With the sexual misconduct allegations against Bill Cosby topping headlines this month, some of the most critical comments directed at the embattled 77-year-old star are coming from his fellow comedians.
“Here’s where we say goodbye, Bill Cosby,” tweeted Patton Oswalt, after writing that it was Cosby who inspired him to pursue a stand-up career.
The rest of Hollywood, however, seems gripped by a strange silence.
From the former costars of the 1980s smash “The Cosby Show” to such Cosby pals as Oprah Winfrey and Magic Johnson, the entertainment industry has mostly offered zero, at least publicly, on the subject of claims that the beloved sitcom patriarch and author of the No. 1 bestseller “Fatherhood” was a serial abuser who drugged and sexually assaulted young women.
NBC dropped development plans for a comedy pilot in which Cosby would play the grandfather of a multi-generational family. And Netflix postponed a special on tap for the comic’s 77th birthday. But the companies offered no comment or explanation for those decisions.
Carsey Werner Co., which produced “The Cosby Show,” wrote in a terse statement that the “recent news reports are beyond our knowledge or comprehension.”
During a taping of ABC’s daytime chat fest “The View,” co-host Whoopi Goldberg argued for restraint before judging Cosby. “People jump on the bandwagon. … For me, I’m going to wait,” said Goldberg, who outraged some in 2009 with a defense of director Roman Polanski, who pleaded guilty to a charge of statutory rape.
“The silence from the entertainment community has been obvious, and frankly, disappointing,” said Jeffrey McCall, a media studies professor at DePauw University. “Cosby’s pals are hesitant to disrupt his legendary status over old allegations. The Hollywood culture protects each other from scandals because few of them have spotless pasts.”
Like many Americans – and until recently, most of the news media – industry veterans seem torn between the public image of Cosby as an avuncular, sometimes cranky authority figure and his accusers’ portrayal of a sexual predator who followed a pattern of incapacitating victims before assaulting them.
In a town where success is the only calling card that matters, insiders are also burdened with the knowledge that Cosby is a singular success, a comic who worked his way up from clubs to TV stardom and is now worth an estimated $400 million. He is credited with helping turn NBC into the No. 1 network starting in the 1980s, creating a dynasty that endured for years.
“There are people that are not going to want to believe it, that are still huge fans of Bill’s,” Sharon Osbourne said on CBS' “The Talk,” when discussing a former NBC employee who claimed he helped Cosby pay hush money to women.
And then major entertainment figures fret about getting embroiled in the violent spin cycle on Twitter and social media, where outrage over offhand remarks about emotional subjects can within minutes prompt trolls to hurl abuse or even death threats.
“There’s this concern about the media and the feeding frenzy in general,” said Dan Hill, a crisis public relations executive at Ervin Hill Strategy in Washington, D.C. “People are reluctant to participate in these kinds of conversations.”
This is not the first time, of course, that Hollywood has averted its gaze from an unpleasant topic. It’s hardly news that a mythology-creating town that rushes to embrace every glamorous trend runs away from ugliness, at least until it’s safely tucked in the very distant past. Films and TV series about slavery and the Holocaust may win industry adulation, but it has proved difficult to get celebrities and top decision-makers to acknowledge serious present-day problems that threaten the industry’s natural order.
Silence, however, grows complicated when claims of sexual assault are involved. In fact, the very word “silence” is a loaded term for accusers and advocacy groups, who say the tendency of society to turn away worsens the harm caused by the initial crime.
“Survivors of rape continuously face disbelief, blame and silence when they attempt to share their stories,” Chitra Panjabi, a vice president for the National Organization for Women, wrote in a statement. “The cases that have unfolded around Bill Cosby are no different. Since the first accusations arose in the early 2000s, these 13-plus women have been ignored, shamed, interrogated and silenced.”
Thus the silence from a celebrity such as Winfrey is noteworthy. The former queen of daytime talk TV and creator of the cable network OWN revealed to her audience that she was sexually abused at age 9 and has done countless shows featuring survivors of rape and sexual abuse. She has also interviewed Cosby and his wife, Camille, who has not addressed the abuse allegations.
The big network late-night hosts usually live to feast on the foibles of the famous, but they, with few exceptions, have stayed away from Cosby. Conan O'Brien and Jon Stewart made passing jokes about the scandal.
Comedians, however, seem to be having less of a problem addressing the Cosby issue. In fact, it was a routine last month from comic Hannibal Buress – in which he derided Cosby’s image – that ignited the current firestorm.
On his HBO show “Real Time,” Bill Maher said, “Sorry, but this guy is such a creep. I’ve had to reevaluate everything I ever thought about him.”
He added: “I get it. Celebrities are targets. But 16 women? All with the same story? Even for a guy who did a sitcom in the 1980s, that’s a lot of wacky misunderstandings.”
Sarah Silverman, who has made a career out of close-to-the-edge humor, tweeted: “Bill Cosby gave me one of those ‘don’t be dirty' lectures, but I was rendered unconscious.” She later apologized after users criticized her for trivializing rape.
Whether Hollywood wants to talk about it or not, though, Cosby’s career – certainly his unofficial role as America’s Dad – looks to be over. While his colleagues may choose to remain silent, experts say, that’s not a viable option for Cosby given the seriousness of the accusations against him. Last week he told a Florida TV station that he wouldn’t respond to “innuendo.”
“He just can’t use silence as a response to such allegations,” McCall said. “If he continues his public life, he will be merely a curiosity.”