Of parallel Cosbys
Why are people still buying Bill Cosby tickets?
As Bill Cosby's November 13 show at Overture Hall in Madison approaches, I keep wondering when and if his tour dates are going to start getting canceled. The sexual-assault accusations against Cosby first emerged in 2005 and have yet to catch up with his sweater-clad, befuddled-family-man image. Overture spokesman Rob Chappell says the Madison show is selling "very well" and Overture has not considered canceling the show, nor does Overture's contract with Cosby allow for cancelation based on public sentiment or morality.
What's different since 2005 is that conversations about sexual assault and harassment have become a lot more tenacious and searching, and have become conversations about how we treat victims and accusers. The instinct to not convict someone out of hand is balanced with the instinct to not sweep issues of rape and abuse under the rug. And it needs to be—if you need proof, witness George Will's jaw-droppingly horrid thoughts on sexual assault and the "privilege" that comes with "victimhood."
This evolving and rightfully heated discussion of sexual assault and harassment, combined with a pattern of multiple accusations, can make a difference between a short-lived controversy and lasting damage to the accused's career and reputation. If not for the changing nature of this conversation, it might take years of litigation for someone like Jian Ghomeshi to be as screwed as he is.
See also the case of R. Kelly, who was removed from the Fashion Meets Music Festival in Columbus, Ohio earlier this year after an outcry from the public, media, and other performers (and this came after Kelly played a successful set at last year's Pitchfork Music Festival, illustrating that just because some folks let this stuff slide doesn't mean everyone will). Like Chappell, FMMF spokesperson Melissa Dickson stresses that public sentiment against a performer doesn't give a promoter a legal out to just tear up a contract. In this case, Dickson says, Kelly's management realized that the outcry would be damaging to their client, and worked with the festival to reach a cancellation agreement.
What we have with Cosby, though, is not the picture of a man who's screwed or is facing public pressure to cancel. Perhaps even now, his image will remain relatively unscathed. As his current tour proceeds, we've got two parallel narratives going. On the one hand, accusations in Newsweek and Hannibal Buress' set. (Buress is playing Madison just a couple weeks after Cosby—shame the two fellows will just miss each other.) On the other hand there remains the magnetic performer who can still rip through a two-hour set (as I saw him do at the Overture a few years back), who leaves interviewers at local papers across the land, from our own Capital Times to the News & Observer in Raleigh, NC, with dazzling quotes and anecdotes. The New York Times mentioned the allegations in its coverage of the New York Comedy Festival but not in a review of a new Smithsonian exhibit that draws on art from Cosby's collection. (Madison's Isthmus also gave the allegations a pass ahead of his show here, simply noting that "few things compare to seeing a living legend in action.")
I've found very few recent articles from publications along Cosby's tour route that discuss his upcoming shows and the allegations. To me that's not an indictment of the press or anything—you'd be hard-pressed to argue that the job of every art review or show preview is to make these allegations stick. But it illustrates how weird it is to try and balance the art with the person.
Despite everything, I get the feeling everything will blow over an ease uncharacteristic of the times. What surprises me more is that there hasn't been more discussion of this in a community like Madison. I can't tell you what to believe or how to feel about Bill Cosby. But I can't imagine buying a ticket for that show and feeling completely OK about it.