Every time I hear about a celebrity behaving badly, I have a great struggle. A good friend of mine does a lot of set and prop work for movies and TV shows. He has encountered a large number of celebrities and has a very low opinion of most of them as people. Talking to him often reminds me that I need to separate the art from the artist. If I worry about what kind of people these celebrities are, I will never be able to enjoy any arts and entertainment. There is a difference, though, between being an unpleasant person and being someone who violates and hurts people.
When I heard about Bill Cosby, I found I couldn’t draw that line between the person and his work. Had even one woman come forward to say she had been raped by Bill Cosby, I’d have a real problem. I’ve turned my back on other celebrities based on a single accusation (Woody Allen, Kobe Bryant, Roman Polanski, Ben Roethlisberger, Jameis Winston, definitely forgetting several more). None of those celebrities meant nearly as much to me as Bill Cosby and watching the number of his accusers grow makes me sicker and sicker with each one.
As the accusations began, I heard many comedians struggling to deal with the news. Bill Cosby had been instrumental in launching so many of their careers.
“If not for Bill Cosby,” they said, “there would be no” (fill in any of a large number of names).
Having grown up in the 1980’s, me and my friend were both huge fans of “The Cosby Show.” To comfort ourselves, we talked of other shows from the era, and we began to realize how much Bill Cosby had indirectly helped the careers of many others who became stars.
In the fall of 1982, two shows debuted that I enjoyed tremendously. Somehow despite mediocre to poor ratings, they managed to get renewed. For those second seasons, the ratings were better but still not great as the two shows finished neck and neck at #34 and #35. The first starred a young Canadian actor who would later front a successful movie franchise. (A future Oscar winner did guest appearances in those first two seasons as well.) The second show was a key turning point in the careers of several actors who enjoyed far greater success in movies and other TV shows.
“Family Ties” finished in the top 5 its next three seasons. It helped Michael J. Fox secure his role in “Back to the Future” and achieve superstardom. (The Oscar winner mentioned above who made guest appearances in those first two low-rated seasons was Tom Hanks, who played crazy Uncle Ned, a fantastic role.)
“Cheers” finished #12 in its third season and the top 10 every year after. It only dropped out of the top 5 for its final season when it finished at #8. It also spun off “Frasier” and opened many doors for Ted Danson, Woody Harrelson, Kelsey Grammer, Kirstie Alley, and more.
Taking a while for a show to find its audience is not at all unusual. “Seinfeld” didn’t finish in the top 10 until its fifth season. Clearly, though, “Family Ties” and “Cheers” got another boost. “Cheers” never moved from its 9 p.m. Thursday timeslot. “Family Ties” moved into the slot before “Cheers” for its third season. Having two shows with mediocre ratings back-to-back wouldn’t cause that kind of surge, though. Clearly, the key difference was the fall 1984 premiere of “The Cosby Show.”
“The Cosby Show” found its audience quite quickly, finishing third its first season. It then enjoyed five straight years in the top spot (sharing that fifth one with “Roseanne”). “Family Ties” finished fifth in its third season and second the next two. It was moved to Sunday nights to make room for a “Cosby” spin-off, “A Different World,” which was an immediate top 5 hit and helped launch and/or boost many more careers. (It was Marisa Tomei’s first regular role.)
After moving to Sunday nights, “Family Ties” dropped out of the top ten and was canceled a season later after finishing at #40. “Cheers” remained strong, however, taking the #1 spot from “The Cosby Show” after the 1990-1991 season. Who knows how these shows and actors would’ve faired if not for the sudden early success of “The Cosby Show.”
Clearly, Bill Cosby has had a huge impact and been hugely beneficial to the careers of many, many performers. What about his philanthropy and support of education, particularly for people of color? I want to be proud of all this. I want to celebrate Bill Cosby for all his successes and contributions to our culture and the world. I can’t do that, though, because I can’t separate the performer from the person.
I believe Bill Cosby has raped an untold number of women. I will certainly continue to enjoy the work of people who benefited from Bill Cosby’s work. I am so glad for the joy these people have brought to my life, and I recognize that Bill Cosby was a big reason that it happened. I will not, however, ever again watch “The Cosby Show.” I will not watch his movies, listen to his albums, or read his books. I will not support someone I believe to be a rapist.
What I will do is applaud these brave women who have stepped forward to accuse Bill Cosby. No amount of money is worth the risk they are taking. I once personally called out bad behavior on the part of a small-time local celebrity and suffered greatly for it, withdrawing from friends and enduring tremendous pain and anxiety. What I did is nothing compared to what they have done, but I wish to stand with them.
“The Cosby Show” was an important part of my childhood, but it will no longer have any place in my life or my heart. I will in no way support the man who hurt these women. I hope others will join me.