The rumors about Bill Cosby had been around for years.
Back in 2005, The Washington Post wrote about how allegations of sexual misconduct by Cosby sparked debate within the very black communities being lectured by the comedian during his “tough love” tour. “You can’t go around lecturing people about their behavior and not be honest about your own,” a local radio host said.
Tina Fey and Amy Poehler told a joke about the allegations in 2005 on “Saturday Night Live.” In 2009, Tracy Morgan made a reference to them on “30 Rock,” with his character saying: “Bill Cosby, you got a lotta nerve gettin’ on the phone wit’ me after what you did to my Aunt Paulette! … 1971. Cincinnati. She was a cocktail waitress with the droopy eye!”
On Thursday, Cosby was convicted on three counts of sexual assault, with a jury finding him guilty of drugging and sexually assaulting Andrea Constand.
The idea that the man long considered so wholesome that he was called “America’s Dad” may have sexually assaulted a woman didn’t become a roiling controversy until a stand-up comic performing at a theater in Philadelphia told a joke about it in 2014.
Hannibal Buress, in an interview later with Howard Stern, explained that he had been telling the bit on and off for about six months, and that “it’s just information that’s out there.” But that night, an audience member covertly filmed the joke, which Buress premised on how Cosby would tell black people how to live but he had been accused of rape. Philadelphia Magazine posted the video. Poor quality be damned, it went viral.
Suddenly, a joke meant for an audience of a few hundred now had an audience of millions, and brought the allegations against Cosby came back into the spotlight. People paid more attention to his accusers. More and more came forward. The Associated Press uncovered a 2005 deposition, revealing more shocking allegations. Cosby adamantly denied wrongdoing.
Barbara Bowman had been telling her story for nearly 10 years. “Why wasn’t I believed? Why didn’t I get the same reaction of shock and revulsion when I originally reported it?” she wrote in The Post after the Buress joke. “Why was I, a victim of sexual assault, further wronged by victim-blaming when I came forward? The women victimized by Bill Cosby have been talking about his crimes for more than a decade. Why didn’t our stories go viral?”
In interview after interview, Buress has rejected the notion that he had any agenda to take Cosby down or intended for the joke to blow up as it did. He also hasn’t disowned the joke.
“This is the first time it’s happened, and it’s very weird,” Buress told Howard Stern about the video of the joke going public and the ensuing firestorm. “It was unexpected. I didn’t want to do that, ’cause if I was going to do it, I would have done it on my own. That wasn’t my intention, to make it part of a big discussion. It was just something that I was doing at that venue right then. So then for someone to put it to the media — it’s crazy.”
Buress was already an established comic. He had already made a deal with Comedy Central for his own show before the Cosby firestorm. Once that video went viral, the show’s announcement was delayed. He got hate mail from Cosby fans and praise from others calling him a “feminist hero.”
“I’ve been working for a while, and I continue to work,” Buress said on a 2016 Netflix panel. “I work in film, I do voiceover, and I continue to do stand-up. That’s just one joke that people took and really ran with it.”
When asked by GQ in 2015 if he regretted the joke, he said no.
Increasingly, comics have been banning cellphones — which audience members can easily use to film — at their shows, and for plenty of reasons. An unfinished bit could be taken out of context. A joke a comic was saving for a stand-up special could be ruined. Or a joke could unwittingly take on a life of its own.
Even before the Cosby joke, “especially if you’re performing in front of 70 people, it’s not fun to see people holding up their phones,” Buress told The Post in 2016. “With how stand-up, or at least how I create, I figure it out on stage. … Kind of talking off the top of my head, and if someone has a phone in my face, it kind of makes me not as natural. … I’d rather people didn’t film and then spoil my jokes.”
That viral video made Buress an unwitting part of the Cosby saga. He had no control over the joke. It was now in the public domain, and many people were trying to sum up his career with a single bit.
So Buress addressed it one last time in his 2016 Netflix special.
“I was just doing a joke at a show. I didn’t like the media putting me at the forefront of it. They were sly, dissing me in the news,” he said. “‘Unknown comedian Hannibal Buress.’… ‘Homeless comedian Hannibal Buress took the stage in Philly, covered in rags.’ ”
He continued: “I got a lot of flak for that. I had people writing me awful things: ‘Bill Cosby’s not a rapist, Hannibal, you are.’ What?! That’s not how that works!”