Why is Bill Cosby coming to Canada?

The public is outraged—count Judd Apatow among them—and promoters are nervous. Here's Jonathon Gatehouse on the Cosby No Show

Bill Cosby performs at Madison Square Garden (Bryan Bedder, Getty)

Bill Cosby performs at Madison Square Garden (Bryan Bedder, Getty)

Bill Cosby’s last appearance before a live audience was on Nov. 21 in Melbourne, Florida. But it’s hard to envision the comedian playing for laughs any time soon.

Now facing allegations of sexual assault against more than 20 women, stretching back at least four decades, the 77-year-old entertainer has gone from being America’s favourite father to an all-out pariah. He has proclaimed his innocence, and faces no formal charges, but it hardly matters. Google “Bill Cosby” and “rape” and you get 40.5 million hits.

Although his website still lists 22 upcoming concert dates through the spring of 2015—including scheduled Ontario stops in London, Kitchener and Hamilton in early January—there is little evidence that his fans are willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Film director Judd Apatow has come out against Bill Cosby on Twitter, and criticized those Ontario venue for hosting him. The lengthy list of his cancelled or “indefinitely postponed” appearances now includes shows in the New York City area, Nevada, Tucson, Houston, Oklahoma, Indiana, Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin, Washington State and South Carolina. And the betting is that what remains of his tour—dubbed “77” in honour of his advancing age—will soon meet the same fate. The public is outraged, the promoters and venues are nervous, and those who have purchased tickets are no longer quite so keen on spending an evening laughing along with a man accused of drugging women, then forcing himself upon them.

Kitchener’s Centre in the Square, the venue for Cosby’s first Canadian concert on Jan. 7, says it is contractually obligated to let the performance go ahead, and would face severe financial penalties if it were to back out.

“While we may personally share concerns raised by the community, if the Centre forces a cancellation of this rental show, it isn’t simply a situation of giving back the rent,” the not-for-profit, civic-supported facility wrote in a message posted on its website. “As a result of breaking our contract for this show, the Centre would need to pay any guarantee fee contracted to Mr. Cosby and compensate the promoter for any losses from box office and show expenses. The Centre would also need to refund patrons, as the promoter would not be responsible for bearing these costs in this scenario.”

Budweiser Gardens in London, and Hamilton Place, the municipally owned venues where Cosby is scheduled to perform on Jan. 8 and Jan. 9, are making similar arguments. “We have a contract and we have to honour that contract,” Brian Ohl, the general manager of Budweiser Gardens told Maclean’s. “We continue to have discussions with the promoter.”

The organizer for the Canadian leg of Cosby’s tour is a Chicago-based firm called Innovation Arts & Entertainment. The firm’s Facebook page highlights recent events it has staged with celebrity astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, science educator Bill Nye, and author David Sedaris. It also features a photo of its owner, Adam Epstein, posing with Hillary Clinton at a June book signing.  There’s no mention of Cosby, however—unless you count the many comments and reviews from members of the public demanding that his Canadian dates be cancelled. Innovation Arts has not publicly commented on the controversy, and Adam Epstein did not respond to a request for an interview. But one person has heard from him recently.

Megan Walker, executive director of the London Abused Women’s Centre, has been busily campaigning against the Budweiser Gardens show since late November. With the help of local unions, she has so far signed up more than 400 people for a planned protest outside the venue. Her goal is to draw a crowd of 1,000, which she figures should be large enough to form a human chain around the arena and keep the comedian from even entering the building.

A few days ago, Walker answered a call on her cellphone, and found a very irate Epstein on the other end. “He just said he was the promoter and started being very aggressive with me about how I was ruining his business and going to cost him a lot of money,” she says. “I was shocked. He just kept shouting and wouldn’t let me get a word in. So, finally, I just hung up.”

Walker says she has been receiving dozens of calls and emails of support each day. Many are from people who had purchased tickets for the show, and have tried and failed to obtain a refund. So instead, they are now making plans to join the protest. “London is a progressive community,” says the shelter director, “and Bill Cosby is not welcome here.”

Should the gigs actually go ahead, the once-beloved entertainer can expect to see protesters in the seats, as well as the streets. Anne Bokma, a freelance writer from Hamilton, is recruiting people to attend the Jan. 9 show and make their dissent known from the audience. “Our intent is to disrupt the show,” says Bokma. She declined to go into detail about just what she has in mind, but says she has already let Hamilton Place management know there will be trouble. “I presume that we will be escorted out, and there is some risk that we will be charged with mischief, but the point is to stop the show,” she says. As a kid in the 1970s, Bokma was a fan of the comedian’s Fat Albert cartoon show, and says she always thought Cosby and his gentle brand of humour were kind of “innocuous.” But her shock over the allegations against him turned to revulsion when she learned that the audience at his last show in Florida gave him a standing ovation as he hit the stage. “That made me sick,” says the 52-year-old. “I love Hamilton Place. I’ve seen Harry Belafonte, Gordon Lightfoot, Anne Murray and Loretta Lynn perform there. But, in my mind, it will be forever tainted if Bill Cosby takes the stage.”

As of the week before Christmas, several hundred tickets remained for sale for each of the three Ontario shows. Brian Ohl, the manager of the London venue, which seats 3,000, says the Cosby concert has sold well, but is not nearly a sellout. He’s not sure how many ticket-buyers will actually turn up, though. “I’ve been here for 12 years and this is certainly the most controversial show I’ve ever had to deal with,” he says. “We’re not used to this sort of thing.”


Looking for more?

Get the best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.