(Above: [L-R] Bill Cosby and Phylicia Rashad)
Long-awaited DVD release of hit sitcom is reason enough to Jitterbug
The curators of hip may not take notice of the DVD release of one of the most popular shows of the 1980s, but it’s their loss. Long before Seinfeld and ER made Thursday a must-see night, Cliff Huxtable, Sam Malone and Alex P. Keaton breathed life back into the sitcom format and NBC’s ratings. Cosby was the last to join the cabal, but it shot instantly to the top of the ratings and lent its coattails to the reshuffled Cheers.
The Cosby Show is an important TV milestone for its portrayal of an intelligent, middle-class African-American family. The cartoonish stereotypes subsequently on display in the early years of The WB and UPN—far even from the campy fun of ’70s blacksploitation cinema—illustrate how groundbreaking this feat was in 1984. And the show accomplished this in a rather matter-of-fact way. Bill Cosby once responded to a question about his lack of Caucasian characters by asking why no one quizzed Bob Newhart about the lack of black characters in his Vermont Inn. His point wasn’t to criticize Newhart but to highlight a level of race-consciousness applied to the show that it didn’t court, any more than Newhart did. Sure, as the show progressed, it did occasionally dip into didactic waters and discourse on the rich heritage of Black America. Sometimes it worked (especially in its reminders of the enormous debt American jazz, and the many genres it influenced, owes to groundbreaking African-American musicians); at others, it was forced. But for the most part, the Huxtables were simply an American family people of all races could embrace.
None of this would matter if the show wasn’t funny; fortunately, it was. Cosby started with his standup material (the pilot rips scenes word-for-word from Bill Cosby: Himself), a solid foundation for a family-friendly mass-market vehicle. Season One features such memorable scenes as Cliff’s Monopoly- money life-lesson to Theo, the funeral for Rudy’s fish, Denise’s disastrous attempt to create a Gordon Gartrell knockoff shirt for her brother, and the living room dance-off in “Jitterbug Break.”
Criticize The Cosby Show for its wholesomeness if you must, but the show doesn’t preach its goodness at you. It simply acts it out as an illustration that coloring within the lines, done well, can be fun, too.