Call it classic Canadian politeness or just good, old-fashioned capitalism, but despite having his Netflix special, his upcoming NBC sitcom, and almost all of his American tour dates cancelled, Bill Cosby's three Canadian tour dates still went through. Even though the once-celebrated comedian is facing allegations of drugging and rape by no fewer than 30 women, he's already received a standing ovation in Kitchener, made an awful, disgusting joke about the allegations against him in London, Ontario (reportedly to wild applause), and on Friday ended his mini-tour in Hamilton. All this despite strong showings of support for his victims outside his shows.
I still remember my first Bill Cosby tape—Himself, recorded in 1982 at Hamilton Place Theater. I was in fifth grade and listened to it incessantly on my Walkman, loving every moment. As a one-time Cosby fan, but also someone who doesn't like rapists, it made me wonder—could a person appreciate Bill Cosby: standup comedian while chastising Bill Cosby: alleged rapist? In other words, can you separate a person from their art? Chris Brown is by all accounts reprehensible, but he put out one of the best pop albums of last year. Woody Allen is by some accounts a scumbag, but his recent releases are some of the best movies of his career. Hell, even the guy Mark Wahlberg assaulted has his back.
But with music and movies there's a dividing line. One can squint and say, "This isn't about that." But stand-up comedy, even at its most surreal, is still a person speaking directly to you. As someone who dabbles in comedy and has always been deeply interested in seeing Cosby's renowned technical comedy skills, I decided to go to Hamilton to see if it was possible to make that distinction.
The show, predictably, was not sold out. I was able to walk into the box office three hours before showtime and get a cheap ticket. That didn't bode well for appreciating this strictly as a comedy show. Hamilton Place Theater holds roughly 2,200 people and shows this size this need big, loud crowds to work.
Speaking of big, loud crowds, when I arrived there was already a strong protest presence. At 7 PM, an hour before showtime, Anne Bokma had organized a demonstration outside the venue. Despite the bitter, unrelenting cold there were roughly 30-40 people, mostly women, outside of the show. Their message was simple – Bill Cosby is a rapist and should not be celebrated. Police were present, but they were mostly ornamental. Everyone was open to talking and the vibe wasn't melancholy, just serious. These people were here for a cause. Two women I was talking to, Audrey and Jennifer, also remarked, "Y'know, there are also a lot of crazy men here."
As if on cue I ran into men's rights group A Voice For Men, who were protesting the protest with delightful chants like "Racism plus sexism equals feminism." VICE has covered this particular group before. They assured me that their cause was simply promoting a fair trial and standing up for the judicial system. I tried to take a photo of them, but both of my hands were uncontrollably squeezed into fists during our encounter. Weird, huh?
The crowd inside was naturally much, much different—mostly elderly, mostly white, and, according to the people I met, mostly apologetic for even being there. One couple I spoke with had been there for the original Himself recording in 1982, and said they'd been fans of Cosby since he was "the first negro on television," a problematic claim for a number of reasons. Even so, the crowd was not standing firm or trying to fight fire with fire. They seemed embarrassed to be associated with the event. "My daughter got the tickets for us for Christmas, but she said if we didn't want to go it was okay," was the defining quote of the evening.
At 8:02 Cosby walked on stage wearing a grey hoody with "Hello Friend" on it to as much applause as the sparse crowd could muster. At 77 years old, Cosby is still remarkably vibrant on-stage and can control a crowd, but as someone who's seen enough brilliant people perform to empty rooms, I could see in his eyes he wasn't happy. His vibe was more "old Wal-Mart greeter going through the motions" than "comedy legend in his element." His very performance was an act of defiance against a society that is condemning him, and here was society essentially saying "meh" back.
He began, unpredictably, by directly referencing the protest outside. He called the protesters brave for handling the cold and said that, while there might be interruptions tonight we in the audience should remain calm, let it pass, and allow the show to go on.
About 15 minutes into a bit about how weird being a kid was, 30 women stood up, each one representing a woman who has come forward so far, and began chanting "We believe the women" while blowing rape whistles. Cosby leapt to his feet and pleaded with the crowd to stay quiet and calm, but it was no use. The protest continued until security escorted them out, while crowd members yelled things like, "Go believe outside!" to applause. The show was successfully disrupted and it made viewing this as a normal comedy show impossible, as I sort of always knew it would be.
"Arrogant piece of shit!" was yelled twice.
"Please don't. Stop. Calm," Cosby retorted. "It will calm."
The next outburst was an unfortunate, "Our product is steel, our strength is people!" While great in spirit, that could have probably used some workshopping.
"If security will… and we will calmly… let them out," Cosby said as the last of the insurgents were led out. And with a calm, cool, "Now, if I may," Cosby returned seamlessly to his act.
The show continued and, frankly, bored me to tears. I have a difficult time relating to the childhood of a 77-year-old man and I have a difficult time relating to the realities of someone with $400 million. During one anecdote he went out of his way to mention that he flew first class.
One unique part of the show was something I've dubbed 'positive heckling', which is somehow worse than regular heckling. Apropos of nothing a woman belted out, "We love you, Crosby," to which Bill said nothing. She continued, "We fucking love you," over and over until he had to respond. Usually this sort of person would be drowned out by a full house, but with this few people there was no choice. "I know, I know, but you said Crosby," was the best crowd work this veteran could muster.
The show continued with the force of a runaway chipmunk. There were chuckles here and there, but I was seeing just a man at work, not an artist performing a craft. I can't even fathom the last time Bill Cosby has been forced to perform in front of an empty room, but it had clearly messed with his head. There were empty seats in the front row. He fumbled lines, forgot segues, and generally looked like he was counting the seconds until his time onstage was over.
I walked out during a bit about women drivers because I'm not a caveman and I had better things to do with my life than fall asleep in a balcony listening to an accused rapist tell terrible jokes. The protest portion was over and, really, they won. The show went on, but the abysmal attendance caused more damage to Cosby's ego than simply not performing would have. The man is a pro. That's undeniable. You can't operate on a level that high for that many years without being great at your job, but without the fuel of a full house it didn't feel like anything. Just a sad old man clinging to something that's now gone.
As I walked back to the bus station I thought about what I'd just seen. The protest was over and the streets were empty. When I got to the station and was waiting for my bus I saw two ornery white teenagers preparing for fisticuffs. "Why don't you go suck your mother?" one taunted the other, and I laughed harder than I had at anything all night. That's the nature of comedy—something absurd happening at an unexpected moment and throwing you off your axis.
For me, Cosby's legacy is ruined forever. It will be impossible to watch a Cosby Show rerun, listen to an old album, or even eat a pudding pop without thinking about the (so far) 30 women who have come forward. Nothing can take away what he's accomplished, from being the first African-American lead actor on TV to an unprecedented run on television, but he's also accused of accomplishing many heinous things and we can't take that away from him, either.
Also, his show was super fucking boring.
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