Bill Cosby takes hecklers in stride at Cobb Energy show

Brandy Betts of Chicago leads chants outside of Cobb Energy Centre toward attendees of the Bill Cosby show. "Rape is not funny!' she said.
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Brandy Betts of Chicago leads chants outside of Cobb Energy Centre toward attendees of the Bill Cosby show. "Rape is not funny!' she said.
Brandy Betts of Chicago leads chants outside of Cobb Energy Centre toward attendees of the Bill Cosby show. "Rape is not funny!' she said.

Brandy Betts of Chicago leads chants outside of Cobb Energy Centre toward attendees of the Bill Cosby show. “Rape is not funny!’ she said. CREDIT: Rodney Ho/rho@ajc.com

BY RODNEY HO/ rho@ajc.com, originally filed Sunday, May 3, 2015

Legendary comic Bill Cosby calmly dealt with a couple of hecklers during his show at Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre Saturday night.

Before the concert, 20 protesters outside the venue chanted “We believe the women,” referencing the dozens of women who have publicly accused him of sexual assault and in many cases, rape. An actress Lili Bernard, who said Cosby raped her in 1992 around the time she guested on “The Cosby Show,” flew into Atlanta to be part of the protest.

Unlike the concert featuring comic Lewis Black the night before at the same venue which I attended, security for Cosby’s concert was significantly enhanced. All attendees were checked for weapons with a wand and required to show ID.

Why ID? Employees checked a list of more than 30 people not allowed to enter the venue, many who had publicly stated in web forums that they planned to disrupt Cosby during his show. Famed attorney Gloria Allred and Bonnie Upton, who lives in New Jersey, were among those turned away.

“It wasn’t unexpected and it proves that he knows that there is significant opposition,” Upton said. “I won’t stop until there are more reproductive health centers than rape crisis centers. And he is the poster boy.”

Bonnie Upton and Gloria Allred were denied entry into the Bill Cosby show. CREDIT: Rodney Ho/rho@ajc.com

Bonnie Upton and Gloria Allred were denied entry into the Bill Cosby show. CREDIT: Rodney Ho/rho@ajc.com

Before the show, an announcer warned the half-filled auditorium: “If there are disruptions, stay calm. Do not confront the person making the disruption.”

Indeed, two people interrupted Cosby. One man’s rant in the 10th row was more like performance art, where he said he was like “Cosby’s sweater.” He went on so long, Cosby interrupted him at one point to say, “Stop – do you have another 40 minutes?” The crowd laughed and applauded.

UPDATE: Tuesday, May 5, 2015: I should have suspected this but the heckler was an intern at Rock 100.5’s morning show Ryan Redhawk.

The other – Ashley Leonard from Wilmington, N.C. – evaded the “do not enter” list and while Cosby was telling a childhood story about his mom threatening to beat him, she stood up and yelled, “She didn’t beat out of you how you treat women!”

The crowd quickly drowned her out with boos. Cosby stood up and simmered down the boos as she was escorted away: “Stop it! This is our show. It will be over soon.”

Both hecklers were quietly escorted out of Cobb Energy.

Leonard, standing on the sidewalk after the show, said she was getting sick of listening to Cosby and found an opening: “I just felt it was vital to speak the truth to him.”

Some concertgoers were annoyed by the heckling. “People have the right to protest but not during a show,” said Ken Westbrook of Cumming.

Renee Everspaugh of Canton thought Cosby was “gracious” toward the hecklers. Her take on all the women accusing him of sexual assault: “Innocent until proven guilty.”

Jacquelyn Luther, who bought tickets two weeks ago, said she first saw Cosby in the late 1970s and wanted to see him again before “he got too old.” (He’s 77.) About the accusations: “What does that have to do with his job?”

Cosby did a shorter-than-expected 80-minute set in Atlanta without explanation. Twice, he asked people in the front rows for the time so he would know if he was on time. At other shows, he often has gone more than two hours.

Nonetheless, Cosby fans gave him a rousing standing ovation both to start the show and to end the show.

Connie Priest of Cedartown enjoyed Cosby’s humor but she said she had purchased in September for her mom’s birthday, before the controversy burst open. Would she had bought tickets after the fact? “No,” she said.

Others took advantage of soft demand on third-party ticket sites.

“It was awesome,” said Chris Stevens, 55, of Canton, who was part of a group of six people who had purchased tickets off Stubhub at the last second for a mere $12 a piece for tickets that were $71 face value after Ticketmaster fees. He said he grew up listening to Cosby albums and could still recite some of his old stories. “He was sharp as a tack. It was classic. I enjoyed the heck out of it.”

(Even with bargain hunters, plenty of people had chosen to eat their tickets. About 30 percent of the orchestra seats were empty with gaps all over the place like Swiss cheese. The venue did not allow refunds.)

On stage, Cosby didn’t appear fazed on stage by the controversy surrounding him. He told classic stories about his childhood and a couple more recent anecdotes, using physical humor, choice pauses, and funny voices to draw in the audience, garnering plenty of hearty laughs and applause.

At the same time, at least 11 security and staff stood on the sides of the floor and mezzanine watching the crowd intently, ready to flag troublemakers. Ushers were also on the look out for anyone using a smartphone to text or snap pictures. “No social media,” Jenny Pollack,  director of operations told me sternly at the beginning of the show.

This was the only date Cosby had left on his tour schedule after several others were cancelled or postponed.

Allred, before the show, said she hopes this will be his very last show. “I think he is trying to do business as usual but it’s not business as usual to his victims,” she said.

She has been in private practice for 39 years and specializes in rape and sexual harassment cases. She said she has now counted 48 women who have claimed some level of harassment against Cosby. “I have never seen a celebrity or non-celebrity with this many alleged victims,” she said.

Nonetheless, Cosby on stage promised to be back in Atlanta in two years with brand new material.

Whether that will happen may depend on the willingness of promoters to market his wares now that his popularity has clearly dropped. (He largely filled the 2,750-capacity Cobb Energy in 2013.)

After the show, he sent out this statement to media for his fans. Although his statement said there were no interruptions, there were two.

Dear Fans: We won tonight! No interruptions, nothing but laughter and an amazing standing ovation before and after the show. I thank you, the event organizers, Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre and the Atlanta Community for your loyalty, trust and commitment to stand beside me. Hey, Hey, Hey — I’m Far From Finished.” states Bill Cosby

Cosby’s troubles metastasized last fall after stand-up comic Hannibal Buress on a Philadelphia stage mused about how Cosby was a “rapist” and encouraged people to Google “Bill Cosby rape.”

Captured on YouTube, the video went viral and soon, dozens of women came forward with stories of assault and rape at the hands of Cosby spanning decades. Cosby himself has not directly addressed the issue with spokespeople offering blanket denials.

My past Cosby stories

4/27/15: Cosby sends special message to fans

4/16/15: Activists plan protest against Cosby

4/8/15: Cosby show not taking refunds

1/22/15: Cosby show still has plenty of seats available

11/21/14  Cosby show at Cobb remains alive


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