bill Cosby, Himself, the star’s brilliant 1983 stand-up concert film credited with inspiring The Cosby Show. I imagined my kids laughing out loud at the comedian’s curse-free, goofy riffs on family high jinks, just as I did when the movie was shown on semiconstant repeat on HBO in the ’80s. Anticipating an uncomfortable discussion about the controversy — and, incidentally, not wanting to validate comedian Hannibal Buress’ stated intent to ”make it weird for you to watch Cosby Show reruns” by calling Cosby a rapist in a video clip that went viral last month — I never pressed play.
When we get nothing but silence, instead of the adorable image of Cliff Huxtable boogying with a pint-size Keshia Knight Pulliam in The Cosby Show‘s title sequence, we’re left with Cosby’s current downward gaze, furrowed brow, and scraggly beard, the onetime icon looking all too mortal and flawed. Until Cosby says something to remind us of the man — no, the men — we once loved, it is goodbye.