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30 Years of The Cosby Show: More than just sweaters

The Cosby Show’s reputation increases a little bit every year. Maybe that’s because in retrospect, we can see how unique it was.


 

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Sept. 20 is the 30th anniversary of the first episode of The Cosby Show — also known as “the one that was shot on a completely different set from the rest of the series” — and it seems like every time the show has an anniversary, it gets a little more fondly remembered and a little closer to classic status. That wasn’t guaranteed. Its immense success naturally sparked a backlash, especially when the The Simpsons went up against the declining Cosby on Thursdays, and it seemed like Bill and Bart were facing off in a sort of generational war. It never made a lot of noise in syndication, though I couldn’t tell you why; other family sitcoms, and other black family sitcoms like The Jeffersons and Fresh Prince of Bel Air, seemed to have more of an impact in reruns.

The show was also sometimes criticized or mocked for its celebration of wealth and its emphasis on Cosby’s own personal obsessions, from the importance of college to the greatness of elderly jazz musicians. It seemed for a while like it might be remembered as a show that was very popular at the time but was a relic of the ’80s, like NBC’s other family hit of the era, Family Ties. Instead its reputation quietly seems to have grown, both artistically and socially. It isn’t quite remembered as a masterpiece like the other big hit of its production company, Roseanne, but it inspires a similar kind of reverence as a show that you could never make today.

It helps that the early seasons of The Cosby Show are the best, so when you watch it from the beginning, it puts its best foot forward. The pilot features probably the most famous and iconic scene of the series, in which Cosby confronts his son over his bad report card (and mocks Theo’s argument that he should be just be accepted and loved for the underachiever he is). It’s also that, like Seinfeld, the uniqueness of The Cosby Show is only truly visible in hindsight, when you notice that even though lots of shows thought they were imitating it, there’s never really been another sitcom like it. Everyone talks about how the sitcom was considered dead until Cosby came along, and how he revitalized the form by getting away from bumbling-dad stereotypes and presenting confident, smart parents. But Cosby did more than that; he stripped the whole sitcom form down to the bone in a way you’d never seen before and haven’t seen since.

He supposedly told his writers that he wanted “no conflict and no jokes,” which seems like a weird thing to say about a scripted comedy, but accurately describes what many of the early episodes are like. The building blocks of storytelling, like conflict and resolution, are tossed out in favour of very long scenes of characters not doing very much. A second season episode called “Denise’s Friend” is a good example of this. There is a plot, sort of, in the first half of the episode, where Denise has a friend (a young Stacey Dash) who consults Dr. Huxtable about a problem but is afraid to tell her parents about it. This situation is resolved off-camera during the commercial break; the friend is fine, we’re told. Most of the rest of the episode takes place in the Huxtable living room, and consists of a scene where the Huxtables explain to their kids — and by extension, the kids watching at home — that they shouldn’t be afraid to talk to their parents about any problem they have.

This is a very funny scene that works because the parents and the kids both have embarrassing moments as they go through hypothetical problems (you might remember it as the scene where Cliff asks Theo what he’d do if he got pregnant, and Theo admits he’d consult his friend Cockroach instead). But it’s not a resolution of a story in any traditional sense. It’s the smallest possible resolution: the parents notice something they need to talk to their kids about, and they talk about it. The end. People responded to this because it felt about as close to real life as a sitcom could come, even though most real-life people don’t have as much money or as well-behaved kids as the Huxtables. They also responded because television always has a tendency to over-plot — too many wacky complications, too many Stunning Twists before the commercial break — and The Cosby Show was one of the few shows ever to dispense with all that stuff and demonstrate how unnecessary it really was.

The Cosby Show‘s reputation has also grown because ever since it went off the air, it’s been easier to appreciate what it did in terms of representation on TV. It’s well known for being a show about an upper-class family that just happened to be black (unlike The Jeffersons, which was about a family moving into a social class they never expected to be in), and a show that addressed African-American life without the usual sitcom clichés that surrounded it. But as the most popular show on TV and the most popular ongoing series ever to feature African-American leads, it also created a fair amount of debate about whether it was too idealized, or too conservative. Cosby’s first showrunner, Earl Pomerantz, liked the idea of him being a doctor (the network originally thought he should have a working-class job) but thought his wife being a lawyer might be “status overkill.” It was almost expected to stand for all of life, whereas a family sitcom can really only represent one family’s status and world view, and in this case Cosby wanted to represent wealth, high status and professionalism.

Today, those questions may still be valid, but they’re trumped by the fact that compared to modern TV, The Cosby Show seems almost too good to be true: there was a show about a black family, sometimes incorporating discussions of black history and trips to a historically black college and grandchildren named “Nelson” and “Winnie,” and it wasn’t a niche show on BET, it was on NBC, and it was the most popular show in the whole world. That didn’t solve problems, but just as Will & Grace did a lot to make gay rights mainstream, The Cosby Show had to wean some people off stereotypes or make some of its younger viewers less receptive to believing in stereotypes. Cosby may sometimes have been too didactic about trying to lecture kids on the right way to behave and the importance of going to college and becoming a professional — but he was right that TV is a powerful tool to influence people, and here was the most powerful show on Earth presenting a functional, aspirational family that wasn’t the Cleavers or the Seavers or the Keatons.

The success of Cosby inspired a bunch of other African-American sitcoms, including successes like Fresh Prince and Family Matters. But after Cosby went off the air and the new wave in sitcoms was represented by the super-white Seinfeld and Friends, it became harder to launch a sitcom with black leads. It got so the only network that would do them was the UPN network, and the demise of that network made them hard to find except in Tyler Perry’s cheap assembly-line work. One of the few sitcoms about an African-American family is the new comedy Black-ish, which is a promising show but whose title and premise (the old sitcom cliché about a guy who worries about being too black or not black enough) demonstrate how self-conscious TV makers are about the whole issue. The idea that you could launch a show where a family just happened to be black, and the premise didn’t suggest that there was something unusual or unconventional about this, almost seems like it’s from another world. Put it this way: Damon Wayans had his own sitcom; his brothers had their own sitcom; his son, equally talented, does not have his own sitcom.

And so The Cosby Show is not only a unique sitcom that has never been imitated in more than a superficial way. It’s a sort of rebuke from 30 years ago to the TV landscape of today, which is “fragmented” in part because the networks decided to fragment it, and where an explosion of TV choices hasn’t necessarily been great for shows with non-white leads, or shows that families can watch together without embarrassment, or shows that really have a cultural impact. When it ruled the world, we took all of that for granted. Now we can see that it was a special moment in TV history, one that networks and producers may say they want to replicate, but probably won’t.


 

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