On Thursday, Sept. 20, 1984, during the premiere of The Cosby Show, Cliff Huxtable walked into his son’s room and restored order to the sitcom. Bill Cosby played Cliff, a successful doctor and father of five, and the reason for the visit was Theo’s report card, which included four D’s. Theo, 14, said grades weren’t important, because he wasn’t going to college. He planned to graduate high school, then get a job like “regular people.”
THEO: You’re a doctor and mom’s a lawyer, and you’re both successful and everything, and that’s great. But maybe I was born to be a regular person and have a regular life. If you weren’t a doctor, I wouldn’t love you less, because you’re my dad. And so, instead of acting disappointed, because I’m not like you, maybe you can just accept who I am and love me anyway, because I’m your son.
The audience applauded, because they had been conditioned by cute sitcom kids who were smarter than their parents on series like Diff’rent Strokes and Silver Spoons. The average sitcom would have stopped there. The Cosby Show didn’t.
CLIFF: Theo, that’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard in my life. It’s no wonder you get D’s in everything. Now you are afraid to try, because you’re afraid that your brain is going to explode, and it’s going to ooze out of your ear. Now I’m telling you that you are going to try as hard as you can, and you’re going to do it, because I said so. I am your father. I brought you in this world, and I’ll take you out.
Cosby’s speech was a thunderbolt. The audience cheered even louder. Cosby had wrested control of the sitcom away from the kids and handed it back to the parents.
The Cosby Show was low concept: Cliff and his wife, Clair, raise their five children — Sondra (in college), Denise, Theo, Vanessa and Rudy — in their Brooklyn brownstone. It was about small problems — Rudy’s goldfish dies, Vanessa has nightmares, Cliff meets Denise’s new boyfriend. The series was based on Cosby’s stand-up comedy on The Tonight Show and in the concert film Bill Cosby: Himself . Cosby, who had a doctor of education degree, used the show to present his ideas about parenting. His “created by” credit read “Dr. William H. Cosby Jr., Ed.D.”
Cosby won the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series in its first season, and the first episode won for comedy writing. The series was No. 3 in the ratings that season and No. 1 for the next five seasons. It anchored what NBC promoted as “the best night of television on television” on Thursday nights — Cosby, Family Ties, Cheers, Night Court and Hill Street Blues — and changed the fortunes of the network. Miami Vice premiered the same season, The Golden Girls the following season, then L.A. Law, then the Cosby spin-off A Different World.
The series also revived the sitcom. The season before Cosby, only seven comedies were among the top 25 shows. The season after, that number was 13. Some of them, like Growing Pains and Who’s the Boss?, featured parents who were smarter than their children.
Bill Cosby created a new model for the sitcom, one in which a stand-up comedian’s material was the idea for a new show. Roseanne, Tim Allen’s Home Improvement and Seinfeld were three of the highest-rated shows of the next decade. Ellen DeGeneres, Brett Butler, Drew Carey and Ray Ramano all scored hits, all essentially playing themselves. On Ellen, when the fictional Ellen said “I’m gay,” she was speaking for the real Ellen, too.
Cosby was America’s father. He was adamant about stressing what he called “the universality of experience.” Phylicia Rashad, who played Clair, said: “People all over the world have children. ... People all over the world want to support their children in growth and development. People all over the world are falling in love every day.”
The Cosby Show was colorblind, but the Huxtables were black — the first black family on television since the Evans on Good Times [1974-79], which was set in a Chicago housing project. On a recent Letterman appearance, Jimmie Walker, who played J.J. on Good Times, laughed at those who said both shows were unrealistic. On Good Times: “Black people don’t dance. We don’t play basketball. We don’t talk like that.” When Cosby premiered: “No, this is not real. There are no black doctors. There are no black lawyers. This is impossible.”
Which was, of course, bullshit. There were black doctors, and there were black lawyers. Near the end of Cosby’s run, Barack Obama became the first black president of the Harvard Law Review.
The Cosby Show was a celebration of black culture. The Huxtables lip-synched to Ray Charles and James Brown. Among the show’s guest stars were Lena Horne, Stevie Wonder, Dizzy Gillespie, Howard “Sandman” Sims, B.B. King and Sammy Davis Jr., most of them playing themselves or versions of themselves. Questlove said Wonder’s appearance helped influence the sampling culture of hip hop. Denise attended Hillman, a fictional historically black college. The house featured art of Martin Luther King Jr. and Frederick Douglas and an anti-apartheid poster. Nelson Mandela, who served 27 years in a South African prison, watched Cosby with his white guard. “It softened him,” Mandela later told Rashad.
By the sixth season, it was became hip to dismiss The Cosby Show. Sut Jhally and Justin M. Lewis wrote the book Enlightened Racism: The Cosby Show, Audiences and the Myth of the American Dream. Cosby added Raven-Symone, another cute kid, and later teenager Erika Alexander to the show — often a sure sign of jumping the shark. The working title of Married … with Children was “Not the Cosbys.” The working-class Roseanne replaced Cosby as the No. 1 show. The Simpsons competed against Cosby on Thursday nights, and the writers’ room mantra on Seinfeld was “no hugging, no learning.” The black shows of record were In Living Color and The Arsenio Hall Show.
The series finale of Cosby aired on April 30, 1992 — the second evening of the L.A. riots. KNBC, NBC’s Los Angeles affiliate, interrupted their coverage of the riots to broadcast the one-hour episode. “Today, Mayor [Tom] Bradley urged everyone in Los Angeles to remain home, to stay off the streets. He also suggested they might want to watch The Cosby Show,” the anchor said. “He believes, and we believe we need this time [as] a cooling-off period … to remember what our Thursday nights were like before all this madness began.” Eight years after his plea to be a “regular person” and two years after he was diagnosed with dyslexia, Theo graduated from New York University. After the episode, Cosby made a taped statement: “Let us all pray that everyone from the top of the government down to the people in the streets … would all have good sense. And let us pray for a better tomorrow, which starts today.” Cosby was earnest, but his show seemed out of touch, a relic from the 1980s.
In the days after President Obama was elected in 2008, Tim Arango of The New York Times wrote: “The Cosby Show, which … depicted the Huxtables, an upwardly mobile black family — a departure from the dysfunction and bickering that had characterized some previous shows about black families — had succeeded in changing racial attitudes enough to make an Obama candidacy possible.”
Republican strategist Karl Rove: “We’ve had an African-American first family for many years in different forms. When The Cosby Show was on, that was America’s family. It wasn’t a black family. It was America’s family.”
The following year, The Daily Show correspondent Wyatt Cenac said Obama is Cliff Huxtable, because “they’re both married to hot lawyers, both work out of offices on the west side of their houses and both have unrealistically cute daughters.”
Two years ago, Saturday Night Live produced a sketch called “The Obama Show,” an Obama-Huxtable mash-up that placed Barack and Michelle Obama in the Huxtable’s Brooklyn brownstone, with Joe Biden as Theo. It played more like homage than parody, a tribute to two successful American families.