(Updated below with Keshia Knight Pulliam’s response on the “Today” show Monday morning.)
“The Celebrity Apprentice” premiere took a strange turn on Sunday night when actress Keshia Knight Pulliam, who served as project manager on the first challenge of the season, was eliminated by host Donald Trump after she didn’t use her connections with Bill Cosby to raise money for her team.
The subplot was a very significant part of the episode, as Pulliam (most famous for starring as Cosby’s daughter Rudy on NBC’s “The Cosby Show”) was taken to task for not calling Cosby and asking the very wealthy comedian for a charitable donation to her team. But hearing Cosby brought up so many times was extremely jarring and managed to overshadow the episode, considering that Cosby’s name has only been in the news lately as more than two dozen women have alleged they were sexually assaulted by him over the years.
Another fact to note: NBC delayed this season of “Celebrity Apprentice” for awhile, so the premiere was taped about a year ago, way before the disturbing allegations went mainstream and Cosby’s downfall. But that makes the episode even more bizarre. Given the amount of time the network and producers had to edit, why would they keep Cosby’s name as such an integral part of the storyline — especially when NBC is one of the many places to distance itself from Cosby, dropping his upcoming TV project less than two months ago? No one thought it might seem odd to viewers?
It all started when Pulliam was named the project manager for her team (this season divided the celebrities into women versus men). The first task of the season in New York City involved the teams baking pies to raise the most money for charity. Since it was a fundraising challenge, all the celebs got to work calling up their most famous friends to donate. Almost immediately, “Real Housewives of Atlanta” star Kenya Moore got on Pulliam’s case about calling Cosby.
“Have you tried reaching out to Mr. Cosby?” Moore asked.
“Um, I haven’t reached out to him, I was trying to reach people who are currently in the city,” Pulliam said.
Cue Moore talking to the cameras. “So let’s talk about the elephant in the room,” Moore complained. “Keshia was a Cosby kid. She was on one of the No. 1 shows of all time and the first person she should be calling is Bill Cosby because I know he has deep pockets.”
This went on for awhile as Pulliam explained she didn’t want to call Cosby. Moore wasn’t buying it. “We have to have big donations if we want to win. And Keshia, your TV dad is accessible for you and you don’t call him up for a donation? Okay, that’s just crazy,” Moore said.
It became a much bigger issue in the boardroom at the end of the episode, in which Trump decided which person to fire from the losing team. (The women raised $93,862 and lost to the men, who raised $185,322.) When Trump’s daughter and show advisor, Ivanka, asked who was holding back, Moore brought up the Cosby situation.
“If I were Rudy Huxtable and I was known for being America’s favorite daughter…I would have called my TV dad for a contribution,” Moore said.
Throwing a teammate under the bus is typical for the “Celebrity Apprentice” boardroom, but Trump jumped on the fact that Pulliam didn’t tap into every resource. “There is a truth to that,” he said, agreeing with Moore’s point as everyone started bickering. “You could have called him…did you call Bill?”
“I did not,” Pulliam snapped, exasperated. “I have not talked to Bill Cosby on the phone in, I don’t know how long. So for me to pick up the phone having not talked to you for five years, except for when we run into each other for a Cosby event, I feel like that’s not my place to do.”
She tried to defend herself, but Trump disagreed. “Doesn’t Kenya bring up a good point that you have this tremendous guy with a tremendous amount of money and with one phone call you could have won the whole task very easily?” he asked.
In the end, Trump couldn’t get past the fact that Pulliam refused to get Cosby on the phone. So when it came down to firing her, reality star Kate Gosselin, or Olympian snowboarder Jamie Alexander, Trump went with Pulliam.
“You didn’t make one call that I really believe that if you would have called that gentleman, he would have helped you even if you hadn’t spoken to him in years,” Trump explained sadly. “Because you were an amazing team with one of the most successful shows ever, so I think it would have been a very quick call to make for charity…Keshia, you’re fired.”
Again — this episode taped months ago, and NBC has made it clear it doesn’t want to be associated with Cosby in any way. Why include his name as a prominent element of the premiere? After the episode aired, Trump apparently didn’t have any problems with it.
“This show was taped just before the terrible Bill Cosby revelations came to light,” he tweeted. “She still should have asked him for money-goes to charity.”
UPDATE, Monday morning
Pulliam stopped by the “Today” show for a few minutes on Monday morning. Co-host Savannah Guthrie brought up the Cosby incident and the fact that Pulliam, again, didn’t call Cosby for money.
“It’s funny, I know ‘The Cosby Show’ is in reruns and everyone assumes that we’re this family that, like, has dinner every Friday night,” Pulliam explained. “But the reality was, I hadn’t spoken to Mr. Cosby and I felt that it would be kind of tactless, you know, very rude to call someone and be like, ‘Hey, so, let me have some money right now.'”
Of course, Guthrie also had to bring up the sexual assault allegations against Cosby, though she remained vague. “The other strange part, Keshia, as you well know, is that of course, now Mr. Cosby is facing all manner of allegations,” Guthrie started. “This was taped back in March, this episode, so it didn’t come up then. But, I mean, you’re here. I have to ask. What do you make of those allegations, people coming out and saying this happened to them? Somebody who was such a beloved character for so many years?”
“What I can say is this. I wasn’t there. No one was there except the two people to know exactly what happened. All I can speak to is the man that I know and I love,” Pulliam said. “That he has been such an example, and you can’t take away from the great that he has done. You know, the millions and millions of dollars that he has given back to colleges and education. And just what he did with ‘The Cosby Show’ and how groundbreaking that was.”
“Were you shocked by the allegations?” Guthrie asked.
“Ultimately, they’re that, allegations,” Pulliam said. “And it’s very much been played out in the court of public opinion. But, you know, we’re still in America where ultimately you’re innocent til proven guilty and, you know, I wasn’t there. That’s just not the man I know so I can’t speak to it.”