The Cosby Show

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The Cosby Show

The Cosby Show, a situation comedy that ran for eight seasons on NBC Television, was one of the most intensely and immediately popular shows ever broadcast in America. The show, which began in the fall of 1984, featured comedian Bill Cosby in the role of obstetrician-father Cliff Huxtable and his family: attorney-wife Claire, daughters Sondra (18), Denise (15), Vanessa (11), Rudy (5), and son Theo (13). According to the December 5, 1985 issue of USA Today, the program premiered at the number one spot on the Nielson ratings, reached that spot ten times during the first season, and was number one in every age group. An estimated 62 million people tuned in every Thursday night during the early years of the show's run. More significantly, The Cosby Show was the first American television show to feature the daily adventures of a prosperous, intact upper-middle class family of African descent.

The source of the show's popularity and significance in television history stemmed not from Bill Cosby's own intentional presentation of the ideology of African-American upward mobility and the restoration of traditional family values to popular culture, but in the sheer pleasure of the nearly plotless structure of the show. On The Cosby Show, the focus on the seemingly "insignificant" bits of business of everyday life became the show's main attraction. It was truly the first "show about nothing" that Seinfeld later claimed to be. The first several episodes were drawn almost without alteration from Cosby's early 1980s stand-up routines and it is primarily from his comic vision that the show emerged whole. The show created a safe, crisis-free world that viewers had a chance to enter for a half-hour every week. Regardless of their ethnicity, gender, or age, many viewers immediately recognized themselves in the show: the Huxtable characters enacted the strikingly real ordinary domestic activities of the viewing audience. In its mid-1980s heyday, Thursday night became "Cosby night," a time anticipated with relish.

Only one family comedy before The Cosby Show came close to this structural breakthrough. The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet (1951-1966) portrayed a "real" family who "played themselves," as it were. These shows were relaxed in the extreme and the Nelsons themselves seemed to exist in a state of grace; Ozzie, the "head of the household," never seemed to have an occupation and simply sauntered around the house all day. He lived the domestic life of a retired man with a servant (Harriet). There was, more importantly, some slight shift of focus to the everyday "doings" of life rather than on a very tight plotline. We see here only a glimmer of what The Cosby Show would bring to fruition and Seinfeld would later be so widely noted for.

One early episode of The Cosby Show, which concerned Cliff's looking after a slumber party of five-year-olds, disposed of some five to ten minutes of Cliff playing "bucking bronco" with the children: that is, bouncing some ten of them, one at a time, upon his knee. Someone connected with the show told T.V. Guide in 1985 that it was "one long Jello commercial." The episode was perhaps the most loosely scripted sitcom episode ever produced: the audience simply delighted in watching Bill Cosby make real children laugh. At this point, it was clear that the show's meandering tone was no mistake, no bug that needed to be worked out (as one might have originally suspected), but in fact, the very secret of show's success. Watching The Cosby Show, it appeared as though the cameras were simply stuck in a window, left on, and the finished product assembled at random. Viewers of the show luxuriated in a sort of celebration of banal, ordinary existence and thus participated in a validation of their own, often-overlooked daily life.

The most fascinating aspect of this is that the show's creators seemed utterly unaware of the reasons why people were glued to their show. Bill Cosby, for his part, told Larry King in 1989 that the show was successful because now the parents always get to "win." He reported his distress at programs such as Silver Spoons that depicted weak, incompetent parents led around by clever children. Cosby saw himself as the avenging parental Rambo of domestic comedy. The world the show created stands however, quite apart from (and indeed, opposed to) the ideological message Cosby sought to deliver.

What distinguished the Cosby show from virtually all others in the family comedy genre was the almost total absence of struggle or conflict. There is a sense that some measure of real suffering and discord occurred in the past, in previous generations, but not anymore. The grandparents' function in the show is to give some hint of this, as is the display of various icons scattered about the Huxtable home. A picture of Martin Luther King, Jr. reposed on the wall of eldest daughter Sondra's room and in another episode all of the trivial action stopped dead in its tracks when King's 1963 "I Have A Dream" speech appeared unexpectedly on the living room TV screen. It was as if the savior himself had appeared in an apparition. The message was clear: without that struggle, the Huxtables idyllic existence would not be. Now, of course, all struggle is ended. If ever there were an ideal representation of Reagan-era complacency, this was it.

"Significant" things seem to actually go on beyond the door of the Huxtable household, but almost never within its borders. The Huxtables experienced only the banal, uninterrupted hubbub of the everyday, only those aspects of life to which real people rarely give much thought and attention. Every Thursday night during the show's run we watched the children's endless squabbles, activities useful mainly in their ability to allay boredom (playing chess, shooting baskets), recreational cooking (Cliff's Special Secret Spaghetti Sauce), and the annoyances—but never the life-altering burdens of working parents caring for a young child. In a memorable vignette, Cliff asks five-year-old Rudy if she needs to use the bathroom before he puts her into her elaborate snowsuit and, of course once she's zipped into it, she exclaims, giggling, "I have to go to the bathroom!" An exasperated Cliff sent her to her mother.

Observers eventually tried explaining the unprecedented success of the show by suggesting that its success reflected "the love in the house." In fact, a record album released during the show's heyday of theme music connected with the program is called A House Full of Love. The reason for this is not the adequacy of the explanation, but Cliff's use of the language of "love" to diffuse any potential conflict. We love each other; therefore we cannot have a problem.

In the alternative universe of the Huxtables, it is clear, problems are only apparent: they can't really exist. In one episode, Claire knocks 14-year-old son Theo's notebook off the kitchen table. A marijuana joint falls out of the book. The parents look at each as if the sky has fallen. This cannot be happening in our house! Our house full of love! Theo is summoned to make some explanation of the event. He tells them it is not his and they believe him. (Huxtables, like George Washington, cannot tell lies.) This does not thoroughly satisfy Theo, who fears the loss of his parents' trust, so he drags the culprit who hid the joint in his book home with him to explain the situation to his parents. Cliff tells the boy from the errant outside world to see some adult about his problem—perhaps even the good doctor himself. It was not possible for Theo to have been the affected youth. Things like that did not happen to Huxtables.

In an episode from the 1885-86 season, one of the girls tells Cliff that a friend needs a medical appointment with him and that he not contact the girl's parents. Cliff sees her and although it turns out to be a simple problem of no moral consequence, he becomes troubled (a strange state for Cliff). He is worried that his own children will not come to him if they have a problem. He gathers the children around to tell them that they must talk to him if they're ever in trouble; the kids let slip that may have already happened. When the tension increases, they indicate that they were, of course, only kidding. The episode ends on this note with nary a suspicion that they may have been telling the truth. Cliff had no reason to worry in the first place.

What we saw on The Cosby Show is what happens in that part of a fairy tale after it ends. The Huxtables were an upwardly-mobile black American family living happily ever after. It was a life devoid of crisis and conflict, a fantasy of upward mobility with no costs: a real American dream. What viewers wanted from the show was a chance to sink into this vision of utopia, this perfect world in which to spend their half-hour. Viewers responded to a utopian vision rooted in real aspects of the lives they actually lived, not Cosby's own ideological utopia of restored traditional family values. Cosby said he wanted his show to serve as both a teaching tool and a means to counter the prevailing trend of "weak parents" in both television and popular culture in general; he made the perhaps incorrect assumption that this message was what viewers most appreciated.

Near the end of the show's run, Cosby's own overt ideological intentions came to overcome the structure of the show. Cliff's funny faces that repress all tension were now backed up by overtly intimidating displays of parental might and even instances of outright emotional cruelty directed toward even the youngest Huxtable. At that point, ratings began to dip and other shows with characteristics similar to the earlier episodes of The Cosby Show soon appeared.

There was a time when Cosby himself saw the response to his show perhaps clearer than most observers. "I hardly ever watch my work, but with this show it's different," he says. "I watch every week. And at the end of every segment, I find myself with a smile on my face, because I really like that family and the feeling they give me."

—Robin Markowitz

Further Reading:

Brooks, T. and Marsh, E. The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network TV Shows: 1946 to Present. New York, Ballentine Books, 1985.

Ginzberg, E. The Middle-Class Negro in the White Man's World. New York, Columbia University Press, 1967.

Kronus, S. The Black Middle Class. Columbus, Ohio, Charles E.Merrill Publishing Company, 1971.

Latham, Caroline. Bill Cosby: For Real. New York, Tom Doherty Associates, 1985.

Smith, R. Cosby. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1986.