Loud protesters, in-show hecklers and tense, tight security — Bill Cosby’s Canadian fans bore it all to share a few laughs with the famous comedian amidst the barrage of sexual assault allegations that have plagued him for weeks.
When asked how they could applaud a man repeatedly accused of grave crimes, the phrase “innocent until proven guilty” was a common refrain among those who saw Cosby perform in the southwestern Ontario cities of Kitchener, London and Hamilton this week.
“If they could prove anything he’d be in jail. He would have been charged, they wouldn’t have let him come into Canada,” said Mike Lethbridge, who took in Cosby’s final show. “I think he’s innocent.”
The audiences who gave Cosby three consecutive standing ovations nonetheless had to make their way past loud protesters at every venue where he performed as calls of “shame on you” were hurled their way.
In London and Hamilton, Cosby’s fans also had to withstand disruptions to the shows as the comedian was called “a rapist” in one instance and protesters chanted “we believe the women” in another.
The 77-year-old comedian reacted by calling for calm and noted that he and his fans “hold no enemies.”
The intrusion of the controversy into what were otherwise family-friendly performances made for a curious mix for at least some audience members.
“We like his comedy, we don’t know anything more than that. So we’re here for that and that’s it,” said Joseph DeBenedictis. “I support his comedy but not at all what he’s done if it has happened. It’s kind of hard to be here and say that.”
While DeBenedictis said Cosby had handled the disruptions to his show in a professional manner, he hoped there would eventually be some resolution around the allegations dogging the comedian.
“I hope the truth comes out, guilty or not,” he said.
Every ticket holder who saw Cosby — and there were some who chose to skip out on his performances — would have had to make a conscious decision to attend, noted one observer.
“If they really wanted to go they would say in their hearts ‘these are simply allegations, there are no charges yet, everyone has the presumption of innocence,’ so in that way they could convince themselves to go,” said Penny Collenette, a law professor at the University of Ottawa who studies ethical issues.
“The people that bought tickets and did not go made a very strong ethical and moral decision… the people that went jumped over that hurdle.”
An element of denial might also be impacting Cosby’s core fan base, Collenette added.
“This is somebody that is sort of like Santa Claus,” she said. “Everybody’s loved this guy for so long and it’s sort of ‘oh, no it can’t be true.'”
Those who withstood the freezing Canadian winter to protest Cosby outside the theatres where he performed took issue with that sort of reasoning.
“To all those people that are basing it just off the innocent until guilty plea, those people to me are looking for an excuse to validate their interests,” said Katie Gosen, who had organized a demonstration against Cosby in Kitchener.
“There are so many people who are guilty of endless crimes that will never be charged.”
In recent weeks at least 18 women, including three who came forward in Los Angeles this week, have accused Cosby of sexually assaulting them, with some claims dating back decades.
The comedian, who played the congenial Dr. Cliff Huxtable on ‘The Cosby Show’ from 1984 to 1992, has never been criminally charged in connection with the allegations and has denied them through his lawyer.
He even appeared to make light of the scandal at one point during his London performance.
As a woman got up from one of the front rows and walked past the stage, Cosby asked her where she was going. When she said she was going to the lobby to grab a drink Cosby responded with a line that got a mix of applause and light groans.
“You have to be careful about drinking around me,” he said wryly.
Cosby’s approach to the controversy — both his tongue-in-cheek comment and his response to disruptions — could also have fuelled the waves of applause and calls of “we love you Bill” heard at his performances, Collenette said.
“Everybody loves a fighter,” she said. “There would be a ‘gee, he’s familiar and he’s funny and I like him and he’s really got problems right now so let’s give him a good round of applause.'”