KITCHENER, ONT. — Once upon a time, he was everybody’s favourite TV dad.
But even as controversy swirls around Bill Cosby — three more women have stepped forward to accuse him of sexual assault — the man as performer on stage has simply graduated to being everyone’s favourite granddad.
The 73-year-old’s performance Wednesday at the Theatre in the Square — his first standup performance since November — was vintage Cosby, the everyman with the rolling eyes, the pursed lips, the contorted frown, talking about bossy women, getting old and growing up with an annoying younger brother named Russell.
But before the laughs could begin, there was an air of tension.
Ticket holders had to negotiate a barrier of television cameras and a network of cables snaking along the slippery pavement and a small but determined band of protesters wielding signs with such slogans as Rape Is No Joke as they braved a wind-chill of –30 C.
One woman, who refused to be named, shouted “shame on you” again and again at passing ticket holders.
Another protester, Stella Goertzen, said Cosby shouldn’t have come to the city.
“I think they should have closed down the venue and just said you know what, this is not good for our city,” she said. “I’m against violence against women.”
In the past two months, at least 18 women — including three who came forward in Los Angeles on Wednesday — have accused Cosby of sexually assaulting them. He has denied all the accusations and has not face criminal charges related to them.
The small protest didn’t seem to deter many heading into the 2,000-seat Kitchener venue though, with many saying they believed Cosby was innocent until proven guilty.
“We just felt like we still wanted to see the entertainment we paid for. It’s up to the law to decide if there’s a problem,” said Tammy Kehn. “If there’s an issue it will be addressed that way. I’m here to enjoy the show.”
Once in their seats, audience members heard an ominous voice over the PA warning them of possible disruptions and urging them to stay them to “stay calm.” Security guards were much in evidence and a police officer was posted at one of the main entrances.
On stage, an image of Cosby with anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela was projected onto a screen. The staging was simple: a chair with a T-shirt draped over the back with the caption, “Hello Friend.” A simple table with a bottle of water and a glass and a box of tissues was nearby, a waste bin tucked discreetly underneath, all set on a Persian-style carpet.
At 7:32 p.m., Cosby strolled on stage wearing an oversize sweatshirt with the same “Hello Friend” logo, a pair of track pants and a pair of comfortable shoes he could easily slip in and out of.
“First of all, thank you,” he said, his gentle words pregnant with meaning.
For the next hour and 45 minutes, Cosby spoke effortlessly in his trademark deliberate style, muffling an occasional cough.
An early effort by a handful of audience members to arouse a standing ovation failed miserably — but their applause seemed genuine.
Not unexpectedly, Cosby opened with some cracks about our weather. He held out a comically floppy buckskin and fur winter hat with gigantic ear flaps, a Christmas present from a daughter meant as a “joke” that is now unexpectedly useful.
Then he quickly headed into familiar territory — the material drawn from five decades or so that faithful Cosby fans lap up.
The fear of God learned as a 4-year-old in church, the expectation of a stork and the arrival of a bratty younger brother. “(Russell) is 72 years old and to this day I don’t want him in my room,” Cosby declared.
The show kept mostly to the lighter side tinged with nostalgia: taciturn Uncle William and his fondness for drink, out-of-control grandchildren and a wife who buys 12 pillows for the sofa so her husband can’t nap on it.
The laughter was steady and constant through what was nearly a sold-out show, though empty seats were not hard to spot. From time to time, people stepped outside, some of whom didn’t return.
As the end of the set neared, Cosby returned to our weather. Are there laws that force Canadians to live here, he wondered disingenuously.
“As soon as you’re allowed out, there are nicer places,” he jibed.
The standing ovation at the end was more successful but by no means unanimous.
“I really enjoyed it. It’s good that you can still be funny and not vulgar,” said Richard Jeffrey, 39, of Woodstock, who used the tickets he bought his mother for her birthday when she refused to attend.
Gord and Marlene Bowman, in their 80s, got their tickets as a gift — before the “hoopla,” Marlene said. They’ve loved Cosby’s comedy all their lives.
“I would say vintage. What I see here is what I like about him,” Gord said.
“What I read outside is something else.”
Earlier in the evening, activists staged an alternative event with the aim of raising funds for a local sexual assault centre and women’s crisis services.
The event, Voices Carry, which featured six bands, quickly drew so much interest that it was moved to the Dallas Nightclub, a larger venue than the original.
Cosby is scheduled to perform in London on Thursday and Hamilton on Friday, and protests are planned in both cities.
Wednesday’s show was the veteran comic’s first public performance since November, following the wave of sex allegations.
At least 10 performances were cancelled in the U.S. but all three venues in southwestern Ontario have said they have been forced to allow Cosby’s shows to go ahead because contractual obligations would open them up to serious financial penalties otherwise.
- With files from The Canadian Press and Waterloo Region Record