Bill Cosby: A strange limbo has set in, but only one side is telling jokes

For now, it is the court of public opinion which tries Cosby

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If the secret of comedy is timing, then the events of Wednesday had a certain grisly flair. In Los Angeles, at a press conference arranged by the attorney Gloria Allred, three more women accused Bill Cosby of sexual assault, bringing the number who have made allegations against the American comedian to nearly 30.

Meanwhile, in Ontario, Cosby appeared at Kitchener’s Centre on the Square and performed his first stand-up set in six weeks. It was his first comic turn since the allegations against him began to gather a terrible, un-ignorable momentum. Strange, perhaps, to think of telling jokes at such a time, but what else is a professional comedian to do? After a couple of hours of hilarious stories and consummate anecdotes about his childhood, his family and his nagging wife, he walked off stage. Where his most recent trio of accusers left their press conference in tears, Cosby exited to a standing ovation from a 1500-strong crowd. That, I suppose, is showbusiness.

Bill Cosby has not been charged and has denied the previous claims against him, dismissing them as “utter nonsense”, through his lawyer. In the middle of his three-night Canadian mini-tour, he has not, at the time of writing, issued any public response to the claims of the three women who came forward this week. They were Linda Kirkpatrick, who alleges she was drugged and assaulted in a dressing room in 1981, aged 25, after playing in a tennis competition with Cosby. And Lynn Neal, who said claims that Cosby raped her after she went to see one of his shows in the 80s, when she was in her twenties. And Kacey (no last name given), who was working as an assistant to one of Cosby’s agents in the early nineties when, she alleges, the comedian invited her to lunch in his hotel suite. She claims that he gave her a large white pill, and that she woke some time later to find him naked in bed beside her.

These accusations follow a flurry that gathered pace last November when the comedian Hannibal Buress made a reference to Cosby during a stand-up set. The floodgates opened – middle-aged former waitresses, supermodels and budding actresses came forward with allegations from their twenties, of little pills and dressing rooms, hands down trousers and of the sickeningly fuzzy feeling of memories lost.

There have already been serious consequences for Cosby – cancelled tour dates, a sitcom pulled, re-runs wiped off the schedules, honours stripped, a Walk of Fame paving slab defaced. His career, in a mainstream television sense, looks likely to be over. He has said very little, telling the one reporter who managed to put a direct question to him about the allegations, “We don’t speak about this”, before asking him to “scuttle” the tapes. But the comic impulse is strong and so, on the second night of his Canadian “comeback” tour, on Thursday night, he spotted a woman leaving the auditorium and asked her where she was going. To get a drink, she told him. “You have to be careful about drinking around me,” he quipped, to loud applause. Later he put out a statement through his publicist declaring he was “far from finished.”

Other than that, a strange silent limbo has set in. The allegations are apparently all subject to the statute of limitations, which forbids prosecutors from charging someone with a crime allegedly committed more than a certain number of years ago.

For now, it is the court of public opinion which tries Cosby. To judge by this week’s performances – picketed outside by a few protesters, lionised inside by loyal fans – it is split. When it comes to individuals who stand out their fields – whether film directors, footballers or America’s funniest father – there is a disinclination to believe that dark deeds can come from shining talent. Conversely, those who accuse the famous and talented are suspected of having financial motives, though there are surely far easier and less painful ways to make money .

For now, then, a horrible suspicion hangs over both Cosby and his accusers. But only one of them is telling jokes about it, and taking comfort from the applause of a laughing crowd.