And the crowd inside the 2,100-seat auditorium on the Eastern Florida State College campus responded as if this were any other Bill Cosby show.
They stood to applaud when he took the stage, erupted in laughter during bits and nodded with familiarity when, employing his trademark, conversational delivery, the 77-year-old comedian offered such Cosbyisms as “when I was 4 and a half years old, I was living with my mother and father” or “the older you get, the longer you stay in the marriage, you just beg to be heard.”
There was one protester. Around 6:42 p.m. she arrived outside the King Center with a sign that read “Rape Is No Joke.”
“I strongly feel Mr. Cosby should stay at home,” said Julie Lemaitre, as a scrum of TV cameraman surrounded her. “He needs to take a timeout and think about what these women have said and publicly address it.”
The King Center had prepared for the worst, installing three police cars near the entrance and at one point asking people arriving in the parking lot to show that they had tickets. A pair of local radio DJs offered $1,000 to anyone who would heckle Cosby and so, before he took the stage, audience members were urged that if an interruption occurred, “do not confront the person making the disruption.” But none occurred.
Cosby didn’t comment on the charges during his set, but backstage before the show, he gave an interview to the local newspaper, Florida Today.
“I know people are tired of me not saying anything, but a guy doesn’t have to answer to innuendos,” Cosby said. “People should fact check. People shouldn’t have to go through that and shouldn’t answer to innuendos.”
In recent days, as the increasing number of sexual assault allegations against Cosby dominated headlines, NBC has dropped a sitcom it was developing for him, Netflix decided not to air a concert film, and TV Land has pulled re-runs of “The Cosby Show.” Until now, stand-up gigs appeared to be Cosby’s last resort and he had more than 30 scheduled through May. But late this week, venues began cancelling shows; upcoming performances in Las Vegas and Tucson, Ariz., have been called off.
But the crowd gathered outside the King Center wasn’t eager to hear Cosby respond to charges. They just wanted to hear his time-tested, stand-up routine.
David Love, a 54-year-old mechanical engineer, said he finds it hard to believe the comedian did what he’s accused of. He’s been a longtime fan of his television work.
“Someone who is willing to use women like that, a person like that I can’t imagine being funny and having TV shows that project morality,” said Love. “Watching his shows, he’s always seemed to be a man of character. I’m going to assume he’s a good guy.”
Others questioned the accusers.
“These women, if it happened, why didn’t they report it when it happened?” said Lenore Raicovich, 79.
“You think Bill Cosby is the only one who has ever done this thing?” said Susan Raimondi, 69, sitting next to her.
“I don’t buy it,” said Shelley Nerbonne. “First of all, why are women coming out 30 and 40 years later? That’s not fair. If that’s true, they should have brought it out when it happened.”
Her husband, Richard, went further. He said that he would remain a fan of Cosby, no matter what.
“Even if he’s guilty, his personal matters do not come to this arena,” he said. “They’re with him and the Lord and elsewhere. I wanted to bring a sign tonight and say, ‘We Love You, Bill.’
Two women yelled just that during quiet moments in Friday’s show.
Cosby responded by raising a fist, but the moment passed quickly. Then he was back at it, telling stories about his failed adventures in a childhood relay race, his decision to kill his younger brother Russell’s invisible friend, and his intense fear of religion as a boy.
Cosby arrived on stage to the strains of Duke Ellington, a photograph of him with Nelson Mandela on the large screen behind his chair. He left to a standing ovation, both fists raised, to the jazz standard “Sweet Georgia Brown.”
“Hilarious,” said Art Williams, 60. “Everything he said, I’ve lived.”
Williams said he was thrilled that Cosby didn’t mention the accusations during the gig.
“I thought it was spectacular with all the pressure on him right now,” he said. “He did a fine job in ignoring it and carrying on.”
This post has been updated.