The Power of Comedy: How a Simple Line From Comedian Hannibal Buress Reframed the Way America Sees Bill Cosby

hannibal buress bill cosby

Bill Cosby is a legend in the world of comedy and has been a trusted corporate voice for decades. An inspiration to countless comedians, and a role model to generations of Americans both black and white, Cosby has held a position of respect and authority since the mid sixties.  Even rumors and allegations of impropriety over the years failed to diminish that reputation.

Just over one month ago Hannibal Buress, made a joke, during a comedy performance. And everything has changed.

Anyone who has ever doubted the power of comedy will have to seriously rethink their position, because a stand up comedian made a joke and accomplished what even alleged victims could not accomplish. Hannibal Buress got people talking about whether Bill Cosby the icon, could possibly be a monster.  His words also gave many the confidence to come forward and say what they felt they needed to say.

On Thursday October 16th, when Hannibal Buress was performing at the Trocadero in Philadelphia, he did a bit about Bill Cosby. Buress said, “It’s even worse because Bill Cosby has the fuckin’ smuggest old black man persona that I hate,” Buress said. “He gets on TV, ‘Pull your pants up black people, I was on TV in the 80s! I can talk down to you because I had a successful sitcom!’ Yeah, but you rape women, Bill Cosby, so turn the crazy down a couple notches.”

The statement was made to be funny, as part of his comedy routine. But Buress was using comedy to inspire debate and conversation- to challenge a sacred cow that has always been unchallengeable. Buress later said “I guess I want to just at least make it weird for you to watch Cosby Show reruns.”

Whether you believe Buress or not, whether you believe that Cosby has done the things he is accused of or not, the effects of Buress’ comedy have been far reaching.  Cosby had to pull down a “meme generator” that Coz’s team created for his website after the social media promotion backfired badly.  Soon after that, Cosby cancelled an appearance on the Queen Latifah show, and now a Letterman appearance has been cancelled. And Cosby had a devastating appearance on National Public Radio last week, where NPR host Scott Simon addressed the issue straight on.  The interview had been scheduled to promote an upcoming art exhibition showcasing African American artworks at the Smithsonian, but Simon asked him flat out about the charges.  Cosby refused to answer any question on the subject, choosing to shake his head “no” instead.  Had this interview taken place even a month earlier, it is doubtful Smith would have even contemplated asking Cosby such a direct and controversial question.  And then today, more bad news.  It was announced that Cosby’s new comedy special, which was planned to be released by Netflix as part of their comedy original programming, has been postponed without a release date, and NBC has announced that they are pulling the plug on a planned Cosby sitcom that had been in the works.

But the allegations Buress raised in his act on October 16th were not new.  Women have accused Cosby of sexual assault before, and even though it hasn’t been discussed with any real traction in the mainstream media, the allegations were well known.   Barbara Bowman and Joan Tarshis are among more than a dozen women who have said they were assaulted, sexually exploited, and or raped by Bill Cosby.  Just yesterday supermodel Janice Dickinson spoke out, saying that she was raped by the iconic comedian.  But until now, the alleged victims were essentially the only ones taking the accusations seriously.  Cosby remained untouchable, his reputation as a leader, a role model and a father figure intact.

How did he escape scrutiny until now?  How did he continue his career unscathed, unquestioned, and unaffected?  And then how did one statement by a stand up comedian change everything in an instant, breaking down every barrier, and opening the floodgates of debate?  Why was a comedian able to change the way people look at a legend- even after years of complaints by alleged victims had not had a major impact.  In part, Hannibal Buress’ matter of fact delivery, and his confidence certainly played a role. And the fact that he was a peer of Cosby’s– albeit a much younger peer– must have helped.   As a young black comic, Buress in some ways seemed to have more standing to challenge America’s dad. Had a white newsman made the statements, he might have come off as prejudiced or biased.  And then there is the nature of comedy itself. Comedy is a powerful tool. It can be as subversive as a protest, and at times, more effective.

After a month of fallout, it doesn’t seem anyone is coming to Cosby’s defense. It’s impossible to tell where this debate will lead now that it’s been opened so publicly. And of course Bill Cosby has not been convicted of any crime.  He has the same right to his presumption of innocence that anyone else has, but a David has brought a Goliath to his knees. The stone in this case was a joke. One well placed joke has changed the way the world looks at Bill Cosby. Hannibal Buress, a stand up comedian has changed the conversation, and his joke is the stone that has brought down a giant.

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