Is Bill Cosby Still Funny? On Separating the Art from the Artist in Standup Comedy

Studies in American Humor 5 (2):288-308 (2019)
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Bill Cosby’s immorality has raised intriguing aesthetic and ethical issues. Do the crimes that he has been convicted of lessen the aesthetic value of his stand-up and, even if we can enjoy it, should we? This article first discusses the intimate relationship between the comedian and audience. The art form itself is structurally intimate, and at the same time the comedian claims to express an authentic self on stage. After drawing an analogy between the question of the moral character of comedians and the aesthetic value of their stand-up and the debate over the ethical criticism of art, this article argues that it is reasonable to find a comedian’s performance less funny, because stand-up’s artistic success relies on this intimacy. It contrasts the comedy of Bill Cosby with that of Louis C.K. C.K.’s moral flaws are much more present in his comedy, and it is therefore more difficult to find him funny. Last, it is ethically permissible to enjoy their comedy, if no harm to others results, both because it does not corrupt the audience’s character and because amusement is valuable.

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Phillip Deen
University of New Hampshire, Manchester


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