The Comedian Who Steals Cosby’s Jokes to Save Them
“I want to hurt him. I want to do what crowds have done by abandoning him, by taking away the thing that’s probably most precious to him, which is his material.”
By Luke O’Neil on October 29, 2015
Originally appeared on Esquire
There are very few rules inside the world of comedy. If a joke is funny, it’s funny, and you simply let the blogs explain why it’s problematic in All Tomorrow’s Think Pieces. But one thing that has held up is the provision against lifting other people’s material. It’s something that we recently saw come to a head over the summer in the sad case of Josh “The Fat Jewish” Ostrovsky, the Internet humorist who was roundly, and rightfully, taken to task by comedians for making a cottage industry out of joke theft.
Ostrovsky would easily have been the humor pariah of the year if it weren’t for Bill Cosby. The once-beloved comedian has been accused of rape by dozens of women, a number that somehow still seems to grow every month. Thirty-five of them shared their stories a while back in New York Magazine, and recently, colleges and universities have been disassociating themselves from Cosby, with a number of schools rescinding honorary degrees in his name. None of it seems to have had much of an effect on Cosby’s protestations of innocence, at least publicly. You might ask, is there nothing that can be done to shame this man?
So here comes Greg Fitzsimmons. He’s a comedian and television writer/producer who hosts a show on Howard Stern’s Sirius/XM channel; he’s won four Daytime Emmy Awards for his work on The Ellen DeGeneres Show; not to mention he’s written for The Chelsea Handler Show and Politically Incorrect. Fitzsimmons’ plan is simple: he wants comedians everywhere to start taking Cosby’s legacy back from him.
It’s a controversial idea, in that it’s using comedy’s most verboten act as a means of defending it from a man whose crimes have spoiled our memories of his canonical work. I asked Fitzsimmons to explain the thinking behind it and what he hopes to accomplish.
As a comedian, and as a person, what’s your general feeling about the whole Cosby ordeal?
Well, it’s interesting, because he was probably the most influential comedian on me when I was a kid. Growing up I read his books, I studied all of his albums. He’s truly one of the greatest comedians of all time, and it brings up this question of: Can we ever enjoy him again? Do we flush away a body of work that’s as good as anybody’s in the history of comedy because of his personal life? You think about Roman Polanski. I don’t think people have an issue enjoying his movies because you’re not looking at his face the whole time.
People have talked about this with Woody Allen as well.
Yeah, can you separate the artist from the art? So for me, I was thinking about how to put a light on that by taking that good material and re-assigning it to comedians that can get something out of it. The tricky part I’m finding is I don’t want to glorify him by doing it.
What happened when you tried doing one of his bits?
I was at the Stress Factory in New Brunswick, New Jersey, which is kind of a rowdy club. I just started doing a bit, the dentist bit, because I figured that’s his most famous bit, and my intention was to go as far as I could into it before someone yelled out, “Hey, that’s Cosby!” And nobody said it. So I got through like half the bit before I finally said, “Do you guys have any idea what I’m doing right now?” And then I said this is Cosby’s bit. And I said, “I figured I might as well do it, because I don’t think he’s got enough time to sue me right now!” I think it’s less heinous of a crime for me to be stealing his material than for what he did stealing from all those women.
Did it get a laugh once you explained it?
Oh, it killed. It wasn’t just the laughter, but people were nodding their heads and smiling. I think there’s this frustration that this guy is obviously guilty of one of the most heinous crimes you can perpetrate, times, what, 40? And this bullshit statute of limitations keeps it from being prosecuted. So I think there’s this feeling of, how can we hurt this guy? His live shows, I think those are eviscerated at this point. So that part of him is over, but he’s still got this body of work. So how can you cheapen that somehow? How do you dilute that? I want to go wide with it and tell every comedian, just go on stage and do a Bill Cosby joke. Just take it. Take your favorite one and just do it.
Is there something different between the idea of a comedian who’s become a pariah and other types of art forms? You mentioned Polanski. With a comedian you’re appreciating the joke, but it’s also the person we’re invested in.
Well, if you go back through early rock and roll, like Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry, there was a lot of sick perversions going on. They were telling us! Always singing songs about the sexy 14-year-old and 16-year-old, and she’s your cousin. It’s a big question. What is their body of work in light of that? And I think you’re right, comedy is very personal. You’re buying into the persona of the person. He’s got a pretty famous bit on one of his albums about Spanish Fly. It’s basically him talking about how he always heard about this thing called Spanish Fly, and you slip it to a girl, and then, “Man it’s Spanish Fly wooo!” And he just keeps celebrating this idea of drugging a woman and having sex with her.
And it was funny at the time.
Yeah! They thought it was great. It was like a teenager talking about the fantasy of being a frustrated teenage boy who really wants to have sex, and here’s this way you can actually make it happen. But not with the belief that it was actually going to happen, it was more the urban legend of it. But then when you find out the reality of it…
I think it’s not only the fact that you’re buying into the voice of the comedian, but we bought into the whole heroic journey this guy’s had. As a guy who grew up as a black man at a certain time in this country, it was difficult, he made his way as a comedian and a sitcom star, and became a voice of the black community, a hero and a mentor. And then to hear he used that mentorship and that sort of standing to manipulate and rape people.
Did you see Eddie Murphy doing Cosby the other day at the Mark Twain Awards?
I thought it was really ballsy. There is some kickback from the black community about how Bill Cosby has always been very preachy and told young black comedians not to curse, to pull up their pants. Eddie Murphy, on his first album, Delirious, was talking about Cosby calling him and telling him this stuff, and him telling Bill Cosby to go fuck himself. And Chris Rock has talked about it. I think for Eddie Murphy to go up and do that, it wasn’t a guy kicking someone when he’s down. This is how he’s felt about Cosby for a long time, that he’s this self-appointed voice of the black community, instead of understanding that comedy is free expression, and that Eddie Murphy talking the way he did was authentic to where he came from.
From talking to your comedian friends, are there any holdouts left defending him? Does everyone share your opinion?
The last couple holdouts I saw were Whoopie Goldberg, who made some comments on The View that bit her in the ass, and Damon Wayans came out and said the women where whores and money grubbers. I don’t know that he ever apologized but I imagine that he did. It’s become something that comedians are talking about a lot. It’s still just coming around to where crowds are open to hearing it. But the comics like Bill Burr, Tony Hinchcliffe, I saw them doing jokes as soon as the story broke. And crowds were not into it, crowds were sympathetic to Cosby still. And I was amazed at how long it took for crowds to come around and collectively join in on a comic saying horrible things about Cosby.
When 20 women said he raped them it was ok, but when 40 did, then that was enough.
Everyone should’ve been aware of this for a long time. Rolling Stone did a story on this like 15 years ago. I remember reading this and thinking, maybe this reporter is out of his zone, because no one else in the mainstream press was talking about it. But I remember reading and thinking, “Ok, he obviously paid some people off,” because they had faded away. And then you realize later on how powerful someone like Bill Cosby is that he was able to make that story go away.
Have you tried doing Cosby bits again?
Yeah I did it last night, and I did it in Irvine a couple days ago. And I’m still finding it. As a comic it’s always hard to find any new bit, but especially something like this that’s kind of meta, and you’re asking the audience to go along with you on the ride. Comedy is about getting an audience to all buy in on something at the same time, and when a joke turns, you have to have everyone on the same page enough that they come with you. With this, some people are going to get that you’re doing Bill Cosby before others. And like I said, I’m being very careful not to make it appear like I’m on his side and glorifying his material. I’m still trying to find the beats of it, but when I say I don’t think he’s going to sue me because he’s too busy, that seems to strike a chord. I think if there’s something to this, and other comics start doing it as well, that’s what the meat of it should be.
You want other comics to do it?
Yeah. The funny part is it really started with Carlos Mencia, inadvertently. Not to defend Carlos, but he did a Bill Cosby bit about seven or eight years ago, this really famous routine about raising your sons to play football, coaching them, going to every game. And then one day he becomes a college star, he goes out for a pass and scores a really long touchdown. He catches it, and the camera goes in his face and he looks at the camera and he goes “Hi, Mom!” Carlos did it beat for beat and it literally ended Carlos’ career. He went from a guy that was playing 10,000 to 15,000 seat arenas, to a guy who’s playing 500 seat clubs.
The idea came up on my podcast with Mike Gibbons, that Carlos did it, and looking back, I’m glad, because I thought, “Hey, we should do that.”
It is very meta. In order to defend comedy, you’re committing its cardinal sin. What do people think? Are they hesitant?
I think they’ve been hesitant because like you said, it is the cardinal rule of comedy. It’s all in the presentation. I think I have to model how it’s done, then maybe have a night where we all do Cosby bits. Maybe you add in some commentary about drugging women, so, in the material people know, you’re going to the dentist, maybe you’re getting gassed and you wake up and the dentist’s pants are around his ankles.
There have to be lots of old jokes of his that you can go back and listen to now, and maybe there are more subtle allusions, a subtext we wouldn’t have picked up on earlier.
I’ve been listening to a lot of Cosby material online, and it’s very difficult to do a Bill Cosby bit and get laughs. He’s just such a master performer that he gets a lot out of what he’s saying by his physicality. He moves beautifully on stage and he’s got these amazing long pauses and facial expressions. So I’ve been trying to mine stuff that’s more joke-heavy that I can get in and out of faster.
Do you put on a Cosby affect, or do it in your own voice?
I kind of go in and out of it, which I don’t want to. I’d rather do it in my own voice with the idea that I’m just going to co-opt this material as opposed to doing an impression of Cosby which I think a lot of people are doing.
Do you think if he catches wind of this, if it picks up steam, he would actually be bothered by it?
I think so. And I spoke to my lawyer about whether or not there’s any recourse. There’s a pretty wide berth for satire, it’s considered satire as long as it’s a sampling of it that gets across the spirit of what you’re trying to satirize, as long as it’s not plagiarism, which would be doing a fifteen minute routine verbatim. So I think I’m fine, but I think it will just annoy him.
So it’s reclaiming this material in a way, taking back the material?
I think it’s that and I think it’s also robbing Bill Cosby of his equity. I want to hurt him. I want to do what crowds have done by abandoning him, by taking away the thing that’s probably most precious to him, which is his material.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referenced the number of colleges that have rescinded Cosby’s honorary degrees. We regret the error.