W. Kamau Bell on going up against Bill Cosby in Showtime series: "It is scary"

W. Kamau Bell appeared on "Salon Talks" to discuss dealing with Cosby's legacy, and how you can't erase any of it

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published February 6, 2022 11:00AM (EST)

W. Kamau Bell and Bill Cosby (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
W. Kamau Bell and Bill Cosby (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

"He was a ubiquitous part of being Black in America for my whole life through my adulthood, until the narrative started to shift."

The Bill Cosby conversation is real. It's very easy for a person like myself to dismiss Cosby because I stand with survivors of sexual assault, no matter the perpetrator. Even before Bill Cosby's allegations, conviction, and shocking prison release hit the Internet –– I was already known for condemning his infamous Pound Cake speech and saying things like, "I have no interest in Bill Cosby's legacy, because I grew up Black and poor, and he took it upon himself to go on a tour condemning people like me some years back."

My argument is often met with strong rebuttals or just straight dismissals from an exploding segment of Black people who were raised middle class and felt like only Cosby was their lone voice in a mainstream cluttered with a white American experience.

Cosby loyalists have attempted to pick apart my stance, by bringing up the disgraced comedian's early commitment to making Black people look good on film by only taking roles that were seen as intelligent and progressive –– promoting education and creating opportunities for many Black actors and directors, in a time where they were few and far between. When these debates end we are always left with the notion that both things can be true. Cosby can be identified as a creep who ruined lives, while having a history of creating positive opportunities for a lot of people. The complex elements of these exchanges are brilliantly captured in W. Kamau Bell's latest project.

RELATED: The excellent "We Need to Talk About Cosby" skillfully opens a necessary, uncomfortable conversation

"We Need to Talk About Cosby" is a four-part Showtime documentary series that examines Cosby's life, career, and accomplishments through the context of his legacy and sexual assault allegations through archival footage and interviews, news stories, and intimate takes from survivors, former co-stars, and Cosby contemporaries. Bell, an Emmy Award-winning director, performer and writer is the perfect person to tell this story because he's not only a comedian like Cosby, but also represents the demographic of the people that I normally have my Cosby arguments with. His perspective, connection to Cosby's legacy, and commitment to supporting survivors made for a complete story that will surely shower him with a collection of new fans and new enemies, as great journalism normally does.

Bell joined me on "Salon Talks" to detail the complexities of his personal struggles when analyzing Cosby's legacy and being a Black middle-class child in a time when Cosby was king. Watch our episode here or read a Q&A of our conversation below.

The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

How did you decide to get into this project and then to go ahead and create it?

So much of my career is just following my nose and ending up in places where I didn't expect. I always say that as a kid growing up, I didn't go, "One day, I hope to have a TV show on CNN." My career has always worked best when I just followed the opportunities, or followed my curiosity. So first of all, this comes from the fact that as someone who was born in the early '70s, I grew up with Bill Cosby as just part of the wallpaper of being Black in America.

My mom remembers when Bill Cosby emerged on the scene. When I was growing up, I watched "Super Friends," "Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids." I liked "Super Friends" because it's superheroes and I liked "Fat Albert" because it's Black. So there was no demarcation. And then because Bill Cosby hosted it, you just would go, "Oh, this guy gets to hang out with Fat Albert. He must be cool too." And because the show's about moral messages, and then seeing Bill Cosby on shows like "Picture Pages" and "The Electric Company," he was a ubiquitous part of being Black in America for my whole life through my adulthood, until the narrative started to shift.

It's wild because you were born in the '70s and that was your view. I was born in the '80s, so when I was coming up, I didn't understand Bill Cosby. I would say things to my friends, like, "Yo, how are you a doctor, your wife is a lawyer, but you can't even buy your son a $60 shirt?" And I'm saying this because my mom bought me Gucci sweaters. They was like $300. I had Jordans and all of these clothes. And this is coming up with the flashy kids in the middle of poverty. This is you give your old clothes to your friends, but the materialism is spread so thin. And I'm watching this show and I'm like, "Yo, they could be studying books or something. They're in the house making their clothes." But we won't get into that. And I guess the reason why I asked you the first question was because you're extremely successful. People love your comedy, they love your work, they love your CNN show and everything. And with this great reputation that you have, you stepped out there and created something extremely controversial. Was that scary?

I mean, first of all, it was scary. It is scary. There were times where I was hoping I'd get a call from Showtime being like, "We've decided to stop this." There's something about being in entertainment where there's a cognitive dissonance about what you should be able to do and what you think you can do. And some of that is how you become somebody who's successful in show business, because you believe you can do more, and that you're worthy of all this attention, and that you're this good. And you have to always be your own best cheerleader.

Then once I got into it, I was like, "Oh, I was more naive than I realized." Once we started to hear from people who I thought would talk and who said no, they wouldn't talk. Once people were very clear, I thought, "Well, that's that person who wouldn't talk. Oh, that person wouldn't. Oh, that person." And so you go, "Wait, who's talking?" It became the stack of no's versus the stack of yes's, the no's dwarfed the yes's. It became like, "Did I make a mistake by getting involved in this?" And really, this project came together in a natural way, like a lot of my career. I love documentaries. I love documentary filmmaking. I've always been a fan of that, separate from being a stand-up comic. "United Shades" is documentary filmmaking. We're using a documentary lens to make "United Shades."

At the same time, I'm a Black man in America who's trying to reckon with who I thought Bill Cosby was and who I believe him to be now. And then you go through the Me Too era, and there's all this talk about "Can we separate the art from the artist? Should we separate the art from the artist?" And I was like, "There's nobody who challenges that question more than Bill Cosby." And so there was always a sense of if you're going to ask that question, this is the guy you'd ask that question of. Then I ended up in a production office with some producers, Boardwalk Pictures, and we were talking about comedy and talking about how there's some comics who'd been Me Too'd, and "Well, can you talk about their comedy anymore?" Then we started talking about Bill Cosby.

My whole thing was, if you did it, you'd have to do it the way that Ezra Edelman did "O.J. Simpson: Made in America," where you talk about America through the lens of Bill Cosby and through what we learned about Bill Cosby. It very quickly became an idea that they were like, "Oh, I think we should do this. We can do this. Oh, we know Vinnie Malhotra from Showtime." Vinnie from Showtime was who helped me get "United Shades" initially, back when he was at CNN. It all came together incredibly quickly. And then it became about how do we do this?

So many people are canceled because of what they say. And this is a situation where it's more difficult to cancel him because of some of the things that he's said, because he's always been so PC and so family. This guy with this big family brand, but then his actions are the polar opposite. I think you were the perfect person to create this series because you did something that I don't get a chance to see when a lot of people try to make certain arguments. It's very nuanced. You go to the beginning and you actually tell the whole Bill Cosby story, and it gives the viewers the ability to be able to understand some of the people who supported him and some of the people who didn't support him. And I think we need that in telling the story. Do you think that kind of storytelling is going to bring you any type of negative feedback?

Even the idea that I was doing it has already brought negative feedback. I think there will be people who think I'm not going hard enough at Bill Cosby, because I'm not just talking about the rapes and the assaults. But then there're going to be people, obviously, who think I shouldn't be talking about that stuff at all because either they think it was a setup or a conspiracy, or they think it was all consensual sex and those women are now telling lies on Bill Cosby. The hardest part for me right now is that it's not really out in the world yet. Now people are talking about the trailer or a press release. And really I'm like, "At least when it gets out in the world and is available for everybody to see, you can actually take it in and decide for yourself about what the job you think I did. And I ultimately know that there are going to be some people who are never going to watch it, but also won't stop talking about how wrong it is.

We're living in a time now where people can't seem to grasp the idea that two things can be true.


Yes, this man has done some amazing things for Black people in his career. Yes, this man has ruined the lives of so many people through his Spanish Flies and his drugging and his Quaaludes and all the other s**t he did. That he said he did in his own deposition. I think people always leave that part out of the argument, but we have to put it in there because this isn't speculation. This isn't people just running around, making up s**t. I don't know if you've ever been through a deposition before, but it's not fun. These guys have no sense of humor.

I think about my kids. Kids have a better sense of right and wrong, and also the fickle nature of being right and being wrong, than adults do. Kids understand that I can do a good thing that my parents like, and then I can do a bad thing that my parents don't like. And we can discuss all of these things. Whereas adults, we want to put people in categories of you're a good person or you're a bad person, as if you're not capable of both.

Where were you at in your life when you first became aware of the pound cake speech? Were you in the f**k this guy camp or were you caught up in a respectability bubble, like "You know what? Pull your pants up, he's right! If you pull your pants up, you going to get that $250,000 job."

I was definitely not the "pull up your pants" guy, as my pants will attest. But yeah, I was not the . . . I was way past that. I wasn't in the "f**k this guy" camp, I was in the "why are you doing this?" I was really in the camp of "you're hurting my feelings." I was really trying to understand why is this man turning on us, is my feeling of it. And at the time I put it in, "He's older now, he's disappointed, as a lot of Black people get when they get older, that the promises of the early parts of their lives have not been realized." And instead of blaming the system he's blaming the Black people, the younger Black folks behind him, which every generation does to some extent. "You young people don't know what you're doing. You're not as good as we were. You're ruining it. We did all this hard work for you and you aren't appreciating it." Every generation does that in some sense, but it felt especially cruel coming from Bill Cosby who had always been there. He's always been a symbol of uplift. I was also worried that a lot of Black people agreed with Bill Cosby.

A lot of Black people.

A lot of Black people were like, "Thank you for finally saying this."

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It gave a lot of white people, which you point out in the film, especially political figures, the license to blame us for society's failures.

That was super important. Editors and archival producers are so important in documentary filmmaking. They don't get the credit and I don't think there's awards for archival. When they found that Mitt Romney clip, I was just like, "Oh, thank you Black Jesus."

Mitt Romney's like, "Shout out to Bill! I told you! Shout out to my man Bill!"

It felt so perfect for so many way. In the midst of the GOP going so apes**t, we like to cast him as the reasonable one. And I was like, "I even enjoy it more than it's the quote unquote 'reasonable guy.' Then also the fact that I remember, at the time, realizing it wasn't just one speech. He was turning it into a career. He wrote a book about it. He was on tour about it. And to me, that was . . . he used it as, "Wait a minute. This can be a new way for me to get some more butts in the seats."

But at the same time, around that time, Bill Cosby came to Oakland and played the Paramount Theater, and me and a friend of mine were like, "I've never seen Bill Cosby perform live. Should we go see Bill Cosby perform live?" At the time there's the pound cake speech, there's Bill Cosby, still a comedian who's going to perform at the Paramount, and also there was this woman, Autumn Jackson, who was saying "Bill Cosby is my dad, had an affair with my mom, and I want to prove that he's my dad. This was swirling around, but again, it was the early 2000s. There was no social media to put it all together. 

I remember going to that Bill Cosby show being like, "Is he going to yell at us? Is he going to tell us to pull our pants up? Is he going to talk about Autumn Jackson? Is somebody in the crowd going to heckle him about Autumn Jackson?" Because hecklers like to attack your weak spots. And instead it was just two hours of classic Bill Cosby. Of just Bill Cosby being America's dad. And I remember being so amazed at how he was able shut all the other stuff out. And it wasn't until, as we say in the film, Hannibal Buress added all this together. By then the rape allegations had come out and it became something that many of us couldn't shut out anymore. We couldn't silo these conversations off.

 I love "A Different World" more than anything. It taught me more about the world. That was the first show that took me out of my neighborhood. That was my "Illmatic."

I wish we really had a lot more about "A Different World" in [the series], but we had already pushed Showtime to the limits of "Can we have a little more time?" But we did get to mention that. I love the quote from Michael Jai White that's like, "'A Different World's' the best show for Black people ever." Shout out to Debbie Allen.

You had some close Cosby affiliates, people who actually played in the show, that appeared throughout the series. And I wanted to know how did you get them into the studio? 

Joseph C. Phillips has been public about his journey with learning about this stuff, so we reached out to him, knowing that he had talked about it, but didn't mean he'd want to talk about it some more. And then Doug E. Doug, I felt like we all sort of forgot that that "Cosby" show existed on CBS. It was on for four or five years, but it wasn't a cultural phenomenon like "The Cosby Show." And I just thought "I want to talk to somebody from that era." And Doug E. Doug, we just reached out to him. When he showed up, we had no idea what we were going to get for him. And he ended up being amazing.

It ended up the least we used of him was him talking about his time on the "Cosby" show. We just used him as a cultural commentator about the whole thing. As we got towards the end of production, I realized we didn't get the interviews we thought we were going to get, because of COVID we didn't get the kind of footage we thought we were going to get, and then at some point I just had to think in my mind, "This is like that TV show 'Chopped.' These are just the ingredients we have, and we got to make a meal out of them. And we can't complain about it, we just got to make a meal out of it."

One of the most powerful pieces of the film is that you actually include survivors. It's a tearjerker. People are going to be choked up. Their stories are horrifying. Do you think those stories, to the people who watch it, are going to be powerful enough to sway any naysayers?

I think there are people who have not ever looked at this stuff directly. I had the privilege of sitting down with these women for hours to talk to them about their whole lives. And then in the film, we try to use as much of them as possible throughout the film to show they're not just defined by the moments with Bill Cosby they had. For me, I think there is a sense that some people who are still struggling with "How could he have done it? Would he have done it?" Or "I believe he did it, but I don't know to what extent I want to indict him for it." I think there are people who are going to be changed by those interviews because of the context in which they're in.

One of the touchstones of this film for me is dream hampton's "Surviving R. Kelly." There's a sense with that film that that was an active crime craze that dream hampton was like, "I need your help solving this crime. I need your help." And she enlists us to be involved in the solving of the crime. It's not active in that same way anymore, but I did take from that, let these women talk. Let these women really tell their stories.

Should we ignore Cosby's legacy, wipe him out and act like he didn't happen? And, we know that "The Cosby Show," and all the other shows that he worked on, wasn't just Bill Cosby. There's his costars, the directors, the people who broke their careers, and all of these different people that worked on that. Is it necessary for them to die for his sins? 

To me, this takes us back to critical race theory. All critical race theory is saying is we have to look at all of it. Critical race theory is saying we have to look at America through an honest lens. And one of the key parts of what America is and how it's defined and how it exists is through racism. We're going to talk about a lot of good things that Black people did in Black History Month, or a lot of good things that America did for Black people in Black History Month, however you want to put it, but if you don't talk about the bad stuff, you're not having an honest conversation about America.

I think the same is true for Bill Cosby. I think if you want to have an honest conversation about Bill Cosby, then you have to reckon with all of it. And I think some of this, I would imagine that if Bill Cosby watches it, he'll be like, "I like that part of this documentary. I don't really like this other part over here." Because I think we're trying to say we have to reckon with all of it. I don't believe in throwing any of it away. I believe in having honest conversations and examinations of it.

The other thing I would say is, bigger than [the question of] "should we throw those people away?" which I'm not advocating for that, is that all comedy eventually goes away. When I was a kid, if I turned on the TV, I could find an episode of "I Love Lucy" somewhere on TV because that was the biggest show of its era. It was on reruns when I was a kid. I can't turn on my TV and find "I Love Lucy" now. I can go search out "I Love Lucy" if I want to find it. So I would say that I think that material is out there. It is out there for you to use it as you see fit. I just think if you then take it out into the world and want to talk about it, be prepared for the whole conversation about it. I think some of the most powerful moments from the doc is the stuff about "The Cosby Show" and we are actually in that moment, celebrating the work of those people on "The Cosby Show."  We're also saying, "but it's more complicated than what you see on screen."

What's next for you?

It's funny, I'm actually still in the middle of production of season 7 of "United Shades of America," despite everything that's going on. I still have one more episode to film and then we're in post to get the season 7 ready by the spring.

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By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

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