FOR five decades, Bill Cosby maintained a busy stand-up career even as his TV visibility rose and fell and new generations of comedians took centre stage.
But the renewal of sexual assault claims that have soured TV and other comeback deals for Cosby are undermining the live performances that represent his direct avenue to fans and a semblance of business as usual.
The 77-year-old comedian’s ambitious tour schedule that has him crisscrossing the U.S. and into Canada this winter and spring has been whittled by cancellations and indefinite postponements of about 10 concerts in as many states.
“The venues are getting cold feet. Everyone is worried about protesters,” said Gary Bongiovanni, editor of Pollstar, a concert industry trade publication. “If I was advising him, I would tell him to cancel everything and lie low for a while.”
Jamie Masada, owner of the famed Laugh Factory clubs, suggested the same.
Until there is some resolution of the accusations against Cosby, ideally in court, Masada said, he’s taking a risk with each performance.
“A stand-up concert is a free forum for audiences to scream whatever they want,” he said. Given that, Masada added, “Would he want to do a concert?”
He recalled that during Cosby’s Laugh Factory visits he was “so charming, teasing every audience, talking to them.”
Waiting out the controversy could test Cosby, given two civil lawsuits filed against him this month. As long the suits — one claiming molestation, another defamation — are pending they will remain a red flag for media and other attention.
And although statutes of limitations make criminal charges appear unlikely, more than 15 women have emerged to air or revive accusations that include claims of drugging and sexual abuse.
Supermodel Beverly Johnson, in a first-person online piece for Vanity Fair titled, “Bill Cosby Drugged Me,” became the latest to speak out, her allegations stemming from what she said was a mid-1980s encounter after he invited her to audition for “The Cosby Show.” She said she managed to get him to back off.
Martin Singer, an attorney representing Cosby, did not return requests for comment.
Cosby has never been charged with a crime, and his lawyers have denied many of the allegations.
Amid the controversy, Cosby’s last concert, on Nov. 21 in Melbourne, Florida, showed how powerful the mix of star power and fan ardor can be. Ignoring a sea of negative headlines and accusations outside, the adoring audience inside laughed heartily at Cosby’s routine and gave him two standing ovations. Only a lone protester stood outside the concert.Advertisement
Although some subsequent concerts got requests for refunds, clearly not all who came to admire Cosby as a family friendly performer and an African-American TV groundbreaker (with “The Cosby Show” and “I Spy”) are ready to reject him.
That’s to be expected, said Allen P. Adamson, chairman, managing director of the New York office of brand consultant Landor Associates. While corporations beat a hasty, financially protective retreat at any hint of trouble involving a celebrity, people respond differently.
“Consumers are much slower to reject and very often make their own choices,” Adamson said. “Individuals, especially die-hard fans, wait for the dust to settle. And even when it does, they might not mind.”
On the business front, Cosby’s scheduled Netflix concert special was canceled, and NBC scrapped development on a new sitcom with him.
For now, that leaves stand-up. The comedian’s website, topped by jaunty photos of him both young and old and mugging for the camera, lists 22 dates stretching into May, although three are among the canceled or postponed shows. Tickets for the still-planned 19 remained on sale through Ticketmaster or the venues as of Friday, with prices topping off at around $100.
Cosby’s next planned appearances are in Canada, with three dates set for January.
Scott Warren, general manager of Hamilton Place Theatre in Hamilton, Ontario, where Cosby is scheduled to perform Jan. 9, has said the theater is bound by a contract with the promoter and would risk being sued if the show were canceled.
There was a call to boycott Cosby’s Jan. 8 show in London, Ontario, issued by Megan Walker, executive director of the London Abused Women’s Centre.
In light of such pushback and the ongoing accusations, what can a celebrity in Cosby’s position do to redeem his or her image and reputation?
“Unfortunately, not much, other than get out of limelight,” Adamson said. “Usually time can heal some of this, and five years from now he might be able to relaunch himself.”
For the veteran actor and comedian, however, the answer may be to “get out of the public light and live a quiet, more secluded life rather than try to get one last curtain call,” he said.