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How Hannibal Buress Rehashed the Bill Cosby Rape Allegations

The Chicago comic last month sparked new scrutiny on old accusations. How did he do it, and why is it happening now?

Hannibal Buress   PHOTO: EVAN AGOSTINI/INVISION/AP

When Philadelphia magazine last month posted a video of Chicago comic Hannibal Buress riffing on Bill Cosby’s myriad rape allegations, it didn’t take long for the Internet to explode. The bit, performed at the Trocadero Theatre in Cosby’s native Philadelphia, features Buress slamming Cosby’s moral war on what he perceives to be black cultural pathology—all from the angle of, well, Bill Cosby, “you’re a rapist, so…":

Responses to the bit have ranged from marathon thinkpiecing to a bumbled meme campaign, but the overarching sentiment has been disgust.

Which is confusing, since accounts of Cosby allegedly drugging and sexually assaulting more than a dozen women have been a matter of public knowledge for nearly a decade. As far back as 2005, multiple women had detailed alleged assaults on network TV and in major glossies, all with little effect to Cosby’s American-granddad persona. (When Dylan Farrow’s open letter on Woody Allen sparked similar belated outrage, Tom Scocca at Gawker noted that in the time since Cosby’s allegations, the comedian has been honored with both a Mark Twain Prize and a Marian Anderson Award.)

Buress, for his part, has said the bit wasn’t meant to stir controversy. “I’ve been doing that bit off and on for six months,” he told Howard Stern last month. “It wasn’t my intention to make it part of a big discussion … It’s just information that’s out there.”

Which led to last week, when the still–unyielding outcry—sparked, albeit unintentionally, by a man—sent Barbara Bowman, who’d gone on record about Cosby to People in 2006, to the page. The headline of her Washington Post editorial is “Bill Cosby raped me. Why did it take 30 years for people to believe my story?” The subhead: “Only when a male comedian called Cosby a rapist did the accusation take hold.”

That, in a few words, summarizes a sad truth of an otherwise fine tar-and-feathering: After 10 years of ignored allegations, Cosby’s shaming came at the hands of a male third party.

Of course, there are other reasons for this coming now. The response has been Web-based, and the Web is bigger and better and louder than in 2005. There’s been 10 more years of Michael Jackson and Chris Brown and Gary Glitter, and we’re hopefully 10 years smarter for it.

But there’s also been 10 more years of R. Kelly, who, much to Jim DeRogatis’s chagrin, landed a headlining slot at Pitchfork 2013 despite an alleged history of rampant sexual predation. Which raises the question: To what degree can one separate art from artist, and who loses out along the way?

In the end, the new scrutiny on Cosby won’t result in a prosecution. Some accounts were settled in a 2006 lawsuit; others are protected under the statute of limitations. But it’s at least stalled Cosby’s career for the time being (NBC and Netflix both canceled projects with him this week)—which, for an off-the-cuff bit by Hannibal, seems like a day’s work.

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