More than a dozen women have accused comedian Bill Cosby of sexual assault, including Joan Tarshis, whose account was published by Hollywood Elsewhere last weekend. Tarshis, like many other accusers, said Cosby drugged her, then assaulted her.
The Village Voice saw a connection between many of his accusers’ statements and Cosby’s 1969 comedy album, “It’s True! It’s True!” In it, Cosby has a bit called “Spanish Fly,” which jokes about a substance that, legend has it, would make women feel amorous. Cosby said that he’d been interested in acquiring “Spanish fly” since childhood and that there was a cult around the supposed effects of the drug, implying it was put in women’s drinks without their knowledge or consent. Cosby said boys would think, if they saw “five girls standing alone” at a party, “Boy, if I had a whole jug of Spanish fly, I’d light that whole corner up over there.” When his show “I Spy” brought him to Spain, Cosby said he set out to find the drug, setting up the punch line when the cab driver asks him whether he brought with him any “American fly.”
When I went looking for other Cosby mentions of “Spanish fly,” I found one 22 years after the release of his album. Cosby told a version of the story in his 1991 book, “Childhood.” “Spanish fly” is one of the most common phrases in the book, according to Google’s word cloud. (FiveThirtyEight wasn’t able to find a copy before this piece was published.) He brought up the story in a 1991 interview with Larry King on CNN, to promote the book.
Cosby mentions it as an example of stories in the book that he hasn’t told before. Here’s the relevant portion of the interview, according to a transcript from Nexis:
COSBY: There’s a thing about Spanish Fly. Do you know anything about Spanish Fly?
KING: When we were kids we used to-
COSBY: There you go. There you go. That’s all. I just wanted the recognition.
COSBY: Spanish Fly.
KING: We knew what it was.
COSBY: Spanish Fly was the thing that all boys from age 11 on up to death — We will still be searching for Spanish Fly.
KING: [laughs] That’s right.
COSBY: And what was the old- The old story was, if you took a little drop — It was on the head of a-
COSBY: -pin! And you put it in a drink-
KING: That’s right. Drop it in her Coca-cola — It don’t matter.
COSBY: It doesn’t make any difference. And the girl would drink it and-
KING: And she’s yours.
COSBY: -‘Hello, America!’ And there’s a story in there about Spanish Fly. So I think that everybody — any guy picking it up will just have a ball reading about that.
King then switches topics, asking, “Why is childhood difficult?”
Others besides King also didn’t react negatively to the bit. In a Tucson Daily Citizen article in 1969, Harold Stern commended Cosby for the “adroit way” he tells the story “without ever straying out of bounds.” Ronald Smith, in his 1986 book “Cosby,” calls the bit “mild.”
More recent readers of “Childhood” haven’t flagged the passage. At Goodreads, reviewers rate the book, on average, 3.72 out of 5. None of the 29 reviews mentions what the Goodreads summary calls Cosby’s “heroic quest for Spanish Fly.”
That the allegations have something in common with Cosby’s comedy isn’t conclusive. Before Tarshis came forward, Cosby’s lawyer called charges against his client “discredited,” without pointing to the evidence that discredited them. “The fact that they are being repeated does not make them true,” said John P. Schmitt, who added that there would be “no further statement from Mr. Cosby or any of his representatives.”