W. Kamau Bell On Trying To Tell The Whole Story With His Bill Cosby Docuseries

“Let’s talk about the good stuff while really confronting the bad stuff,” says W. Kamau Bell at the start of a long conversation about his new docuseries, We Need To Talk About Cosby (which premieres Sunday on Showtime). He’s speaking to his approach on the series in response to me telling him about my initial hesitancy to watch and cover such heavy and upsetting subject matter. It’s an unusual lead-in for an interview, but an honest feeling that Bell knows a lot of people may have. It’s something he needed to confront going into this project – the need to bring in a broader audience that might not always watch something like this.

It’s fair to say that if you’re reading this, you know that former TV icon and “America’s Dad” Bill Cosby was accused of sexual assault by more than 60 women and convicted on three counts of aggravated indecent assault in 2018. You also know that that conviction was overturned on a procedural matter and that Cosby is out of jail now (and criticizing Bell’s docuseries). That was the self-imposed limit of my understanding of all of this going in, but stopping at the basics can undercut the impact. In the theater of public opinion, it turns these women into a kind of monolith and it simplifies Cosby’s heel turn for mass consumption; especially to a younger generation that didn’t experience him at the height of his fame and influence.

To counter that thought, you might say that we as a society spend too much exploring the nuances of our villains and monsters thanks to cable news and flowery profiles of Nazis and anti-vax profiteers. But this isn’t that. Sure, we see come of Cosby’s good deeds with regard to representation on-screen and behind the scenes from earlier in his life, but that’s a part of an overall package that, if I can editorialize, pushes back on our latent need for hero worship while serving as an important reminder that villains and monsters don’t always put up billboards heralding their bad intentions or let you in on their darkest secrets. Most importantly, however, this is a series that makes a concerted effort to have victims be heard, and not just with regard to where their lives and dreams collided with Bill Cosby.

Uproxx spoke with Bell about all of this, the wall of silence in comedy culture, the difference between consequences and cancellation, and whether Bell would watch a Cosby comedy special again.

What was your own relationship to Bill Cosby’s works prior to the allegations and everything that followed?

I feel like I was like many Black kids in America. Because I was born in the early ’70s, I grew up [with] Fat Albert And The Cosby Kids as just another Saturday morning cartoon. But it was the one that had Black people on it and it was majorly Black. So that was right up there to me with Super Friends. [Laughs] Bill Cosby was just the host of the show, I had no idea it was his show, I had no idea he did so many of the voices. But that show was the Trojan horse that said, “Bill Cosby is somebody you should pay attention to.” And that show was filled with moral messages, so my mom of course supported it and she also knew Cosby from I Spy and the comedy albums.

When I was a young kid who was starting to like standup comedy and I saw Bill Cosby himself, I was like, “This is better than the other standup comedy I’ve seen. This is a step ahead of that stuff.” Just by the nature of the fact that he was sitting down and nobody else was sitting down. Then The Cosby Show hit. So I would have been president of the Bill Cosby Fan Club at 11-years-old if that was a thing. That show, as we talk about in the docuseries, I don’t think we had the words at the time, but for Black folks, it was a half-hour break from the horrors of America that also celebrated Black excellence before we had really coined that phrase. Black excellence. Also, the fact that White people liked it just made it easier for us to watch it. [Laughs] So it didn’t feel like something we couldn’t discuss or couldn’t talk about. It was like, “Oh, he’s America’s Dad, sure. He’s America’s Dad, but he’s ours.”

What was the biggest surprise for you going through this process?

I knew this was a thorny conversation, but it was only after we started asking people and so many people said no that I started to realize how thorny the conversation was. It occurred to me, “Oh, I may have made a mistake. I may have made a mistake in getting involved in this.”

When people are saying no to you do you perceive that to be column A, they just don’t want to talk about it, or column B, they’re still afraid of the influence and power he has in general, even from prison at that time?

I think there’s a column A, a column B, a column C, a column D, a column E, there are so many reasons that people can name for reasons why not to do it. One, there is, “even if I’ve been public about my belief, my support for these women, there’s no percentage in being public about it again, because it just stirs up a hornet’s nest with my own fandom.” So it’s like no reason to turn to kick this log over again. Because at the time, Cosby was in prison, so it felt like, “He’s done, why would I kick this log over?”

For many people, I think, I’m not known to be a documentary filmmaker, so maybe they’re like, “I don’t know that you would do a good job with this.” I think there’s also the side of it that is like, “I’ve said my piece and I really don’t want to have to fight the masses if I say my piece again.” Then there is a sense of, like we say in the film, especially people said no before he got out of prison, and then I think when he got out of prison they were like, “Oh, thank God I said no.” Because now it feels like this is active again, he’s talking about going on tour. He is such a divisive figure, specifically in the Black community still, that if you can just avoid talking about it, why not just avoid talking about it?

Jumping back, in terms of surprises, what was the biggest surprise you encountered in going through this and in talking to people? Not just what people were revealing, but how it impacted you.

I believed the survivors before I started this work, but to really sit down and talk with them, and these conversations, many of them were more than two hours… and to hear their whole stories outside of even their relationship, outside to whatever happened in their relationship or that night with Bill Cosby for some of them, or that event with Bill Cosby… to sit down and talk, I was nervous the first time I sat down and talked with them. Victoria Valentino was the first survivor I talked to. And she was so full of light and love and joy and so happy to be there. I found out so many of the survivors knew my work, which is why they came, because they were like, “I trust you to handle this.”

I think we have an image of this as being, and I don’t use this word regularly, but I’m saying I think there are people who have an image of this, even people who maybe believe them, as 60 groupies who were waiting backstage after the show to meet Bill Cosby. So in some sense, [these people are saying] even if it’s bad that he assaulted or raped them, that that’s what they were there for. When you sit down with these women and hear their life stories, which I did for most of them, you realize that so many of these women were living their lives, going about their business and he stepped in front of them and said, “Come with me.”

One thing that I found most shocking was just how many times throughout the course of the last 40 years, 50 years, he told on himself… with the barbecue sauce thing and the Cosby Show or the Larry King interview. I’m sorry, this is a long-winded question, but then we get to a point with Hannibal on stage and everything breaks out, but there were whispers for a while. In your opinion, why did it take so long for the light to flash?

I think this is what we were really trying to make clear with the series is that this is all bigger than Bill Cosby. So America, and I think I say something to this effect, America has a history and a present, but let’s focus on the history of not taking women’s stories of being sexually assaulted and raped seriously.

And dismissing them in every way, trying to find ways, like you were saying before, they get put into a box, all his “groupies,” that’s what the culture does and it’s astonishing.

Yeah, and it’s pervasive through the culture throughout the history of this country, so it’s not like we ever did a better job of it in history, we’ve only done slightly better jobs maybe as we’ve moved along. So I think Bill Cosby’s operating within that, Mo Ryan says that, he’s operating in this blind spot where women come forward, get blamed and shamed, as Lili Bernard says, and then other women see that happen to a woman, then they don’t come forward and then we blame them for not coming forward.

In 2004, when Andrea Constand’s case is happening, there’s no social media, the internet is a thing but it’s nowhere near what it is now. So Bill Cosby’s able to have siloed information. If you’re not watching the evening news about Andrea Constand, you don’t know that story. If you only are watching late-night talk shows and you see him come on to promote something, you’re just like, “Yay, Bill Cosby.” We didn’t all have easy access to the same information, whereas now we have access to more information than you want. Now, all the streams are crossing, and then you have somebody like Hannibal Buress, who very much accidentally forced us to reckon with this.

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Did you reach out to Hannibal to be in the doc?

Yes, yes, I did. I don’t blame… I want to be clear, Hannibal’s a friend of mine and I hope he feels that we did okay by him in this because I really worked on that section hard, but that wasn’t a plan he executed. I think some people think it was a plan he executed… [Laughs] Like, “I’m going to go to Philadelphia, I’m going to do a joke that is half-written, I’m going to set somebody in the back with a really bad cellphone camera…” If you know Hannibal’s life and career, he had no interest in being a part of that. I can’t speak for him, but I just know that… So I think he’s had to reckon with it, and I hope he doesn’t feel like he has to reckon with it unnecessarily here, but it is a thing that I don’t think he feels like, “This is not something I was trying to do.” I think the other thing, he’s not trying to make a name off of this, which I think some performers might.

That is a question though, in general, the idea of reckoning with it, the idea of comedy culture in general and whether there’s a wall of silence with some of this stuff. Thoughts on that?

In my years as a touring standup comic, here’s what has never happened. “Welcome to the club, before you come inside, you need to sign this paperwork about sexual assault and harassment. Also, the HR department is over here, so if you have any problems, you can go over there. Also, just so you know, that’s where the other people will go and they can tell stories or have anonymous tips about things that are going wrong here.” There’s no HR department in standup comedy clubs, not in the time I was in one. The fact is that, I’m a part of this too, the reason why we get into it is because we like to stay up late and have a good time, and sometimes that involves substances, alcohol, legal and illegal substances. So it creates a clubhouse playground mentality that is not conducive to lots of good things. It’s conducive to good comedy maybe, but it’s not conducive to safety. Yeah, I’ll just leave it at that. It’s not conducive to safety. And show business is the same. There’s more money on the table, but showbiz, when they built showbiz back in the day, when they built Hollywood, they didn’t start with the HR department. The HR department came a lot later and still, it is not something that is clear enough about, “Here’s what we’re here to do and here’s what here not to do.” In my opinion.

You mentioned Cosby getting out of prison and feeling like it’s an active situation again. Cancel Culture is the label that gets used so, so much. Thoughts on that? Because I’ll preface this by saying Louis CK just got a Grammy nomination, people who get “canceled” complain about being canceled to their three million followers on Twitter or in a special.

I think we’ve seen it happen, whatever this thing called Cancel Culture is, it has become a career move for people. [Laughs] It has become a thing where if you get canceled, you’ll get a new audience. If you get canceled, you’ll be able to move to a new platform where they want the canceled people. Cancel culture is just another tool in people’s, “How do I get an audience?” arsenal. Well, you need a graphic designer and you need a good website and you need to get canceled. So I think there are certainly people who have… I just saw yesterday, I was reading an article about Kathy Griffin, and that’s an example of like, she’s materially been affected by the things she did — that’s 100% true — but I think sometimes, and I’m not really commenting on the Kathy Griffin situation, but we’re really getting confused between cancel culture and consequences sometimes. And also, how you recover from the consequences. And certainly, Kathy Griffin as a woman is in a very different position than a lot of male performers who are doing things that are way worse than what she did but manage to somehow come back.

If Bill Cosby did a standup special, would you watch it?

[Laughs] I just froze like a computer. Here’s the thing, I regularly watch things I don’t agree with, just to know what’s going on. So I regularly engage with material, and this is part of my job too, I have to. But I regularly go, “I just want to see what’s happening.” Also, I think I would have to watch it because I would be asked about it. Now, am I going to support his tour? Am I buying the T-shirt? No, I’m not doing any of that stuff, but I do think that a part of this thing for me is actually investigation and reckoning and also being able to have the conversation. But saying all that, I don’t begrudge anybody. I think I’m watching it for different reasons. I’m not sitting down to watch that special to go, “Ah, new comedy from Bill Cosby.” I’m sitting down to watch it and go, “What is he doing?”

I can’t even imagine the moral panic it would set off if I was watching a Bill Cosby special and he said something that caught me and I laughed. I can’t even imagine.

I mean, through this whole process, we had these Zooms, again because of COVID, and we had producers and editors and associate editors say, “I watched this stuff, I watched this or I listened to his standup and I find myself laughing and then I catch myself, why am I laughing?” That’s where the whole conversation is for me, how do we reckon with this? Because some people can, but you can’t just turn off what makes you laugh. If it makes you laugh, it makes you laugh. But then you can go, “Why am I laughing? What does it mean about me that I’m laughing? Is it okay that I’m laughing?” These are all the kinds of questions I feel like a lot of people don’t want to ask.

‘We Need To Talk About Cosby’ premieres Sunday on Showtime