In October 2014, comedian Hannibal Buress was performing a standup set in Philadelphia and decided to work out a riff about Bill Cosby that he’d tried at a handful of sets that year. The difference was that this time, someone in the audience pulled out their camera phone.
“Bill Cosby has the fuckin’ smuggest old Black man public persona that I hate,” Buress says in the video. “He gets on TV, ‘Pull your pants up, Black people! I was on TV in the ’80s. I can talk down to you because I had a successful sitcom!’ Yeah, but you rape women, Bill Cosby, so turn the crazy down a couple notches. ‘I don’t curse on stage!’ Well, yeah, but you’re a rapist, so…”
At the time, Cosby, the comedy legend known as “America’s Dad,” had been making headlines for his patronizing lectures aimed at Black youth, specifically young Black men, for what he considered to be unsightly and stereotypical behavior that was harming their culture’s image. The audience reaction to Buress’ blunt joke was a mix of shocked giggles and gasps.
“That shit is upsetting,” Buress continued. “If you didn’t know about it, trust me. When you leave here, Google ‘Bill Cosby rape.’ It’s not funny. That shit has more results than ‘Hannibal Buress.’”
The idea of the bit, obviously, is that Cosby’s shaming was hypocritical and out of step with his own behavior. “I could take you saying lots of ‘motherfuckers’ on Bill Cosby: Himself if you weren’t a rapist,” Buress added.
The thing is, at the time, people weren’t calling Cosby a rapist. At least, not on the scale that they are now, after dozens of women have come forward with stories of sexual assault over Cosby’s entire career, the performer himself admitted in a deposition that he administered sedatives to women he wanted to have sex with, and he was eventually convicted of sexual assault.
That footage from Buress’ 2014 set leaked online, where it was posted on YouTube, shared on social media, and covered by nearly every major media news outlet. With one joke, the dominoes that would eventually lead to Cosby’s arguable demise—he’s since been released from prison and had his conviction overturned—began to fall.
The phenomenon of the Hannibal Buress set is the launching point for the final episode of We Need to Talk About Cosby, the new Showtime docuseries from W. Kamau Bell. Over the course of four episodes, the series meticulously maps out Cosby’s historic career and his irrefutable role in fundamentally changing American society and culture for Black people. But braided into that cultural study are the graphic details of assaults alleged by his survivors, and his predatory behavior at each milestone on his way to building that legacy.
We Need to Talk About Cosby’s final episode aired Sunday night, but the series deserves to be talked about more and to leave a much fiercer cultural footprint than it’s made in this last month. Maybe by revisiting Buress’ spark plug set, that might happen. Because as We Need to Talk About Cosby makes clear, everything that happened afterward might be because of that set—but also wasn’t because of that set at all.
“Most of us weren’t grappling with it back then,” Bell says in his narration in We Need to Talk About Cosby. “Bill Cosby was still America’s dad. He was still Black America’s angry grandpa. But something about Hannibal’s joke, plus grainy cellphone footage, plus this new era of social media, was explosive.”
Marc Lamont Hill, a Temple University professor, explains that over the years, there were “rumblings and rumors” about Cosby’s actions—hence Buress’ instruction to his audience to simply Google it—but they always fizzled out.
Bits of pop culture that often resurface now in relation to the open secret about Cosby were around years before Buress’ viral moment. Tina Fey and Amy Poehler joked about it in 2005 on Saturday Night Live. A 2009 episode of 30 Rock saw Tracy Morgan’s character saying, “Bill Cosby, you got a lotta nerve getting on the phone with me after what you did to my Aunt Paulette! 1971. Cincinnati. She was a cocktail waitress with the droopy eye!”
“For whatever reason, when Hannibal Buress mentions Bill Cosby and talks about this stuff, it explodes,” Hill says. “And suddenly this is no longer a rumbling underneath the ground. This is now a full-blown explosion that everybody has to deal with.” (The episode then cuts to Cosby’s former TV co-star, Doug E. Doug, who expresses his shock after watching the video: “I was just like, what the hell is he talking about? A rapist?!”)
In 2014, around the time the video was recorded, NBC announced it was working on a new family sitcom with Cosby that would herald his big return to wholesome primetime TV—even though his rape allegations were all over the internet and were even covered on the Today show, with Matt Lauer (oy…) interviewing an accuser.
That’s how little credence powerful institutions paid to the explicit, detailed, and traumatizing stories from the women who had come forward. As TV critic and reporter Maureen Ryan says in the docuseries, “If multiple news pieces are out in the media and you still made that fucking deal, what kind of monsters are you?”
That’s why so much credit is given to Buress’ joke, which suddenly spread like wildfire. “It was Twitter and Facebook and YouTube,” Hill says. “And suddenly what could have been a blip is now a full-blown media scandal.” Why was there such an impassioned response? As The Boston Globe’s Renée Graham explains, “It put the lie to his sanctimony. How dare you criticize anyone else? Yeah, my pants might be sagging, but I ain’t raped nobody.”
Buress has maintained over the years that none of this was intentional, squirming whenever someone mentions that he’s “the man who destroyed Bill Cosby’s career.” That’s fair, especially because, as Bell explains while adding context to the whole story, Buress’ set didn’t exactly do that.
“Many people remember Hannibal’s joke as being the thing that took down Bill Cosby,” Bell says. “But that’s not true. Bill Cosby was still doing Bill Cosby things. Just a few weeks later, Bill and Camille [Cosby, his wife] were promoting an exhibition of their art at the Smithsonian, like nothing weird was going on. And there were lots of interviews about their art like it was business as usual.”
We Need to Talk About Cosby shows raw footage of a journalist attempting to ask Cosby and his wife about the attention ignited by the Buress video. They don’t just say they’re not going to talk about it, they bully the reporter and his producer to never air the footage in which the question is asked.
What did happen, though, is that the attention on Buress’ joke provided a launching pad for accusers to bring their stories back into the public eye.
A month after Buress’ set, Barbara Bowman wrote a column for The Washington Post titled, “Bill Cosby Raped Me. Why Did It Take 30 Years for People to Believe My Story?” The subheadline: “Only when a male comedian called Cosby a rapist did the accusation take hold.”
Bowman is interviewed in We Need to Talk About Cosby and says, “At that particular point in time, it was sort of the perfect storm. It was my opportunity to tell my story.” Then the avalanche came.
In the following weeks and months, dozens more women came forward. They were unignorable. Cosby’s behavior was unignorable. In July 2015, New York magazine published a cover featuring 35 of his accusers. That number would eventually grow to more than 60.
That was the real power. As Bell says, “Even though Hannibal’s joke got people talking, it was Barbara Bowman’s op-ed that got other survivors to come forward.”
For more, listen to comedian and director W. Kamau Bell on The Last Laugh podcast.