When I was brand-new to adulthood, very soon after I quit collecting baseball cards, I started collecting comedy albums on vinyl. I scavenged antique shops and thrift stores for original recordings by the greats and it wasn’t just the collecting that mattered to me — though, admittedly, my goal was to amass a humongous collection. I actually listened to them. A lot. My favorite? Bill Cosby.
Cosby started young and released a lot of material. Way before The Cosby Show and Picture Pages came Noah and God (“Voo-bah, voo-bah, voo-baDING! Noah!”), Adam and Eve in the garden (“That’s it! Everybody! Out of the pool!”), and Bill’s father (“You think I’m so dumb, you pulled the car in the drive with just enough gas left in the tank so I ran out of gas closing the door.”) I sat on the floor in front of our record player and listened to Cosby records the way most people binge-watch TV. One more. Okay, fine, one more. Okay, fine. One. More.
Cosby had a routine called “Spanish fly.” It’s on his 1969 record It’s True! It’s True! If you haven’t heard it, it’s about doping women’s drinks with a substance called Spanish fly — an evident disintegrator of inhibitions and even consciousness — so he could have sex with them (read: rape them.) Taking into account the spirit of the routine, it’s not just braggadocio either. It’s as if Cosby is revealing some sacred secret to his audience. The title of the entire record comes from a line in the “Spanish fly” routine, a bit where Cosby narrates his use of Spanish fly. After a brief moment spent wondering whether or not the dose of Spanish fly will have its intended effect on his victim, Cosby blurts, in a drawn out falsetto, “It’s true!”
It is, to date, Cosby’s only admission of his crimes. And not so much an admission, really. A gleeful celebration. Bill Cosby literally told us what he was up to. A full 49 years before he was convicted of it. And he used his behavior to make us laugh.
Perhaps we don’t really know whether he wrote and performed “Spanish fly” before or after or even during the time he was actually doing what he described in the routine. It doesn’t matter. Maybe he wrote the routine and thought, “I think I’ll give this a shot.” Maybe he’d been abusing women all along and simply spoke out his exact steps, a codification of how to victimize the unwilling, disguised as jokes. A nudge-wink playbook on how to vandalize innocence. A … you get the idea. I think I’m going to throw up.
I feel sad and sick when I remember that I bought this record. That I played it, listened to it, laughed at it. I wish I hadn’t. I’m sorry I did.
In relation to Cosby and others who’ve recently been publicly exposed (e.g. Woody Allen, Harvey Weinstein … there are just too damn many) as systematic perpetrators of sexual violence, more than one person, including me, has asked, “He did these terrible things, yes, but can’t we still appreciate the good things he did?”
Recall that The Cosby Show was groundbreaking. It was the first mainstream TV show to portray an upper middle-class African American family, with professional parents and thoughtful kids, living normal lives. It helped white American kids like me, who grew up with nary a single African American person in sight, understand that prejudice and racism are immoral, that the narratives of African Americana portrayed in other pieces of mainstream media (e.g. Disney’s Song of the South) were typically self-serving fabrications concocted by (and for) white Americana.
If you haven’t yet watched Nannette, the Netflix comedy special by Hannah Gadsby, it’s time you did. It’s Gadsby’s story and not mine so I won’t tell it here, but I will mention two things. First, it’s the perfect comedic antipode to Cosby’s “Spanish fly.” Greater than antipodal, actually. In fact, I think she’s gone and turned “Spanish fly,” not to mention all other routines similar to it from all other comedians, into impotent wrecks on the floor.
Secondly, she takes on Pablo Picasso. Gadsby, an art historian as well as a stand-up comic, reminds us that the greatest artist in Western history since Michelangelo once took a 17-year old lover at a time in his life when he was old enough to be her grandpa. Then Gadsby asks the question, “But what about what he did for the world through his art?” She answers the question perfectly.
Truth and ideas don’t depend on the person who discovered them or brought them forth. At least not to the degree that we humans tend to pedestal those folks whose presentations of truth and ideas revolutionize human culture. We make them gods. Incidentally, the gods’ records on sexual assault specifically are not so clean. We shouldn’t deify anybody because the gods are just as bad as we are.
Here’s something: If Bill Cosby had not broken ground with The Cosby Show, somebody else would have. It wouldn’t have been called The Cosby Show, sure, but it would have done the exact same thing for us. The truths and ideas — the really important ones about race and the love of family — portrayed in The Cosby Show are universal. Bill Cosby is not. It’s been helpful to remember.
Paul Luikart is a writer whose work has appeared in a number of places over the years. His most recent book, “Animal Heart,” is available now from Hyperborea Publishing. Follow him on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.