Like a lot of people my age, I was first introduced to Bill Cosby on vinyl LPs.  My father shared his love of Cosby’s comedy with me, and he delighted in watching me discover some of Cosby’s classic bits like “The Chicken Heart that Ate New York City” and his sketches about a dubious Noah trying to understand what God is saying to him. “What’s a cubit?”

For me, Cosby was part of my awakening to, well, the stupidity of racism: watching him on Johnny Carson in the early ’70s when I lived in Tampa, Florida (then struggling with the forced integration of their schools), and hearing my new friends laughing at Cosby’s jokes while they said to one another “That n—–’s funny as hell.”  While I could only stare at them and wonder Why would anyone call this smart, decent guy that word?

Then the good works: reading programs for inner-city kids, the “Fat Albert” animated show for kids, which preached virtuous behavior and good choices.

When comedy was drying up, there was a period of hucksterism (Pudding Pops and New Coke, among them).

Then TV beckoned again, where Cosby ruled as “Cliff Huxtable,” the warm, funny, affectionate Black Father Knows Best. It was comedy with a slightly missionary-bent:  showing an upper-class African-American family as… a family. The focus was on the situation comedy of the interactions (dating and annoying in-laws and do we get a puppy?) of a loving family that happened to be of color. Note that while Cosby consciously worked hard to counter stereotypes, he and the network didn’t feel the need to bludgeon the viewers by proclaiming itself “Black-ish,” for instance.

Bill Cosby said a lot of the right things. With his focus on education and family, conservatives embraced him. He was certainly more appealing to Middle America than the frenetically foul-mouthed Richard Pryor, whose own shows tended toward nightly unsuccessful exorcisms of personal demons, minus the projectile vomiting but with bonus profanity. Bill was the stand-up Martin Luther King to Rich’s radical slam poet, jokester Malcolm X.

But what Pryor dragged wriggling and cursing into the light, Cosby did in the darkness.

He was a guy embraced by white and black and – enough with the colors – he was beloved by people who enjoyed seeing stories of human beings humorously and warmly explored.

He was America’s Dad.

And like the worse, anti-family, anti-conservative, anti-marriage screed that could be puked out by Hollywood in their sleep to Oscar acclaim (e.g., “American Beauty”), America’s Dad was a monster when no one was looking.

So what do you do when your spiritual Dad is revealed to be a fraud, a sham, and it turns out you never knew him at all?


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