by Gabe Meline
At the Lincoln Theatre in Yountville on Saturday, Bill Cosby made his first public appearance since America elected Barack Obama as its next president. One would hope that Cosby might have come up with some special material, in the three days since the historic election, to mark the occasion.
And yet Cosby never once spoke of Obama from the stage.
On Election Night, none other than Karl Rove had credited Bill Cosby with indirectly steering the American consciousness toward the historic act of electing a black president. Cosby set such a positive family example with The Cosby Show, Rove implied, that it paved the way for Obama's victory.
And still, Cosby never once spoke of Obama from the stage.
If this stunning oversight felt weird to the sold-out Saturday afternoon audience in Napa Valley, they didn’t let on. Instead, members of the mostly senior-citizen crowd shouted out requests for jokes about ice cream. And, essentially, that’s what Cosby gave them: nearly two hours of tame material about the wackiness of children, the ruthlessness of wives and the mystery of doctors.
You know. The usual Cosby stuff.
“What we need to do is give people more of a confidence that they can. They must realize that the revolution is in their apartment now. The revolution is in their house, their neighborhood, and then they can fight strongly, clearly, the systemic and the institutional racism.” — Bill Cosby on Meet the Press, 2006.
Away from the comedy stage, Bill Cosby is a different man. For the last four years, Cosby has been fighting a fierce cultural war, calling out the black community for poor parenting, for putting up with gangsta rap and for ignoring inner-city drug use. He’s suggested blacks move away from afrocentrism, and that black families need to stop giving their children “names like Shaniqua, Taliqua and Mohammed and all of that crap.”
On stage, Cosby talked about turkey stuffing.
Cosby has had his troubles with women in recent years; 14 of them have charged that they were drugged and then molested by him. Repeatedly throughout the show, Cosby spat out the word “women” as if it was one of the obscenities he’d promised not to use at the beginning of the show. Nearly all of his riffs, including a long and brilliant retelling of the Garden of Eden story which recalled his famous “Noah,” were either peppered with or served to highlight the theory that women were put on Earth to annoy men.
He then talked about Kleenex.
“We’ve had an African-American first family for many years in different forms. When The Cosby Show was on, that was America’s family. It wasn’t a black family. It was America’s family.” – Karl Rove, Election Night, 2008.
Undoubtedly, Rove is right. By presenting an image of a functional, well-educated, loving black American family on The Cosby Show, Cosby completely changed the national conversation on race. His approach to race relations has always been the polar opposite of Al Sharpton’s or Spike Lee’s; instead of illuminating the differences between whites and blacks, Cosby focuses on what the two have in common. With patience and diligence, he has successfully slipped into the mind of white America a pure vision of equality—the idea that deep down, black people are just like white people.
But on stage, Cosby told stories about Thanksgiving.
“If you’re black and you say to me, because you see me studying, ‘You’re acting white,’ what is it you’re saying about black people? You see, these are things that have to be discussed with, and people aren’t coming up enough to challenge these statements, to do character corrections on these things.” — Bill Cosby on Meet The Press, 2006.
Cosby’s condemnations about the black community come from a place of genuine love for that community. A struggling black artist in the 1970s in need of funding could count on Cosby to flow some financing his way—see Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song. A forgotten black artist in the 1980s in need of recognition could count on Cosby to highlight their talent on the Cosby Show—see Lena Horne, Joe Williams, Ellis Wilson. This falls in line with his latest book telling black people to stop being victims and start being victors, which is a pretty easy thing for someone as wealthy as Cosby to say.
On Saturday afternoon, he joked about exercise.
“Parents need to know all about what their children are doing—they should look under beds, monitor Internet usage, know who their friends are.” — Bill Cosby on The Oprah Winfrey Show, 2007.
Instead of being about Barack Obama, Saturday’s show was all about an 88-year-old veteran in a wheelchair named Clyde. Cosby crawled on his hands and knees to the edge of the stage to chat, but after about 15 minutes of Clyde’s constant commentary during which Cosby went from enamored to exasperated, he finally broke. “Now if you don’t mind, I’m going to do the show. You are not to yell out any more or you will be sedated,” he said, crawling back to his chair. “I’m telling you something. Let’s just leave it at that. I don’t need you remarking on what I’m telling you.”
He told the crowd about recipes, and bacon, and hotel beds.
It’s easy to agree with Cosby when he talks about personal responsibility. It’s practically impossible to agree with him, however, when he rails against hip-hop music and the names parents give their children. But all in all, there’s no doubt that Bill Cosby has made the world a better place, and that he had a positive impact on a lot of people when it comes to race relations—especially kids who grew up watching The Cosby Show. I know, because I was one of them.
Still, I wanted him to mention Barack Obama. Just once. In such an incredible week, and such a notable time in history, couldn’t he break his no-controversy rule a little and give Obama a quick mention? When his son was murdered on a Los Angeles freeway, he spoke about it on stage. When the financial crisis hit earlier this year, he spoke about it on stage.
Cosby ended the set with the routine about going to the dentist. It killed.