Saturday, November 22, 2014

Bill Cosby – The Warped Cult of TV Personality

First appeared on Blogcritics.

cos5 If you have been watching TV or reading daily news stories, it would be almost impossible not to have encountered the ever growing “scandal” connected to TV personality Bill Cosby. My goal here is not to bury Cosby, nor to praise him – as I recall the brilliant oratory of Marc Antony’s eulogy in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Rather, it is to recognize a mistake of which most of us are guilty. We invest too much emotion and interest in personalities (movies and TV), and in doing so we are basically always setting ourselves up for a Humpty Dumpty moment.

cos4There is no way to dispute Cosby’s cultural impact through his various television projects going back to 1965. Appearing as Alexander Scott alongside Robert Culp in I Spy, Cosby burst onto the scene as an equal partner to Culp’s Kelly Robinson in their weekly espionage series. This role as Scotty established Cosby as a bankable star and would lead to his many other successful ventures.

When I was a kid I first knew about Cosby through Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, a cartoon series that I remember watching every week. Fat Albert came right out of Cosby’s comedy routines, and the funny, affable, and overweight character won the hearts of many kids like me; it also convinced parents, who had been fans of Cosby since I Spy, that his brand was family-friendly. Those Jell-O Pudding commercials did nothing but corroborate what kids and moms already knew – Cosby was an American favorite.

Another TV series would seal the deal – The Cosby Show came into people’s homes from 1984-1992, and it was hard to separate the image of the good doctor and the star. The amiable personality depicted on screen didn’t seem too far removed (if at all) from the one Cosby projected when interviewed on talk shows. He was a loveable father figure, a wise yet funny guy anyone would go to to seek advice or to get a laugh. For all intents and purposes, Bill Cosby and Cliff Huxtable were the same person, and people of all ages loved him.

cos2If that were not enough, Cosby went out and created another cartoon character that would enhance his standing even further. Targeted for toddlers and their parents, Little Bill premiered in 1999 just in time to capture an entirely different market. Conveniently, all those kids like me who had loved Fat Albert and grew up to love Dr. Huxtable now had kids of their own. Little Bill features the image of Cosby in the opening credits, and that seemed better than the Good Housekeeping seal of approval – if Cosby were attached to something it had to be family friendly, wholesome entertainment.

So forgive us all for feeling like we have been slapped in the face now, but many of us have lots of years invested in old Bill. The problem with him is one we have with all stars that we allow ourselves to fall in love with – we swoon for a media created image, a concocted persona that is as natural as those faces enhanced by Hollywood plastic surgeons. All the nips and tucks, all the publicists, all the TV and movie studio lot contrivances in the world don’t change the person inside the shell, but we become enamored with that shell anyway.

Why do we continue to feel devastated when stars keep falling like dominoes right before our eyes? We hear of marital infidelity, of drug and alcohol abuse, of drunk driving accidents, of spousal abuse, and a litany of other offenses. We have seen the mug shots of everybody from Nick Nolte to Justin Bieber, but we still feel disappointment and disbelief at every new revelation of indecent or illegal behavior. The truth is that we are too invested in the cult of personality that has been churned out by the media.

We are too quick to believe in the persona of the star as it appears to us, rather than realizing that it is all smoke and mirrors. The best example is “reality TV,” which is neither real nor true television. I know it’s difficult to accept that everything from Dance Moms to Cake Boss is scripted, plotted, and edited just as much as your favorite sitcom, but the truth is reality TV is as unreal as it can be.

So now, if all of us who have bought the Cosby image all these years feel burned, we have no one to blame but ourselves. We should realize that TV and movie stars are nothing more than prefabricated packaging. They are like the most beautiful and large present under the Christmas tree. As long as we don’t open it, the possibilities and excitement are endless; unfortunately, when we rip off the fancy bows and pretty wrapping paper and get the box open, sometimes we are disappointed.

When thinking of Cosby let’s go back to Marc Antony talking about his dear murdered friend Julius Caesar. “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interréd with their bones.” In my life and my children’s lives Cosby’s shows have brought a good deal of happiness and laughter, but all that will be forgotten now by most people, and he will be fodder for late night TV hosts and other comics who can poke fun at him. Just one caution to those people who also fall into the personality category – let he without sin cast the first stone.

cos1One interesting thing to note is that Cosby performed in Florida last night and received a standing ovation. He went about his usual routine, never mentioning the scandal that is in the news. I don’t know what that says about him or the crowd that supported his appearance, but perhaps the cult of personality is more powerful than anything reality can throw at it.

  Photo credit: AP ,, tvworthwatching/com,,

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