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Burn the monster, steal his jokes

Wesley Morris unsurprisingly has written a very good essay about Bill Cosby — specifically, the ways in which Cosby created and blended his own persona along with that of his signature character Cliff Huxtable. He did this to root himself in America’s psychological life, and to make himself indispensable in the entertainment industry, both of which shielded him for many years from the consequences of his crimes. It was, as Morris says, Cosby’s “sickest joke.”

Bill Cosby was good at his job. That sums up why the guilty verdict Thursday is depressing — depressing not for its shock but for the work the verdict now requires me to do. The discarding and condemning and reconsidering — of the shows, the albums, the movies. But I don’t need to watch them anymore. It’s too late. I’ve seen them. I’ve absorbed them. I’ve lived them. I’m a black man, so I am them.

There’s a strange connection between serial abusers and auteurism. People take advantage of power in lots of different ways, and one of them is to assume credit for other people’s work — if not outright, than by insinuation. Cosby and Woody Allen are the two most extreme types: they worked to make themselves inseparable from the art they associated themselves with, in a way that both attracted talented collaborators and sponged credit away from them.

If I could exorcize Cosby from The Cosby Show and retain Phylicia Rashad’s performances forever, or Woody Allen from Annie Hall and do the same for Gordon Willis’s photography, I would. Part of the sick joke is that you can’t. At the same time, I don’t want to give them up. I don’t want to lose Joan Rivers’s amazing turn on Louie just because that scene (where Louis CK ends up trying to force a kiss on Joan) seems extra gross now. It’s already been ingested; it can’t easily be carved out.

This is why I sometimes say: burn the monster, and steal their jokes. This is the punishment for their years of abuse, of lies, of intimidation, of fraud: the work they made is forfeit. Cosby loses all credit for making The Cosby Show; Allen all credit for his films; it is as if they were written/produced/directed by ghosts. All credit goes to the geniuses they reeled in as unwitting collaborators, without whom they would have always been sad, useless men.

It doesn’t completely work. It doesn’t stop money flowing into their pockets, as a boycott might. It doesn’t stop you from getting angry when you see their stupid faces, as avoiding their work might. But in the handful of cases where the art is so constitutive that you can’t avoid it, it’s a fiction that helps preserve some fraction of the joy it used to. At any rate, it’s the bargain I’ve struck.