Bill Cosby took the stage in Atlanta on Saturday night, and as is generally the case when a celebrity makes a public appearance with a cloud of suspicion hovering overhead, it was more noteworthy for what Cosby didn’t say. To no one’s surprise, he didn’t address the rape accusations of which he’s been repeatedly accused since late 2002. Evasion has been Cosby’s primary strategy for responding to his accusers—there are over 40 to date—and if the strategy would be welcome anywhere, it’s Atlanta, where politely eliding uncomfortable topics is socially mandated. What was surprising was Cosby’s failure to mention that the Atlanta gig was the final stop on his “Far From Finished” stand-up tour, named after the comedian’s 2013 stand-up special, his first in over 30 years. The tour continued even as a steady, frequent drip of horrific allegations decimated his public image, eroded his legacy, and quite likely ended his career.
Nearly seven months have passed since a Hannibal Buress joke sparked a mound of kindling beneath a Bill Cosby effigy, and yet it’s still somehow jarring to see protestors outside a venue where Cosby is performing. A small group of ethnically and gender diverse protesters convened outside Atlanta’s Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, chanting “We believe the women!” and “Cancel Cosby!” while a conspicuous police presence clustered nearby. Among them, though less actively involved in the picketing, was Lili Bernard, who only the day prior had lodged her own allegation that Cosby drugged and sexually assaulted her during a “mentoring session” held at his insistence to prepare her for a guest appearance on The Cosby Show.
The gathering was small enough that a fan looking to avoid unpleasantness could gloss over it without much effort. But because so many small gatherings have appeared outside venues where Cosby has performed, the cumulative effect of them informs the entire experience. A Bill Cosby stand-up performance was once so tame as to ensure its own safety, but now a Cosby set is police-state comedy. Venue security ran attendees through a dual checkpoint. At the first checkpoint, security asked me for a photo ID to check against a “Security Watch List,” which at a glance, appeared to contain around 125 names. “That’s the bad people list,” said a cheerful security guard to a slightly rattled couple. “As long as you’re not on that list, you’re all good.”
After a second pass from the metal detector wand, the next step was the seat designated on my ticket. Gaps filled every section of the venue, which at its fullest appeared to be around 40 percent of Cobb Energy’s 2,750-seat capacity. At least two full rows were empty throughout the show. From my vantage point, only three rows looked completely full. But ushers, flanked by uniformed police officers, vigilantly checked tickets and enforced seating assignments. Under the circumstances, the event organizers couldn’t safely assume anyone who wanted to relocate to a vacant seat up front had an acceptable motive for doing so. I attempted to photograph the audience and was told by an usher that photo and video were prohibited, even prior to the show beginning. Twice, a resonant voice carried a message through the public announcement system:
We have been advised that there may be attempts to disrupt the show. If a disruption occurs, please remain in your seat until the situation is resolved. Be calm, and do not attempt to confront the person causing the disruption.
The first announcement caused a giggly commotion. I took that as an opportunity to chat up my nearest neighbors, which required moving three seats down my row. I met Janet and Dee Dee, two white women somewhere into their 60s. Dee Dee lives in Charleston, South Carolina, and Janet lives two-and-a-half hours west in Aiken. They drove what would ideally be three hours from Aiken to Atlanta for the show, but due to patches of gridlock on westbound I-20, it took them six. I asked why they drove so far to see the show. “He’s hysterical,” Dee Dee said. I asked her if she was bothered by the controversy. “It’s not mine to judge,” she said.
The vast majority of the audience was in Janet and Dee Dee’s age bracket, and I’d estimate 75 percent of it was white. The black portion of the audience, the other 25 percent, also skewed heavily toward retirement age. It was a predictable turnout, and not only because seniors have spent the most time as Cosby fans. One of my goals in attending the show was to hear other attendees talk about what motivated them to come. The psychology struck me as fairly straightforward, and not cleanly defined by sexism. The nature of the allegations against Cosby are least likely to shock a generation who grew up with different sexual norms, during a time when “scoundrel” was the worst thing you were called as a result of incapacitating a woman in order to have sex with her. And for the black attendees in the same age group, there are legitimate historical and cultural reasons to resist presuming guilt when a black man is accused of rape. Both rationales are undermined by the sheer volume of accusations, but after the story initially peaked, it would be easy to lose track of the mounting evidence if not for social media platforms that generally repel seniors.
At least, that’s the version I came up with that would allow me to leave the performance not feeling terrible about humanity, and it didn’t fully integrate with what took place at Cobb Energy. Cosby walked onstage to a standing ovation, and was only interrupted twice during his performance. The first disruption came 20 minutes in from a white man who stood and chose a disorienting heckling tactic: flattery.
“Hey Cosby, I like it when you smile!” he shouted. It seemed like Cosby was being lured into a trap, but the ambush never materialized. Cosby thanked him for the compliment, then the man launched into a rapid-fire barrage of incoherent setups and punchlines, the goofy kind you’d find in a kids’ joke book. The audience was mostly quiet, and when a few cat-calls began, Cosby hushed the audience and encouraged them to let the man speak. Cosby’s posture was disingenuous considering his refusal to address the accusations, as well as the effort to block entry to the people most likely to confront him. But Cosby allowed the man to rifle off jokes until a lull appeared. “You got another 40 minutes?” Cosby said, igniting raucous applause. The man paid Cosby a few more vague compliments, then sat back down and watched the rest of the show. With no mention of rape or Cosby’s alleged victims, the man’s obsequious heckling had the look of a false-flag operation.
The second interruption came about 40 minutes into the set, when a white woman stood to her feet and confronted Cosby about his treatment of women. She was almost immediately drowned out by the audience’s booing, then promptly escorted out by security. “This is our show,” said Cosby, to more applause.
The generous explanation for the disparate crowd reactions is that the first disrupter had the element of surprise, both because he was first and because his heckling was so odd, no one knew quite how to respond. The woman spoke second, at which point the audience was better prepared to react, and she disrupted the show in precisely the way everyone anticipated, so there was less temptation to see where she was going with her commentary.
The optics were nonetheless damning. A man stood up, babbled to his heart’s content, then sat back down and watched the show in peace. A woman stood up to renew concerns over rape allegations and was shouted down and immediately kicked out.
The interruptions were the most exciting parts of the show, which contained material that was toothless even by Cosby’s family-friendly standards. Interestingly, Cosby’s yarns were exclusively about his early childhood and his young grandchildren, as if the half-century between the bookends had already been stripped of material. Or maybe he didn’t want to talk about the portion of his life that corresponds to the accusations. Based on the audience’s reaction, Cosby wasn’t poised for the triumphant comeback he wanted even if he wasn’t beset by rape allegations. The major punchlines landed, but even then they seemed to work more because Cosby’s timing is still sharp even when his material is not. (Even Janet and Dee Dee, who’d driven six hours to see the show, didn’t laugh much during the set.) He abruptly wrapped around the 90-minute mark and shuffled offstage, perhaps for the last time.
Cosby gave no indication that the last stop of the “Far From Finished” tour was the last public stand-up performance of his long, storied career. In fact, after ensuring he would finish on time, Cosby quelled an anxious fan by promising to return to Atlanta soon. He said he would be back within two years to perform with all-new material, and the audience golf-clapped. Cosby, who will turn 78 in July, is at the age when promising to deliver creative output in another two years is wishful thinking under ideal circumstances. He hobbled to the finish line of this tour, expending lots of energy to outfox protesters—when he appeared at the venues that didn’t cancel or postpone his gigs. And again, Cosby simply isn’t the comedian he once was. The “Far From Finished” tour was, as its title suggests, Cosby’s bid to prove his continued relevance, despite a desperation that suggests not even he fully believes in it. By refusing to acknowledge the end of the tour or thank fans for their unwavering support, Cosby projected a continuity that is almost certainly impossible now.
The attendees were notably muted as they filed out of the venue. The protesters had dispersed. I overheard almost no conversation about Cosby or the show itself, and most attendees began strategizing about the quickest way to get in front of a screen to watch the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight. I heard one compliment from an elderly woman: “What a nice program.” It’s the sort of comment you make after a funeral, which Cosby’s performance essentially was. He was greeted with reverence, but the kind reserved for people who, in death, have earned the right to be spoken of in flattering terms and have their transgressions overlooked. Cosby’s future in public venues is probably limited to courtrooms, between pending civil litigation and potential criminal charges. On some level, his most ardent fans know that, and though Cosby is appearing live, his shows might as well be memorial services showing video portions from his iconic stand-up sets. Cosby took the stage in the “Hello Friend” hoodie that had become his uniform during the tour, but the occasion felt more like an undignified goodbye.