Why jokes about Cosby are such a tricky beast: How comedians have handled Cosby-gate

Cosby makes a joke about drugging women--and Tina Fey says "heck yes" we should expect Cosby jokes at the Globes

By Erin Keane

Published January 9, 2015 7:00PM (EST)

Bill Cosby                     (AP/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
Bill Cosby (AP/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

Tina Fey and Amy Poehler are gearing up to host the Golden Globes on Sunday, and when asked by Access Hollywood if viewers should expect Bill Cosby jokes, Fey responded with an enthusiastic “oh heck yes!” That’s not surprising, since Fey and Poehler first made cracks about Cosby’s reputation for drugging and assaulting women back in 2005, when Tamera Green accused Cosby of rape, during their tenure co-hosting "Saturday Night Live"’s Weekend Update. Since it took comedian Hannibal Burress’s own jokes on Cosby’s rape allegations to renew public interest in the stories of multiple women who say they were drugged and/or sexually assaulted by Cosby over the span of several decades, it does seem fitting that comedians would continue to lead the conversation on how the story has developed.

But the Cosby joke is a tricky beast—it’s clearly hard to strike the right tone when you’re making jokes about rape allegations, and so what we might have been expected would be a wellspring of gags has been fairly restrained. It’s not the same territory at all as a run-of-the-mill sex scandal, which can provide material for weeks for late-night shows and stand-up sets. Sarah Silverman indicated she might have ventured too far into rape-joke territory with a controversial November tweet that garnered its share of criticism. That same week, Conan put the joke squarely on Cosby’s reactions to the allegations in a November “celebrity quiz” segment, in which Cosby’s answer to “Where there’s smoke, there’s …” would be “The smoke is lying.” And O’Brien acknowledged the joke’s risky nature with a shaky whistle after it landed.

Taking a different approach, Seth Meyers handled the topic gingerly back in November, when the allegations began to snowball, in a meta-heavy “Late Night” segment featuring an audience member egging him on to make “a Bill Cosby joke!” which Meyers then delivered with a smart, thought-provoking twist: “Why did Bill Cosby cross the road? To avoid a reporter who was asking about sexual assault allegations.” The joke is then on us for wanting the joke, for wanting Meyers to treat serious alleged crimes as entertainment.

"Saturday Night Live" Weekend Update anchor Michael Che took the all-in-one approach. He led his November segment on the Cosby sexual abuse allegations with a biting reminder of Cosby’s (now staggeringly ironic) focus on respectability politics: “Hey Bill Cosby, pull your damn pants up!” Che then addressed the difficulty he had reconciling the allegations made against Cosby with his love of TV alter ego Cliff Huxtable: “I love that dude. The only thing he ever tried to sneak when people were asleep was a hoagie!” Che ended on an magnanimous moment, saying that if he could “forgive Kramer” (Michael Richards, who went on a racist tirade during a 2006 stand-up set) he might, someday, be able to forgive Huxtable, if not Cosby himself—an argument in favor of the artistic legacy that Cosby defenders are trying to safeguard as well as a sideways commentary on the racial politics of the public spectacle.

Another method is to come at the joke sideways: Chris Rock called Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, accused of rape by two women in the past, the “Original Cosby,” and in a somewhat more opaque reference, poked fun at the New York Jets’ on-field performance by quipping that “even Bill Cosby is happy he’s not [quarterback] Geno Smith.” On “The Daily Show,” Jon Stewart did it by mocking Congressional spending (“they just wait until no one is looking and then slip this toxic stuff in? Are they the Bill Cosby of legislation?”) and the Keystone Pipeline (“TransCanada can’t just lay pipe anywhere it wants without permission. It’s not Bill Cosby.”).

But Cosby himself just changed the conversation on “the Cosby joke.” Last night during a London, Ontario stand-up set, the comedian responded to a woman in the audience getting up to get a drink with “you have to be careful about drinking around me.” The joke first garnered shocked gasps from his audience, then--depressingly--laughs and cheers.

Erin Keane

Erin Keane is Salon's Editor in Chief.

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Amy Poehler Bill Cosby Comedy Tina Fey