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.
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.
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
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."
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.
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.
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.
Heathcliff (Cliff)............................Huxtable Bill
Sondra Huxtable....................Tibideaux Sabrina Le Beauf
Denise Huxtable................................Kendall Lisa
Theodore Huxtable.......................Malcolm-Jamal Warner
Vanessa Huxtable...............................Tempestt Bledsoe
Rudy Huxtable..............................Keshia Knight
Peter Chiara (1985-l989)...............................Peter
Elvin Tibideaux (I986-1992).....................Geoffrey
Kenny ("Bud") (1986-1992)......................Deon Richmond
Cockroach (1986-1987)..................Carl Anthony Payne
Denny (1987-1991)................................Troy Winbush
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
The Cosby Show.
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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also Cosby, Bill; Comedy,
Domestic Settings; Racism,
Ethnicity, and Television