The case against joking about Bill Cosby’s alleged sex crimes is pretty easy to make, and pretty hard to argue with. For the more than 20 women who've accused the comedian of rape or assault, a bit like the one Tina Fey and Amy Poehler performed last night at the Golden Globes probably isn’t very funny. In fact, having a personal trauma used for a laugh line on one of the most-watched stages in the world may be downright painful.
But if there is a good way to joke about Cosby, Fey and Poehler came pretty close to pulling it off. It started out as an absurd, jarring non-sequitur: “In Into the Woods, Cinderella runs from her prince, Rapunzel is thrown from a tower for her prince, and Sleeping Beauty just thought she was getting coffee with Bill Cosby,” said Poehler. Then she and Fey descended into a competition of impressions, doing Cosby’s famous pudding-pop pitch but making it about pills.
The room gasped as soon as the subject of the bit became clear. And you can understand why—it’s surprising to see two awards hosts really going there, courting blowback from Cosby's supporters and accusations of insensitivity from his detractors. Fey and Poehler acknowledged that fact by faking disapproval even as they kept on with the routine. They were trying to shock; judging by Jessica Chastain's face, they succeeded.
But shock was just a byproduct. This was a rape joke with a point—a statement of support for accusers who have been maligned and had their motives questioned. Cosby has maintained his innocence and been convicted of nothing, but Fey and Poehler's joke asserts that even if lawsuit settlements and statutes of limitations keep the issue from ever being aired in court, regular people can hear the accusations of 24 separate women and make their own call.
The joke was also an attempt to redefine Cosby’s public persona permanently. Right after Robert DeNiro with “you talkin’ to me?”, Cosby's one of the most commonly impersonated figures in American culture. People who tuned in last night will probably find it harder to do or see someone do that impersonation now without thinking about rape. That's a significant development for anyone who thinks that public figures should be held to account when there’s strong evidence they’ve used their fame to take advantage of others.
Another joke about the Cosby case made headlines recently, and it came from Cosby himself. At a standup show, he told a woman to "be careful about drinking around me." This, too, was a joke with an agenda, putting forth the notion that the guy on stage is so self-evidently trustworthy that the mere thought of him drugging someone is hilarious. That's the mentality that helped keep the allegations against him out of wider public consciousness for a long time after they were leveled, and it's the one that Fey and Poehler, however uncomfortably, just tried to take down.