The Cosby Show, Black-ish, and how 30 years has seemingly vanished

It deeply bothers me that we’ve basically erased all of the cultural gains made by The Cosby Show and a well-off suburban black family is suddenly a big mystery again.

cosby_oneWhy write a blog post when you can steal from others?

Every week, or usually more often, writer Ken Levine, whose television credits include MASH, and importantly for this context, CHEERS, answers question from his readers. From Charles H. Bryan:

“I was thinking today, a little, about THE COSBY SHOW of the 80s. I think if you mention the show to someone who was watching TV then, they’ll say they liked it and think well of it, but it won’t pop up on a list without the prompt. I think people more likely remember SEINFELD, or FRIENDS, or CHEERS as being part of NBC Thursday. I think more people would recall the Keatons than the Huxtables. Do you think THE COSBY SHOW gets the discussion that it should?”

THE COSBY SHOW was one of the most influential television programs in the history of the medium.
At the time it premiered in 1984 there was a lot of talk that sitcoms were an endangered species. That one show changed everything. The ratings were spectacular and no show in today’s landscape will ever have the impact THE COSBY SHOW had. CHEERS and FAMILY TIES only became smash hits because they followed THE COSBY SHOW.

Creatively, however, I don’t think THE COSBY SHOW aged well. And it’s not just because of those sweaters. In fairness, the first year was wonderful. Funny, fresh, and with attitudes that were real. And it had one of the best pilots ever. I show it to my USC Comedy class every semester.

But as the series progressed and Bill assumed more creative control the show became way more preachy. Scripts were routinely just thrown out by Bill so the poor writing staff was churning out material night and day. Not surprisingly, he would burn them out. And the end result reflected that. Some terrific writers were reduced to galley slaves. So you never got the advantage of seeing them at their best.

Today the show feels dated and somewhat overbearing. But again, give it its due. THE COSBY SHOW must go down as one of the greatest shows in the history of TV.

Jaquandor was “never a big fan of The Cosby Show, to be honest. I didn’t hate it, by any means; it just didn’t light my fire.” I wonder if he were watching those latter, preachier seasons.

Next up, SamuraiFrog, the Midwest blogger who has been helping me (thank goodness) with ABC Wednesday, is rather knowledgeable about the nuances of race vis a vis television. His review of the new ABC sitcom Black-ish is so on target:

I especially get annoyed at the AV Club’s criticism of black shows and movies…

…this morning I happened to catch the first paragraph of their review of the second episode of Black-ish, and I think the reviewer missed the point.

“The biggest concern after Black-ish’s very good and unique premiere was whether the show would maintain its dedication to intelligently remarking on cultural diversity while putting race at the foreground or would it instead fall into the trap of becoming nothing more than a simplistic family sitcom (albeit one that makes the stray reference to a prominent aspect of black culture)…”

I found that comment a bit disappointing, because I think it comes from this sort of thinking that it’s revolutionary in 2014 to have African-Americans on network TV. The sad thing is that that might be true. At the very least, it’s become disappointingly unusual. Network TV has backslid a long, long way since the days of Good Times or The Cosby Show or even The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. That show was a generation ago. When was the last time ABC actually had a black sitcom on the air?…

I saw some reviewers who were breathlessly surprised at how “normal” and “relatable” the show was, as though it was a revelation for some that a black guy knew his own father and didn’t speak exclusively through gangsta slang. And it’s depressing to realize that those attitudes are what this show is up against.

The AV Club reviewer seems disappointed that every episode isn’t going to be The White Person’s Guide to Modern African-American Culture. But that dehumanizes the characters and turns them simply into avatars of modern blackness and sets “black” as their defining characteristic. That’s not the point. The show can and should deal with race, but not exclusively. There is and should be more going on on this show than the Black Problem of the Week. It’s also about a family. About people. About people who have more going on in their lives than contextualizing blackness for a white audience.

It deeply bothers me that we’ve basically erased all of the cultural gains made by The Cosby Show and a well-off suburban black family is suddenly a big mystery again, and too many white critics can’t relate to it if Dre isn’t trying to get the family to out-black themselves every week. (By and large, the black critics I’ve seen are relieved that the show seems to be going in the direction it’s going in, rather than shouldering the burden of symbolically translating Unsolved Black Mysteries every week.) I think there’s a real social concern in every black form of entertainment being a litmus test on whether white people are “ready” to relate to black people. Apparently we’re never ready!

I appreciated what SamuraiFrog wrote, though I found it quite depressing that we’re having “the conversation” about race and television in 2014 that I thought was largely resolved three decades ago.

While I’m at it, here are two other Cosby Show-related links from Mr. Frog:

*The last 11 minutes of an episode of The Cosby Show, “Cliff’s Nightmare.” “In the episode, Cliff eats a sausage sandwich late at night and, trying to sleep with an upset stomach, finds himself in a Muppet-filled nightmare hospital.”

* His obit for Geoffrey Holder 1930-2014 notes, among other things, that Holder, best known to most Americans as the 7Up pitchman, choreographed the season 5 opening of The Cosby Show, which was SF’s favorite title sequence.

Season 5 is my second favorite opening after the season 4 Bobby McFerrin/wedding iteration, but the one Malcolm Jamal Warner least like doing. Check out Celebrating 30 Years of ‘The Cosby Show’ by Debating Four Key ‘Cosby’ Questions. Better yet, check out all of the Cosby Show intros.

C is for Cosby

Bill Cosby saved the American situation comedy.

Bill Cosby is an iconic individual in my life. It started out with three albums that I listened to so often that I could cite dialogue as well as I could Beatles lyrics, which is to say, quite well.

The problem with describing comedy, though, is it involves context, character development and timing. As the cover of I Started Out as a Child (November 1964) notes, “Cut left at the black Chevy” (from Street Football) is not inherently funny, except as described by the Cos. The album also featured Oops!, a brief bit about the fallacy of the perfection about doctors; and The Lone Ranger, about the masked man and Tonto getting drunk, with the Ranger’s horse Silver telling him, “Get off my back!” But the album also deals with serious topics. Medic is about him being one; “zonked means dead”. And Rigor Mortis, about American funerals, along with my preternatural reading of The American Way of Death by Jessica Mitford, helped formulate my preference for cremation over the casket at an early age.

On Why Is There Air? (January 1965), in Driving in San Francisco, he discusses Lombard Street so accurately that it shows up in the Wikipedia description:
“They built a street up there called Lombard Street that goes straight down, and they’re not satisfied with you killing yourself that way—they put grooves and curves and everything in it, and they put flowers there where they’ve buried the people that have killed themselves. Lombard Street, wonderful street.” (audience reacts with knowing cheers and applause). So the one time I went to San Francisco, in 1988, you KNOW I had to go there.

That album, in $75 Car, has one of the few actual jokes. After Bill has hit a tree, he realizes he has a bunch of tickets in the glove compartment, “Which are like Savings Bonds; the longer you keep them, the greater they mature.”

But arguably the best, and in any case, my favorite album, is Wonderfulness (May 1966), with Tonsils (lies about “all the ice cream in the world”), The Playground (conspiracy by the adults to knock off all the kids), Go Karts (900 cop cars!), and the radio drama The Chicken Heart. This album is so good that when we were driving down to Charlotte, NC in April 2010 and I saw this on CD at a convenience store in Virginia for $5.99, I had to buy it and give it to my 19-year-old niece.

Other albums had great bits. 8:15 12:15 (1969) has a routine about not using the Lord’s name in vain; “I have a friend Rudy; he ain’t doin’ nothin’. Call on him,” which is why I say “Rudy dammit”. To the degree I am funny at all, it is with the situational humor, rather than jokes, a la Cosby.

At the same time as those early albums came out, indeed because of those albums, producer Sheldon Leonard teamed Cosby with Robert Culp in a show called I Spy (1965-1968). Not only was it the predecessor of the “buddy” cop shows and movies, I Spy was the first television show to feature a Black actor in a lead role. Bill Cosby won three consecutive Emmy Awards for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series in 1966, 1967 and 1968. Robert Culp was also nominated in the same category for all three seasons of I Spy. One can find old episodes of I Spy on Hulu, at least in the United States.

I watched Cos on The Bill Cosby Show, about a school teacher, then the kids’ show, Electric Company – an example here – even though I was in college.

Bill Cosby did films, worked on a cartoon series, and did Jell-O commercials – which he’ll be doing again in 2010. Cosby earned a Doctor of Education degree from the University of Massachusetts. “For his doctoral research, he wrote a dissertation entitled, “An Integration of the Visual Media Via ‘Fat Albert And The Cosby Kids’ Into the Elementary School Curriculum as a Teaching Aid and Vehicle to Achieve Increased Learning”.

Then he saved the American situation comedy with The Cosby Show. Don’t believe me? Check out Ken Levine, writer for the TV shows MAS*H and Cheers, among many others. The 1984-1992 show revived a moribund format in the U.S.

The program portrayed black American life as normal if, by “normal”, you mean having a doctor and a lawyer as the parents. It regularly displayed African-American art, music (especially jazz, a Cosby love), and culture as a normal part of everyday life. Here’s a piece of Night Time Is The Right Time.

I always loved the changing theme songs myself:

Season 1
Season 2
Season 3
Season 4
Season 5
Seasons 6 and 7
Season 8

He’s best known recently for his controversial call for black Americans to take more individual responsibility, for which some have castigated him for blaming the poor. His book Come On People: On the Path from Victims to Victors is a New York Times bestseller.

ABC Wednesday – Round 7

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