Movies + TV

Literally the Best Thing Ever: The Cosby Show

I even liked Sondra, the boring one.

Collage by Minna

Collage by Minna

During my college years and for a few years after, I was a regular at a place in Washington, DC, called Ben’s Chili Bowl. While my main motivations for dropping by the restaurant—usually in the wee hours of the morning, after a night out—were greeting the staff while I ordered my usual (one chili-cheese half-smoke and a side of chili-cheese fries) and playing Marvin Gaye on the jukebox while I devoured it, I have to confess to a third, ulterior, motive: I always hoped I’d run into one of my heroes, who was such a frequent diner at Ben’s that there was a sign next to the cash register announcing that all customers had to pay for their food, except one: Bill Cosby. (In 2008 a new sign was erected: “Who eats free at Bens: — Bill Cosby — The Obama Family.”) Cosby loved the restaurant so much that he chose it as the site of a press conference he held in 1985 to announce and celebrate a career milestone: his sitcom, The Cosby Show, then in its second season, had reached #1 in the ratings.

I was five years old that year, and I remember my parents’ excitement over The Cosby Show. They loved it primarily because it was funny, but also because it was the first show on TV that centered on a happy, healthy, intact, upper-middle-class, bourgeois black family—a family like ours. Before The Cosby Show, there were other shows—many of them truly great—about African-American families: sitcoms like Sanford and Son, Good Times, and What’s Happening!! were all enormously popular in the 1970s, as was The Jeffersons, which ran from 1975 to 1985. But those first three shows centered on single-parent families living in poverty; and the last one was about a poor couple who became rich, and much of its humor came from watching them try to adjust to their new, largely white milieu. The dominant narrative of black family life on TV was one of struggle. And for good reason: the dominant narrative of black family life in America was, and is, disproportionately one of struggle. But The Cosby Show was the first thing on TV that reflected my life, and that meant the world to me.

If you’ve never seen the show, I recommend you change that ASAP—it’s on Hulu Plus and DVD. It focuses on the Huxtables, a family of seven living in a two-story brownstone in Brooklyn Heights. The parents, Cliff (played by Cosby) and Clair, are a doctor and a lawyer, respectively; their five kids provide the usual challenges but are basically smart, loving, and successful. Every Thursday night from September 1984 to April 1992, my parents and I (and up to 30 million other Americans) followed their trials and triumphs—some big, most small, almost all hilarious.

The Huxtables—they seemed so much like so many of our friends and relatives that as a kid I often imagined I was part of their clan. I would picture myself at the dinner table laughing along with my two favorite Huxtables, free-spirited Denise and Rudy, the youngest kid, who was exactly my age on screen and in life. (I went to a mostly-white school, and I remember classmates’ parents and random old white people I’d meet in airports would sometimes come up to me and say things like: “You are so articulate and cute, you remind me of that little girl on The Cosby Show!” This bothered me for a couple of reasons: first, I bore no resemblance Keshia Knight Pulliam, the girl who played Rudy, beyond the color of our skin; and second, these people seemed to find the idea of an intelligent black kid so exceptional that they couldn’t help grouping together the only two examples they could think of.)

I envied Rudy, though, because while I was an only child, she got to hang out with Denise and Theo, the older siblings of my dreams. I longed to borrow Denise’s cool clothes (without getting busted like Vanessa), sleep over in their dorm rooms, and crash the fun yet relatively wholesome parties they threw at the family home with Cliff and Clair were away.

I even liked Sondra, the eldest and most boring Huxtable, who most people forget about because she was just that boring.

But Vanessa, the fourth child, was the character I simultaneously liked the least and related to the most. My mom and dad, like Clair and Cliff, were super strict about grades, homework, and manners; and, like Vanessa, I felt a powerful obligation to honor how hard my parents and grandparents and people whose names I’ll never know fought for my access to a good education. This pressure resulted in an often painful level of perfectionism in both of us. I felt Vanessa’s pain when she got a D on her history test and understood the fear and shame she felt about performing poorly in school.

Another awesome thing about The Cosby Show was the music. I eagerly awaited the opening of each season premiere, so I could hear the latest interpretation of the intro song, which went through Afro-Carribean, jazz and hip-hop versions. And the musical performances were the best! Here’s one from my favorite episode, where the Huxtable family performs a rendition of Ray Charles’s “Night Time Is the Right Time,” my favorite episode.

Easily as thrilling as these musical selections was tuning in to see which of his staggering collection of quirky and colorful sweaters Cliff would wear that week. Just a sampling:

cossweatercollage

The Cosby Show paved the way for A Different World, Family Matters, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and Living Single, among others—sitcoms about strong, functional, thriving African-American communities and relationships that became part of a wave of black entertainment that hit network television in the late ’80s and early ’90s. (That wave also included a In Living Color, the first primarily black sketch comedy show on network TV.) Every year there were more African-American stories on TV, reflecting a wider swath of black experiences. And these were shows everyone was watching. Cosby was the #1 show in the country for five years straight. It felt like the momentum of progress; it felt inevitable that by now TV would be filled with all kinds of shows about all kinds of families and relationships among people of all races and classes and backgrounds, and we’d all be watching them. I looked forward to this day eagerly.

Sadly, it never came. Today television viewing is as segregated as it’s ever been. The last TV show with a predominantly black cast to crack the top 10 in the Nielsen ratings was A Different World, the Cosby spin-off that went off the air 20 years ago. This list of the most popular programs in 2013 will show you how far backwards we’ve slid since then. This is partly because the massive success of overwhelmingly white shows like Seinfeld and Friends made network executives less likely to green-light black shows, which migrated to Fox, the WB, UPN, and TBS, fledgling cable networks that were positioning themselves as niche programmers specializing in black entertainment for black audiences. It supposedly came down, as so many of these things do, to money: the networks were fighting for the eyeballs of rich teenagers—not a population known for its careful spending habits—and the biggest chunk of rich kids they could see were white. Never mind that white people loved those black shows—the people in charge of television have could never be accused of overestimating the public. Which explains not only the dearth of varied, mainstream depictions of African-American life on American TV, but also the fact the last time we saw teenagers’ lives depicted in anything close to a realistic way was on Freaks and Geeks and My So-Called Life, which were also, coincidentally, canceled in the ’90s.

I’m heartened by and thankful for the success of the web series Awkward Black Girl—I hope this is just the beginning of a long, wildly successful career for Issa Rae, and that her success goes on to spawn another wave of black entertainment so powerful that it undoes the damage of the past two decades. Meanwhile, I miss those years when we were all sharing our stories with one another, and all happy to take each other’s stories in. I miss being able to turn on the TV and see a reflection of my own life that was so familiar I thought of the characters as family. These shows made me feel more seen and understood, and less alone in the world, and that’s important. ♦

26 Comments

  • rhymeswithcat April 2nd, 2013 8:36 PM

    I wrote an article very similar to this one several months ago and was told that it wasn’t quite right for Rookie. I was totally okay and understanding of that but it’s just puzzling to see an article so insanely similar and on the exact same subject matter (The Cosby Show/African American Television) get published shortly after.

    My article was just slightly longer (with more links to famous moments) and a small section where I discuss a missed connection with my hero, Bill Cosby. But other than that, they convey the same message.

    The Cosby Show is something I feel very serious about and I’m happy that someone gets to articulate positive feelings about it for other Rookies to see but I just don’t understand why my piece wasn’t right and this one is. I had mine workshopped by friends familiar with Rookie and my professor. So I don’t know what about it was the part that wasn’t right. I had just assumed that Rookie didn’t have room for a piece about The Cosby Show. This one is really great but it just felt like a punch in the face after mine getting rejected.

    Who knows? Maybe I’m just being obnoxious. But it really did bother me so I thought I’d address it. It never ever makes me upset to get my writing rejected because I know there’s always a good reason why and I’m very understanding of that. This is just one situation I couldn’t let go.

    I hope you Rookies understand I’m not trying to be mean or bitter. I’m just genuinely curious. I still have the utmost respect for Rookie.

    Signed,

    A Rookie Fan

    • Anaheed April 2nd, 2013 9:04 PM

      I don’t remember your submission, so I can’t say why we didn’t choose to publish it. But I can tell you that Jamia pitched this LTBTE independently—this is a subject that a lot of people have already written about, after all.

    • Betti E April 2nd, 2013 10:41 PM

      I think I understand what you’re talking about. I once pitched an idea about a subject I wanted to write about for one of the issues, I never got a response, and a few weeks later in the same issue one of the staff writers for Rookie wrote an article about that same exact subject.

      I enjoy the website and the article, but I’m starting to think that little attention is being given to unknown writers for the sake of putting more prominent, well-known people in the spotlight. I little disheartening.

      • Anaheed April 2nd, 2013 10:54 PM

        If you didn’t get a response, that means your submission hasn’t been read yet.

        • Betti E April 2nd, 2013 10:58 PM

          It was sent in last year.

          • Anaheed April 2nd, 2013 11:45 PM

            Yup. There are still some from last spring that I haven’t gotten to. I just looked yours up and I see four unread emails. I’ll get to them asap; thanks for the nudge!

      • christinachristina April 4th, 2013 4:22 PM

        Yeah, I sent in two submissions and haven’t heard anything back. Granted, one was last month, but the first one was like right after Rookie started.

        • Anaheed April 4th, 2013 5:12 PM

          Maybe a FAQ is in order about how our submissions work. These comments are making me realize that we haven’t been clear enough about that. To clear up some apparent confusion right away, though: we get many, many submissions every day. I am the only person at the moment reading them, because we are woefully understaffed. I don’t get to all of them; it is physically impossible. When I have read your submission, I will send you an email telling you whether it has been accepted or rejected. If you haven’t gotten a response (besides the automatic one that you should get when you send your email, telling you we will contact you if we want to use your piece), that means I have not seen your email yet. We do not forage in the submissions inbox for ideas to assign to our staff writers. All of the content on Rookie is planned at least a month in advance, and 99% of it is pitched by the writers themselves, not assigned to them by the editors. I don’t love this state of affairs–the submissions box is a constant source of guilt in my life! But I promise you we’re not doing anything dastardly. We’re overwhelmed and often incapable and/or inept, but we’re not evil.

    • Anaheed April 3rd, 2013 10:13 AM

      (And you’re not being obnoxious at all. If you want to email me about this please do.)

  • EmilyJn April 2nd, 2013 8:46 PM

    So good to read about something I love on Rookie, (Jamia I think your articles are always my faves). That last paragraph broke my heart slightly, it’s so true though – and here in Europe I feel we have even fewer TV programs featuring realistic/ non-stereotyped depictions of non-white families, and of teenage life as well.
    Plus American shows like The Cosby Show and MSCL just never made it over here, 90% of people will never have heard of them.

    • Annie at Cher Ami April 4th, 2013 1:39 PM

      I completely agree with Emily, I had never heard of The Cosby Show before today when i read this article (I live in Britain) and I think its awful, there arent enough of these programs anyone, in britain atleast. So thanks for the amazing article Jamia! annie :’)

      http://www.cheramiblogger.blogspot.co.uk

      • Runaway April 8th, 2013 1:30 PM

        That’ so weird! I’m from Spain and I used to watch dubbed re runs of The Cosby Show as a little girl.

        I’ve read that Modern Family is helping people to accept same sex marriages in the USA…and I find that really weird, too. The same thing happened in Spain, but 15-10 years ago! (Same sex marriage was legalized over here in 2005).

        Anyway, the characters are usually quite stereotypical. We do need more diversity on TV, too!

  • Promesa April 2nd, 2013 11:30 PM

    I LOVE watching the Cosby Show with my family! And Awkward Black Girl is my new addiction! So many feels! Thanks for writing this article :)

  • takebackyourpower April 3rd, 2013 12:18 AM

    feeling a connection to ben’s chili bowl!

  • Nomali April 3rd, 2013 5:00 AM

    Ah, the Huxtables! The South African public broadcaster is currently airing the series and it has become one of my all time favourites. When you mentioned that you related to Vanessa I couldn’t help but laugh thinking of the drinking alphabet game episode where Theo elaborates on the pressure the Huxtable children face — it’s just aired. Though my family background is nothing like the one one depicted on the show I can still relate to it and I love them. They’re like my Bhujwa cousins. :)

    Baaaaaaby! Baybeee! *twirls*

  • Nomali April 3rd, 2013 5:02 AM

    Boooo! The video’s blocked in my country. Now I won’t get to see Rudy lip-synch. Why don’t you love me, internet!?

  • Emma S. April 3rd, 2013 8:25 AM

    Denise forever. xoxox

  • moonshine28 April 3rd, 2013 8:36 AM

    Hi,

    I LOVE the Cosby Show and my mum bought my sister and me the whole box set, it’s a hilarious show and this article is great.

    Thank you xxx

  • magpie librarian April 3rd, 2013 2:18 PM

    Not my site, but so worth checking out: http://www.huxtablehotness.com/ Really.

  • Harry Morse April 3rd, 2013 3:31 PM

    Aside from producing one of the best sitcoms of all time, and without a doubt the best with specific regard to the lives of minorities without making them cartoonish or a political example – Bill Cosby wore the F, S, and Q out of those sweaters.

  • joenjwang April 3rd, 2013 4:09 PM

    There are some shows that are socioeconomically diverse (The Middle, Raising Hope) that depict lives of people who are on the lower end of the income spectrum but…yes, they are mostly white casts. I remember feeling so amazing when I was younger watching “Joy Luck Club”. It was a revelation to me that Asians mattered, are beautiful, have important stories, can be PROTAGONISTS?! Albeit there was that “Chinese-folk-story-proverbs” thing going on that a lot of people use to tokenize Asians but, I still felt a lot of significance seeing Asians as main characters.

  • Graciexx April 4th, 2013 3:22 PM

    I love the Cosby show! My mum and our family friends (a girl a bit younger than me and her mum) would always spend hours on Saturday nights watching seasons at a time. It’s so hilarious and even though my mum is white and a single mother I always related to them.

    I never really realised how badly the diversity on TV had gone down until I read this. It made me sad because I can see how some of my favourite TV shows are contributing to it.

    Great writing Jamia!

  • rhymeswithcat April 5th, 2013 3:42 PM

    Hey Anaheed!

    Sorry for the late response. Thanks for replying to my comment and I just wanted to apologize for being a cranky pants. It must be really stressful to trudge through all of the submissions and I don’t think I took that into account enough. Anyway, Jamia did a fabulous job on this article so there was no need for me to complain about mine not getting published. She did The Cosby Show justice and that’s all that matters.

    Thanks for doing what you do! :)

    • Anaheed April 5th, 2013 4:11 PM

      Aw gurl it’s no problem! I was cranky too! But it was my own fault, because no one should expect you to know how our (or anyone’s) submissions process works.

      Going through them isn’t the stressful part — that’s really fun — it’s all the time when you wish you could be going through them but are busy doing other things that’s stressful.

  • rhymeswithorange April 7th, 2013 3:41 PM

    Thanks for introducing me to Awkward Black Girl! It’s so hilarious! I may or may not have stayed up way late watching episodes…