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Bill Cosby's Fans Laugh in the Face of Rape Allegations

I watched Bill Cosby receive multiple standing ovations at his first US comedy performance since more than a dozen women have accused him of drugging and raping them.

by Erin Meisenzahl-Peace
Nov 22 2014, 2:30pm

All photos by Stacy Kranitz

Broadly is a women's interest channel coming soon from VICE. Follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Multiple venues across the country have canceled Bill Cosby's upcoming shows since several recent allegations of rape have tarnished the image of the lovable father figure. The comedian is no longer invited to appear for shows in Arizona, Oklahoma, Washington, Nevada, Illinois, or South Carolina.

But in Florida? Eh, we've seen worse.

The 77-year-old comedian performed in front of a sold-out theater Friday night in Melbourne, Florida, to consistent laughter and multiple standing ovations.

"We love you Bill Cosby!" at least one person shouted mid-performance from the back of the 2,016-seat house. The show, held at Maxwell C. King Center for the Performing Arts on the Eastern Florida State College campus, was Cosby's first US performance since the sexual assault accusations against him have re-surfaced and multiplied.

Rumors of protesters dressed in colorful Cosby sweaters brought a swarm of media attention and increased police presence to the venue. Although a local radio station tried to incite controversy by offering a $1,000 reward to anyone willing to heckle Cosby, ticket holders seemed to have no inclination to harass the Jell-O commercial king. If anything, the aggressive media attention incited a self-justifying defensiveness in the mostly geriatric crowd, who welcomed the comedian to the stage with as much wheezing whistling as they could muster.

Much of the Melbourne population grew up replaying the comedian's bits on their record players and staying up late to catch him on their televisions. So naturally, show-goers didn't like to hear one of their childhood idols called a rapist—even if he is one.

Bill and his wife Peggy wait for the show to start

"This is garbage," a Melbourne local named Bill told VICE as he waited for the show to start with his wife. "If I was Cosby, I wouldn't put up with this nonsense. Where were [the women] 30 years ago?"

That seemed to be the dominant sentiment.

"When it's a celebrity, I just have to question why people come out that much later," another man explained to me. "I mean how many people do you hear coming out 15 years later when it's not a celebrity? There's something to be gained—money, notoriety..."

During the show, Cosby spent 90 family-friendly minutes relating stories of sibling rivalry, Sunday school slip-ups, and nagging wives. His innocuous jokes pandered to the sea of balding white heads—and they ate it up.

The ­­­comedian wore gray sweatpants and a sweatshirt that read, "Hello Friend," a phrase often repeated by his son Ennis Williams, who was shot to death in a robbery attempt in 1997 in Bel-Air. But coupled with the tame, grandfatherly humor, the subtle reminder of Cosby's lost son inserted an awkward layer of sadness and sympathy into the act.

I didn't expect him to address the allegations, as his lawyers have surely instructed him not to, and smartly. (Cosby is much better at hiring lawyers than PR reps.) He hasn't addressed the claims since 2006, when he settled a civil suit—brought by Andrea Constand, a former Temple University employee who said Cosby drugged and raped her—out of court for an undisclosed amount. He's avoided opportunities to publicly explain himself, like when he canceled a scheduled appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman and when he sat in silence during an NPR interview last weekend, refusing to answer questions related to the allegations.

But the crowd in Florida didn't really care to talk about that icky stuff anyway.

Judy Pollard isn't buying Cosby's bad press

"I don't want to be a Ferguson," Judy Pollard, a 40-year-old window manufacturer from Melbourne, told VICE. "I hope to believe that we are a community of people who wait for all the facts and don't jump the gun. He's done a lot of good."

The promised protest didn't materialize either. One woman, 47-year-old Julie LeMaitre, held a sign reading " Rape is no joke," but police kept her far enough away from the venue to keep her from interfering with the show.

"I consider myself a feminist. I want to make sure that these woman know that they are being listened to," said LeMaitre, adding, "I don't think it is right for him to go on with business as usual."

"Ron White got arrested for marijuana down south and nobody protested that!" Pollard said, likening a misdemeanor charge to at least 20 claims of rape.

An elderly woman named Peggy brushed off my questions.

"I believe in innocent until proven guilty!"

It's true: The 77-year-old has never faced criminal charges over any of the allegations. But NBC is playing it safe, following Netflix and cable channel TV Land in disassociating itself from the defamed star by dropping Cosby from an upcoming pilot project.

A Florida woman accused the star of sexual harassment just one day before his visit to her state, and three more came forward the morning of his Melbourne show. None of this mattered to Florida's Friday night ticket holders, though—they were there to enjoy the show and ignore the "air-head stuff," as one woman put it.

Or as a cane-wielding ticket-holder huffed at me angrily: "Whatever."

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Broadly is a women's interest channel coming soon from VICE. Follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.