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Cosby’s fall puts the spotlight on our cult of celebrity

Admire that talent - and leave it at that.

Bill Cosby following his conviction of sexual assault.

Bill Cosby following his conviction of sexual assault. Credit: AFP / Getty Images / Don Emmert

I had a chance to meet Bill Cosby when I was a little boy. Really, I had a chance to stand on stage with him and a bunch of other kids at an event where he performed.

Celebrities at that point in my life were mostly puppets and cartoons, but Cosby was one of the few famous humans who made an impression on me. As any 3-year-old in 1978 could tell you, he was the brains behind “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids,” and therefore quite a big deal.

At the end of his set, Cosby invited all the kids in the audience on stage. My brother and I hopped up immediately, but I got scared so I turned back to my mom.

This moment of toddlerly cowardice became one of my earliest regrets. I mean, I could have been near the genius behind “The Brown Hornet,” “Bill Cosby: Himself,” “The Cosby Show” and “Bill Cosby: 49.” I had a chance to say something silly and cute to him that he would have turned into comedy gold! Man, did I blow it.

Most Americans know what a celebrity is by the age of 3, and as we get older we hang on to a 3-year-old’s naivete. We discover someone is exceptionally good at something, and then make a leap to believing they must be capital-G Good in a philosophical, religious and general sense. This assumption turns into an almost uncontrollable urge to befriend the famous athlete, musician, writer and even politician.

As a result of this reckless admiration, we simply cannot imagine great people being annoying or tedious or complicated like the lesser mortals among whom we are doomed to live. We certainly can’t believe they are bad people. How could they be, when they can write like that, hit a line drive like that, tell a joke like that?

Cosby went beyond most celebrities, who are usually excellent at what they do and then go home to be good or bad or whatever they are in private. He famously badgered other comedians to stop swearing onstage, and when he was not on tour performing stand-up, he was on tour hectoring black people to behave “properly.” However sincere he may have been, it was his skill as an entertainer, not his moral authority, that made us listen when he preached.

The #MeToo movement has brought a reckoning on many famous and gifted men, and I hope it does some damage to America’s cult of celebrity too. For many of us, it already has. Questions once confined to grad school seminars on art theory or upper-level English literature courses are now on everyone’s mind: Where is the line between art and an artist? Are they separate, or hopelessly interwoven? Can someone enjoy a work of art by an evil person and not be complicit in that person’s evil?

For the most part I find it easy to separate the art from the artist. I honed this skill over a decade performing improv. Some of my favorite performers were people I strongly disliked. Knowing talented jerks has inoculated me from the shock of discovering a famous person is not very kind.

Of course, Cosby’s crimes are far worse than simply not being cool after a show. And for that, timeless masterpieces like “Bill Cosby: Himself” are likely to be trapped in amber, forever remote from the people who first appreciated them, and doomed to wait decades upon decades for someone with enough detachment to differentiate art from artist.

In 1978, it was fear that turned me away from the celebrity on stage and back into my mother’s arms. Cowardice aside, the gesture remains a fine policy: place your trust, your hope and your love with the people closest to you. You know them. The ones on stage? All you know is their talent. Admire that talent - and leave it at that.

Dennis O’Toole is a Chicago writer. He wrote this for the Chicago Tribune.

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