The Cosby Show - Steve Braunias discovers the worst book of the century
Relax, the search for the worst book of the 21st century is over. I found it the other day in the sale bin at my local library. It had a big stamp on the inside cover: WITHDRAWN. Yes, that's one word for it, it's not fit to be seen in public, it's virtually a banned book, something so icky and so plain wrong that I wonder why it took the library so long to get rid of it. I bought Cosby: His Life and Times for 50c.
Mark Whitaker's biography of former human being Bill Cosby was published in 2014. Good grief, I thought, wasn't that running it a bit close to what happened? It scarcely seemed possible but there it was, a hardback with more than 500 pages and Cosby looking all coy and happy on the front cover.
The back cover was even more bizarre. People said such nice things about him. Jerry Seinfeld ("Wonderful new book") acknowledged that he "idolises" Cosby. Billy Crystal ("This compelling book") called him "my favourite comedian". And this, from Mary Tyler Moore: "In his masterly telling, Mark Whitaker reminds us why we all love Bill Cosby."
"We all love Bill Cosby." You don't hear that one much anymore. About 60 women have come forward with stories of a pattern of despicable abuse. He denied everything. Five women accused him in court. He was convicted last year of three counts of aggravated indecent assault and sentenced to 3 to 10 years prison.
But the closest the book comes to finding any kind of fault in this portrait of a wise, clever, generous, loving, vulnerable, hard-working, serious, innovative and brilliant comic genius is that Whitaker once or twice refers to Cosby's "roving eye". A roving eye! Who talks like that anymore? What century was this book written? As well, Whitaker winks at Cosby's "playboy ways". God almighty.
The rest of the book covers Cosby's career highs and lows, his family life, his wealth, his thoughts on black America. It's kind of interesting and I really liked the section on how he created The Cosby Show , when he radicalised the entire concept of the sitcom; Cosby deconstructed the word and emphasised the "situation" in front of the "comedy". Genius, really. It was a reinvention which had a profound influence on classics such as Seinfeld and The Office .
But somehow all of it seemed to be kind of like totally missing the point. It felt strange and almost transgressive to read a thoughtful account of the many various merits of Cosby, once the wealthiest entertainer in America. He's become a non-person and to view him as anything other than a predator is unacceptable. It's like sitting down with someone and saying, "Kevin Spacey's a good actor."
I read the book and then I read the internet and found that Cosby: His Life and Times very quickly became that most dreaded word of the 21st century: "toxic". It was published in September 2014. In November, New York Times columnist David Carr criticised Whitaker for failing to even mention the allegations made against Cosby. Whitaker took to Twitter, and wrote: "David you are right. I was wrong to not deal with the sexual assault charges against Cosby and pursue them more aggressively."
He sent a second tweet: "Am following new developments and will address them at the appropriate time. If true the stories are shocking and horrible. Am following new developments and will address them at the appropriate time. If true, the stories are shocking and horrible." The appropriate time never came around. Whitaker distanced himself from his own book. Seinfeld and David Letterman followed suit and demanded to have their hymns of praise dropped from all publicity material. The publishers cancelled plans to issue the book as a paperback. They allowed Cosby: His Life and Times to go out of print. You'll only find it in places like library sale bins.
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As for Cosby, he continues to maintain his innocence. His principal accuser, Andrea Constand, said Cosby had drugged and molested her at his home in 2004. Cosby said the encounter was consensual. His lawyers are appealing the conviction. He has the support of 3.48 million followers on Twitter, where he describes himself as "a political prisoner". He follows six accounts, including Sesame Street and Malcolm-Jamal Warner, who played Theo on The Cosby Show . Cosby is 82 years old. He walks with a cane. He claims he is legally blind, due to a degenerative eye condition called keratoconus; he can no longer read.