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At a far-flung gig, Bill Cosby turns the tables on public outrage

A stand-up stop in Central Florida demonstrates that Bill Cosby has cultural viability

Bill Cosby made his first stop of an endangered U.S. comeback tour Friday and, for at least a short time inside a central Florida theater, turned back the clock on a firestorm.

Cosby found an adoring crowd that would clap, laugh, whoop and even raise its fists in solidarity with the embattled entertainer. The comedian responded by serving up his traditional helping of universally relatable humor on subjects such as parenting and marriage, at a time when his image is at its most divisive.

Through a 90-minute set that began punctually and ended with no encore, Cosby never mentioned the allegations of sexual assault leveled at him by more than a half-dozen women over the past few weeks. He didn’t have to. His decision to go on despite canceling the public appearances that had not already been canceled on him — and being given a spirited welcome as he did — delivered his point as potently as any onstage remark.

The audience at the Maxwell King Center for the Performing Arts, on the campus of Eastern Florida State College, was eager to offer Cosby safe harbor from the barrage of accusations that had of late been hurled at him, including some by a local woman barely a day before.

As they mingled over barbecue and cocktails in a kind of tailgate atmosphere before the show, ticket holders spoke of their adoration for Cosby. Many of them saw the comedian as the victim of a coterie of hustlers, or worse.

“I think what you have is a lot of people on the left who don’t like him,” said Ray Harker, a white resident of the nearby town of Grant who owns an air conditioning and heating business there. Harker came out to the show with his wife, Eleanora, who nodded in agreement with much of what her husband said. “They don’t like what [Cosby] says about black people taking more responsibility, and this is their chance to beat up on him," Harker added.

If not everyone at the show saw the accusations through an ideological prism, they were still very suspicious of the claims and eager to poke holes in them.

Paola Kovnick, an Italian-born travel agent who lives in Melbourne, said, “If he raped all these women, why did they not say anything before?” A middle-age woman in a yellow T-shirt who gave her name as Julie said she was the victim of a sexual assault herself but firmly sided with Cosby. “This isn’t how [assaults] happen, through the media, with no evidence,” she said.

For days, the Cosby controversy has been a one-sided affair, outrage in blog posts and on Twitter mounting with every new allegation, with only a scattered refutation from a Cosby lawyer or spokesman and nothing from Cosby himself. But Friday night's events flipped the script. As Cosby stood in the limelight, serving up one bit after another, there was no crowd of protesters outside the theater, and not a heckler or dissenter inside, just an outpouring of love for a man many hailed as a pioneer and a hero.

The event reached its political-rally peak when, about three-quarters of the way through the set, a female fan screamed from the balcony, "We love you Bill Cosby." He raised his fist in appreciation, and the crowd went wild.

Even certain jokes that might have landed awkwardly in a more hostile environment — Cosby quipped at one point that women “own us” and also said that he has "slowly marinated into a man who does what he's told” — took on no added resonance to the King Center audience, which spanned a wide age range, though was almost exclusively white.

For much of the show, Cosby demonstrated why he had become an icon in the first place.

Though he no longer offers the marathon sets that made him a hero to Chris Rock and scores of other comedians of future generations, Cosby still threw himself into the performance with gusto. His finale involved him lying on his back, his legs pointed straight up in the air, as he narrated his attempts to try an exercise long after his body was willing to accommodate.

He also gently mined the gender gap and pretended at times to be talking just to the men in the room, giving hard-won advice that he said could save them marital agita.

And if a chunk of the material combed familiar ground — eccentric relatives, a wife who barely indulges him — he still exhibited precise comic timing and elastic voice work, his trademark fireside-chat vibe casually building to a punch line. “The longer you stay in a marriage the more you just want to be heard," he said as he relayed one story. "'Can I please say one thing?' It's like talking to a parole officer."

He was also willing to poke fun at his own celebrity past, noting that a character in one of his anecdotes, after growing impatient with him, had offered, "You’re a cruel man — I’ll never eat your Jell-o pudding again.”

The crowd roared and clapped at that line and many others, and even the police officers stationed inside the theater in what turned out to be an unnecessary precaution seemed to be appreciating the spectacle.

The audience may have been a self-selected group — these were, after all, dyed-in-the-wool fans who spent up to $100 on seats as far back as last spring — but they also served to show that Cosby's cultural durability may not yet be exhausted.

The comedian, of course, had been trying to mount a comeback when the scandal ignited. Though 77, he had arranged a Netflix special, a sitcom development deal at NBC and a standup tour, all as part of what he hoped would restore him to relevance. Except for a few far-off standup dates at venues that had yet to make a ruling, that bid currently lies in tatters. If Cosby was looking for reasons to press on, though, the audience's reception Friday night provided more than their fair share of them.

Some show attendees did seem to struggle with conflicting emotions. Alexandra Duning-Stone, a 19-year-old student at Eastern Florida State who had been turned on to Cosby by her parents and boyfriend, noted, “I have mixed feelings. I don’t want to believe the accusations. But I do look at the jokes differently now.”

For the most part, though, even those who had their reservations were willing to set them aside in the face of Cosby's talent.

Violet Sabo, a retired human-resources specialist who had turned up despite paying close attention to the allegations over the past few days, said she remained worshipful of the star.

"Maybe we'll find out whether he did the things they say he did," she said. "But I don't know how much I was thinking about that when I was watching his act. He’s one of the funniest, most truthful people around."

Twitter: @ZeitchikLAT

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