When Lisa Bonet was on David Letterman’s show in 1986, she seemed to really hate Bill Cosby. Of course, she didn’t say so outright; there was just that undercurrent of tension and lack of deferential treatment when it came to her then-boss. If you are old enough to remember when The Cosby Show was at its height, you also probably remember how consistently deferential those kids were. They would call him “Mr. Cosby” in interviews, from what I would recall, with not exactly the respect given to a trusted mentor, but that given to an authoritarian or — as Bonet seems to imply in this interview — a king.
If you’re old enough to remember Cosby, you also remember how incredibly cool Lisa Bonet was. More than 30 years later, she’s still cool and — those of us who have an inherent mistrust of authority figures (or kings) are glad to report — she won. She won the Cosby fight, in the sense that a generation and a half later (maybe two), she’s the one with her integrity intact.
Sure, he kicked her off his show, and apparently condemned her for taking on non-Cosby projects that he didn’t approve. But more than 30 years later, it’s Lisa Bonet who’s the model of sticking to your own truth — even if you have to give up what seems, in the moment, to be a dream opportunity. In Lisa Bonet’s case, it was not falling for the glitter that was the Cosby fame by calling him “Mr. Cosby” and nodding at him sweetly off-set like she was forced to do on.
And 30 years later, Bill Cosby’s reruns were cancelled, denying not only Bonet but her other castmates — Geoffrey Owens among them — the financial benefit of residuals which, as working actors, they were owed. You might say that, given Cosby’s egregious behavior, they were especially owed. What he did is not their fault.
You can watch this 1986 interview with Lisa Bonet and David Letterman and think, “it’s okay, Lisa Bonet. In 32 years, Bill Cosby will be in prison.”
In prison. In prison. Bill Cosby will be in prison.
Of course, that’s not news to me, but the remarkable nature of that statement really hit me tonight when I watched this interview on YouTube. I’d read a summary, knew the details about the Angel Heart controversy from way back then. But watching it reminded me what it was like to be a 12-year-old in 1986, when Bill Cosby was an icon. He was indeed, untouchable. There was no hint anything nefarious lurked under the surface, at least not to us, viewers at home, who dutifully tuned in for The Cosby Show and Family Ties on Thursday nights.
But in this interview, Letterman is being Letterman, asking quite good questions that got to the heart of life as a young, female actor on a popular show where she was (allegedly) at odds with the namesake king. Dave asks if she shouldn’t stay put where she is on “the gravy train” of Cosby instead of being spun off into a (then unnamed) new show (which was later called A Different World). Bonet said she’d basically been told to do the spinoff. Does she get a cut? Letterman asks. No, Bonet — then, one week away from her 19th birthday — said, but she was allowed to come back to The Cosby Show if the new show didn’t work.
And Dave, in his usual bluntness disguised as comedy, asked whether she didn’t think Bill was getting a cut of the show, and shouldn’t she be making the same demands.
David Letterman, for this part, expressed no particular love for Bill Cosby in this interview, but you could write that off as just Letterman being Letterman. Dave was rarely deferential to anyone, except his select mentors or comedians he really admired. In 2017, he told GQ that comedy was now about storytelling instead of jokes, and the best at that had been Bill Cosby. It was Letterman, not the interviewer, who brought up the then-shunned actor.
“How are we supposed to think of that material now?”
“Jeez, I don’t know. I’ve known Bill Cosby since before I had my own show. He’s a part of American culture. And yet I hesitated before telling that story about Louis C.K. So there’s a taint there. If he’s guilty of everything he’s accused of, that’s a ruined, broken individual.”
A ruined, broken individual. While his once television daughter is cooler than she ever was, at age 50. And victorious, a prime example of living your truth.
David Letterman has this show now, of course, on Netflix: My Next Guest Needs No Introduction. My vote is for his next guest to be Lisa Bonet. They could reflect on this old interview — or others they did over the years — and how the world is very different three decades later. As for her introduction, although she needs none, Dave could say this: “She was always true to herself, and trusted the universe to do its work.” And to the delight of those of us who like to believe in things like karmic justice (even though some of us need karmic forgiveness, no doubt), it has.