Sunday, October 19, 2014

Sunday Best: Sitcoms of All Time #7 - The Cosby Show


The Cosby Show sometimes takes hits with TV critics for being too milquetoast, too normal.  But that is exactly the show's strength.  It is a show based on universal experiences of family that are told through the lens of the greatest stand up comic of all time.

Bill Cosby and Phylicia Rashad gave us in Cliff and Clair Huxtable role models of successful parents.  And by "successful" I don't just mean financially.  They were successful parents in that their children had strong values and character, even at their worst.

But it would be a mistake to lump in this show with the overly sappy and bland family comedies of the 1950's.  The Huxtables were a non-dysfunctional family, a rarity in TV today.  And yet there is part of its genius: making the seemingly normal hysterical.

To be sure, there was a lot of hyper-reality stretching, such as the day they all played make-believe that Theo was living in the "Real World Apartments" or where the family got to meet Stevie Wonder.  But beyond that, The Cosby Show drew its humor from they every day insanity of family life in a way that few other family sitcoms had.

A note should be made about "The Cosby Kids."  The show was famous for featuring an incredibly young cast of children that was ever expanding with husbands, nieces and cousins.  It should be noted how talented these young performers were and how they grew in their comedic instincts.  Even when they weren't the most ranged actors, they could still elicit great laughs from simple line delivery.  One double-take from Elvin or a confident smile by Theo could set off major laughs.

Some people might mis-remember Cliff Huxtable as being a fun, indulgent dad.  But re-watch the show and you will see a tough father, one not afraid to yell and make waves.  The children are constantly hitting the parents with the insanity that only children can bring and Cliff and Clair react with amazing deadpan exacerbation.

I should also note something about race, in that it was mostly a non-issue for the show.  That isn't to say that The Cosby Show shied away from its African-American heritage.  Not at all.  Instead, it embraced the heritage and history of the Huxtables in a way that made the audience appreciate their own heritage as well.  The Huxtables were America's family for 8 years.

But above all, the show was funny.  Even after being off the air for over 20 years, every episode still holds up as if it were filmed this year.

And there are too many great moments to count, like: the horsey ride, Cliff's vacation, the Gordon Gartrell shirt, Mrs. Westlake over for dinner, Vanessa introducing Dabnis, the Pinocle game, Kentabo, the wilderness store, Sandra and Elvin's apartment, Cliff and Olivia and the cake, the romance contest, Sondra's engagement prank, "We heard there was going to be a rainstorm so we thought we'd watch," and so on.

Pilot (1x01)

Everything you needed to know about The Cosby Show and its greatness was in that first episode.  You immediately understood Cliff's relationship to his wife and each of his children while understanding his success and his frustrations.  And of course, what sets it all apart was the two scenes with Theo:

The first has one of the funniest bits in the entire series where Cliff lays out to his son how limited his options will be if he does not get an education.

But its that second scene that sets it all apart.  Theo gives a heartfelt speech about he should be loved and accepted not because of what he does but because he is Cliff's son.   Listen to how the audience applauds with approval to that monologue.  To which Cliff responds: Theo… That's the Dumbest Thing I've Ever Heard In My Life."  And it was at that moment that we understood that Cliff was not an idiot.  This was not going to be one of the shows where the children are wiser than the parents.  This was a show that reminded us that in a parent-child relationship, the parent needed to be the adult, and sometimes the bad guy.  And all the while it was clear that it was done out of complete and utter love.

Period of Adjustment (7x04)

The Cosby Show took flack for adding a younger child in Raven Symone to bring back the funny bits that Cliff used to have with Rudy.  But little Olivia was a welcome addition to the cast and served the dynamic well.  But in the 7th season they added cousin Pam (Erika Alexander), who had a harder edge than the other Cosby kids.  This was an attempt to bring a little more sharpness to the series just when shows with more aggressive humor like The Simpsons started to become popular.

However, Pam never really clicked.  It felt a little like pandering and it began to feel like the show was running out of ideas.

Denise: The Saga Continues (6x01)

There are so many fantastic episodes of The Cosby Show.  But the one that drives home the humor at the heart of the show is this episode.

Cliff and Clair paid for their second oldest, Denise, to take a trip to Africa to "find herself" expecting her to return home and continue on with college studies.  Instead, she turns up married to a divorcee with a 3-year-old daughter.

I would encourage anyone to watch the show again.  One of the great things is how Cosby himself recedes into the background and let the other actors do most of the dynamic work.  And yet the biggest laughs come from he and Rashad reacting to the insanity around them with patience pushed to the limit.

You can see the joy and hope deflating out of them like a leaking balloon especially with the realization that this is going to mean that they will have to continue to support their daughter and her new step daughter.

Everything about this episode is funny!


I don't think I will ever see a show like this again.  Too often, sitcoms feel like they need some sort of twist or edge to make sitcom families look like a modern family.

But there really is no trick to it.  Bill Cosby understood that if you made a show that was universal in theme and outstanding in its comedy, then people will come to love and respect it for years and years.

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