The Cosby Show, one of the biggest surprise hits in American television history, dominated Thursday evenings from 1984 to 1992. Focusing on the everyday adventures of an upper-middle-class black family, the series revived a television genre (situation comedy), saved a beleaguered network (NBC), and sparked controversy about race and class in America.
The Cosby Show premiered on 20 September 1984 and shot to the top of the ratings almost immediately. Indeed, the series finished third in the ratings its first season (1984-85), and first for the next four seasons. The Cosby Show fell from the very top of the ratings only after its sixth season (1989-90), when it finished second behind another family-oriented situation comedy, Roseanne.
But The Cosby Show was almost not to be. NBC recruited Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner to develop the sitcom after a Bill Cosby monologue about child rearing on NBC's Tonight show impressed the network's entertainment chief, Brandon Tartikoff. However, despite Cosby's widespread popularity-- he had registered one of the highest audience appeal ratings in history as a commercial pitchman--programmers initially viewed his star potential with suspicion. His television career history was mixed. After co-starring in the hit series I Spy (1965-68), Cosby appeared in a string ratings failures: The Bill Cosby Show (1969), The New Bill Cosby Show (1972), and Cos (1976). While NBC fretted over questions concerning Cosby's viability as a television star and situation comedy's status as a dying genre, Carsey and Werner presented the idea to ABC. But that network was not interested. At the last minute, just in time for inclusion in the fall schedule, NBC gave a firm commitment to Carsey and Werner to produce a pilot and five episodes for the sitcom. The extraordinary success of the show quickly propelled also-ran NBC into first-place in the primetime ratings.
Set and taped before a studio audience in Brooklyn, New York, The Cosby Show revolved around the day-to-day situations faced by Cliff (Bill Cosby) and Clair Huxtable (Phylicia Ayers-Allen, later Phylicia Rashad) and their five children. This family was unlike other black families previously seen on television in that it was solidly upper-middle-class--the Huxtables lived in a fashionable Flatbush brownstone, the father was a respected gynecologist, and the mother a successful attorney. Theo (Malcolm Jamal-Warner), the only son, was something of an underachiever who enjoyed a special relationship with his father. The oldest daughter, Sondra (Sabrina LeBeauf), was a college student at prestigious Princeton University. The next daughter in age, Denise (Lisa Bonet), tested her parents' patience with rather eccentric, new-age preoccupations. She left the series after the third season to attend the fictitious, historically black Hillman College; her experiences there became the basis of a spin-off, A Different World (1987-93). The two younger daughters, Rudy (Keisha Knight Pulliam) and Vanessa (Tempestt Bledsoe), were cute preteens who served admirably as foils to Cosby's hilarious child-rearing routines. Secure in a cocoon of loving parents and affluence, the Huxtable kids steered clear of trouble as they grew up over the series' eight-year run. Indeed, TV Guide compared the Huxtable's lifestyle to that of other black families in America and described the family as the most "atypical black family in television history."
For many observers, The Cosby Show was unique in other ways as well. For example, unlike many situation comedies, the program avoided one-liners, buffoonery and other standard tactics designed to win laughs. Instead, series writers remained true to Cosby's vision of finding humor in realistic family situations, in the minutiae of human behavior. Thus episodes generally shunned typical sitcom formulas by featuring, instead, a rather loose story structure and unpredictable pacing. Moreover, the soundtrack was sweetened with jazz, and the Huxtable home prominently featured contemporary African American art. Several observers described the result as "classy."
In many respects, The Cosby Show and its "classy" aura were designed to address a long history of black negative portrayals on television. Indeed, Alvin Poussaint, a prominent black psychiatrist, was hired by producers as a consultant to help "recode blackness" in the minds of audience members. In contrast to the families in other popular black situation comedies--for example, those in Sanford and Son (1972-77), Good Times (1974-79), and The Jeffersons (1975-85)--the Huxtables were given a particular mix of qualities that its creators thought would challenge common black stereotypes. These qualities included: a strong father figure; a strong nuclear family; parents who were professionals; affluence and fiscal responsibility; a strong emphasis on education; a multigenerational family; multiracial friends; and low-key racial pride.
This project, of course, was not without its critics. Some observers described the show as a 1980's version of Father Knows Best, the Huxtables as a white family in blackface. Moreover, as the show's debut coincided with the President Reagan's landslide reelection, and as many of the Huxtables' "qualities" seemed to echo key Republican themes, critics labeled the show's politics as "reformist conservatism." The Huxtables' affluence, they argued, worked to obscure persistent inequalities in America--especially those faced by blacks and other minority groups--and validate the myth of the American Dream. One audience study suggests that the show "strikes a deal" with white viewers, that it absolves them of responsibility for racial inequality in the United States in exchange for inviting the Huxtables into their living room. Meanwhile, the same study found that black viewers tend to embrace the show for its positive portrayals of blackness, but express misgivings about the Huxtables' failure to regularly interact with less affluent blacks.
On an April evening in 1992--when America was being saturated with images of fires, and racial and economic turmoil from Los Angeles--many viewers opted to tune into the farewell episode of The Cosby Show. In Los Angeles, at least, this viewing choice was almost not an option. KNBC-TV's news coverage of the civil unrest seemed certain to preempt the show, much as the news coverage of other networks' affiliates would preempt their regular prime-time programming that evening. But as Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley worked to restore order to a war-torn Los Angeles, he offered, perhaps, the greatest testament to the social significance of the series: he successfully lobbied KNBC-TV to broadcast the final episode as originally scheduled.
-Darnell M. Hunt
Dr Heathcliff (Cliff) Huxtable............................ Bill Cosby
Clair Huxtable........................................Phylicia Rashad
Sondra Huxtable Tibideaux....................Sabrina Le Beauf
Denise Huxtable Kendall................................Lisa Bonet
Theodore Huxtable.......................Malcolm-Jamal Warner
Vanessa Huxtable...............................Tempestt Bledsoe
Rudy Huxtable..............................Keshia Knight Pulliam
Anna Huxtable..........................................Clarice Taylor
Russel Huxtable...........................................Earl Hyman
Peter Chiara (1985-1989)...............................Peter Costa
Elvin Tibideaux (1986-1992).....................Geoffrey Owens
Kenny ("Bud") (1986-1992)......................Deon Richmond
Cockroach (1986-1987)..................Carl Anthony Payne II
Denny (1987-1991)................................Troy Winbush Lt.
Martin Kendall (1989-1992)...................Joseph C. Phillips
Olivia Kendall (1989-1992)........................Raven-Symone
Pam Tucker (1990-1992)........................Erika Alexander
Dabnis Brickey (1991-1992)..............William Thomas, Jr
Marcy Carsey, Tom Werner, Caryn Sneider, Bill Cosby
September 1984-June 1992 Thursday 8:00-8:30
July 1992-September 1992 Thursday 8:30-9:00
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