In the 1980s, “The Cosby Show” saved NBC, revived the sitcom and altered white America’s perception of the black family.
Yet, despite its huge popularity — it was the No. 1-ranked show for five straight seasons — there were still naysayers, particularly those who thought the show wasn’t edgy or realistic.
“Someone said, ‘How come one of your kids (from the show) is not dating a white kid?’ ” remembers the show’s patriarch, Bill Cosby. “And I said, ‘Because the one on ‘Family Ties’ hasn’t touched a black person yet.’ ”
While some critics were skeptical, the show was a ratings coup. And for Cosby, who performs two shows at Cal Poly on Sunday, it was a teaching tool, where even little things — like the posters in fictional son Theo’s room—were calculated.
“We had a therapist looking at our scripts—Dr. Alvin F. Poussaint of Harvard University,” Cosby said. “What I was trying to do was give parents alternatives to things that kids were doing in the home so they wouldn’t smash the kids’ heads through the wall. And these people were so busy talking about ‘this is not a real situation, this is not a real family, where are the racists?’
I mean, these are white people who want white racists.”
In a culture that had previously portrayed African-Americans as ghetto dwellers on “Good Times,” former ghetto dwellers in “The Jeffersons” and criminals in most cop dramas, even some black audiences had trouble accepting the Huxtables, who worked white-collar jobs and lived in an upscale neighborhood.
“Of course, we had black people who said, ‘I don’t know any black people like that,’ ” Cosby said.
But “The Cosby Show,” he added, aimed to let them know it could happen. And for Cosby, education has always represented the path to better things.
Education has long influenced his storied entertainment career, whether it be his stint on “The Electric Company,” his animated show “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids,” his stand-up routines or his best-selling books, such as “Fatherhood.”
Though he is an entertainment powerhouse — in the 1990s he was the highest paid entertainer in America, worth an estimated $300 million — Cosby didn’t give off celebrity attitude during
his hourlong Tribune phone interview. (He typically blocks off 45 minutes for reporters; most celebrities allot 15 or 20 minutes.)
Cosby speaks so casually it’s as if he’s known the reporter for years — even though that’s not the case. Yet, for most of us who grew up watching the 73-year-old, that voice —with its well-timed pauses and oft-imitated inflections — is comfortably familiar. So even if TV viewers didn’t know an African-American like Cliff Huxtable, the engaging Cosby made it an easy sell.
Which, of course, worked well for Cosby’s plan to remold the sitcom family.
“I was tired of what I saw on television,” he said of TV before “The Cosby Show.” “The children had more sense than the parents. The parents were the stupid people who had no idea what raising a kid was about.”
A fan of Jack Benny, Cosby’s comedy career began while tending bar in Philadelphia. After making customers laugh, he ventured to the stage, where he made greater numbers laugh. Soon he delved into acting, with a role on “I Spy,” and in the early 1970s, the former U.S. Navy hospital corpsman and Temple University athlete had launched “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids.”
The characters from “Fat Albert” were based on Cosby and his childhood friends. And, no, Cosby said, the inspiration for Fat Albert was not offended.
“All of these guys, every last one of them, had something that stood out as ‘a thing to laugh at’ when you look at all of them,” Cosby said. “So I put them all together to make this group of guys called The Gang. And with that they solved problems, they learned amongst themselves how to get along and give to the community. So the fellow who Fat Albert was named after wanted to be Fat Albert. He was very proud of it. As a matter of fact, I had about four or five guys who were telling their friends that he was Fat Albert.”
While “Fat Albert” was a successful cartoon, Cosby was a successful comic whose comedy albums garnered numerous Grammy awards. His routines about dentists, raising children and watching people under the influence struck a chord with audiences that could easily relate. So memorable were his routines, people would often quote Cosby when funny situations arose.
“Dick Gregory said to me, ‘Try to make your name a household word,’ ” Cosby said. “And I began to write pieces where people would be forced, when they’d see something, to think, ‘You know, Bill Cosby said ....’ ”
Already successful, Cosby played a gig at the University of Massachusetts in the ’70s when a professor from the school asked to see him.
“I’m in my dressing room after the show, and we sat and talked about education,” Cosby said. “And he said the dean of the school of education wanted me to take my monologues and think about the fact that what I was doing was, in fact, very educational and that he wanted me to pursue a master’s degree and a doctorate.”
Cosby was convinced, eventually writing a thesis about “Fat Albert” as a teaching aide.
After “The Cosby Show” run ended in 1992, more shows followed, including “Cosby,” a revived “You Bet Your Life” and “Kids Say the Darndest Things.” None achieved the huge success of “The Cosby Show.” Yet, even after his shows ran their course, Cosby remained a popular comic, welcomed on late-night TV and at college commencements.
The comedic figure suddenly became a tragic one in 1997, when his son Ennis — the inspiration for TV’s Theo — was murdered while changing a tire alongside a California freeway. Even as police searched for the killer — an 18-year-old Russian-born teen would be arrested two months later—Cosby knew he had to get back to work when he saw a carload of people sadden as they recognized him.
“They started to light up,” Cosby said. “And then they remembered that my son had been murdered, and their faces just totally dropped.”
More accustomed to inducing laughter than sadness, he called his agent to book some gigs.
More trouble would occur in 1997 when a woman claiming to be Cosby’s love child tried to extort money from him. While Cosby admitted to having an affair with the woman’s mother, he denied fathering the woman, who was eventually convicted.
The affair is proof that families aren’t perfect, which is more reflective of “Roseanne” than “Cosby Show.” But the success of “The Cosby Show” — like the success of “The Brady Bunch” before it — suggests that American viewers like picture-perfect families. And once Cosby had enough clout, he was free to raise his fictional family the way he wanted.
“I went for eight years without anybody ever walking to my dressing room door, saying, ‘Look, your ratings are slipping — why don’t we try this?’ ” Cosby said. “They never bothered me.”