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Can someone explain this to me?

This week marks the 25th anniversary of the premiere of The Cosby Show on NBC. Still perhaps the most beloved sit-com of all time especially for black folks. I’m sure there will be this month many articles and TV segments about that milestone and how black people are faring on TV today a quarter of a century after that show first hit the airwaves.

But I have to admit something. I don’t get it. I’ve never understood what was the big deal with the damn show in the first place. I watched it occasionally, but was never a regular viewer. It was to me just another typical sit-com with lame jokes and pointless, tired, worn out storylines borrowed from countless other sitcoms before it. I can’t recall even laughing once. It never transcended or totally turned upside down and inside out the entire sit-com format as like The Family Guy or HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm. So what was the big deal with The Cosby Show? Could somewhere out there in cyberland please explain this to me?

Now  I can guess what you’re going to say, that it was the first time, and still today, that a TV show presented a successful, loving, middle class (well actually they were more than just middle class) black family in a positive way. And to that I say…meh. I mean that’s all well and good, but there’s got to be some meat on bones and with The Cosby Show there was (to quote Gertrude Stein) “no there, there”. It was very slight, shallow and to me just tepid.

Now in a perverse way, however, I really liked Cosby’s followup show on CBS, Cosby, which premiered a few years after his NBC show in which he played an airport worker who had been “downsized” trying to figure out his next move in life. To me it presented a more realistic person. A guy who wasn’t perfect, had a lot of faults, struggled every week to improve his current situation in life and trying to figure out his place in a rapidly changing world. Sometimes he won and sometimes he didn’t, but it made him more human. And besides that the show was incredibly funny as well. (I still remember one episode from the show’s first season where Cosby got a job at in an antiques store which, unbeknown to him, was actually a cover for a prostitution ring operation upstairs. The second half of that episode was a brilliant set-piece of double entendres and slapstick with the clueless and naive Cosby dealing with customers there for the other “business” while he thinks they’re there to buy an antique).  So maybe someone can explain to me why The Cosby Show was such a big hit at the time, but I can’t figure it out to save my life

27 comments to Can someone explain this to me?

  • Uh, wow, happy 25th anniversary indeed.

    If you didn’t like it, is there anything to “get?” If you’ve black, you don’t have to like something just because black people are in it.

    I dug the Cosby show a lot, but it wasn’t Arrested Development or Curb your enthusiasm, but it was also done two decades before those shows, so comedy on TV was still evolving.

    Sure, some of it was corny- especially towards the end- but there are all types of comedy besides what maybe you or I prefer. Believe it or not, some people will fall off their chair if you tell ‘em a joke about domestic abuse. Other people would be horrified.

    When I watched Cosby I was a kid, so it was perfect for me. Maybe if I watched it now it would feel like dining on a battery to me.

  • I loved the Cosby Show. Everybody’s taste is different.

  • grace

    I never loved it — didn’t think it was that funny. But I liked watching all those black folks on teevee.

  • Aaron

    At that time in my life, I felt it was a great show and so happy to tune in every week. It is a land mark in T.V. history – Great role models, it put people of color in this country in a very positive light. But we are a people of many taste , and not every thing float our boat.

  • Black Narcissus

    Sergio I think you’ve been a little unfair to the Cosby show.

    It was and is a typical Sitcom and was designed to be so by Cosby himself. All the characters are Cookie-Cutter Americans & stock Sitcom creations.

    As someone who grew up in a country where there was a lack of Black faces on the TV let alone Cinema. I found the series to be something I looked forward to seeing on Sundays (Channel 4 in the UK).

    However, as I grew older I kind of fell out love with it. A bit like Cheers & Friends.

    I think even you would have to salute the fact that it got made shown & lasted so many years.

    I look forward to seeing S&As review of Monique’s forthcoming show.

  • Harlepolis

    Godness lol…

    If it ain’t something, its the other. Thats all I’m gonna say *SMH*

  • mlm

    dang sergio why you gotta be so media take outish? ha anyways, you know when i first saw the cosby show i didn\’t like b/c i thought it was unrealistic b/c my life was very different. when i got older i understood the show more and i could def. recall similar instances in my own life. to say that the show cosby was more real and describe that episode is funny. i did like the show cosby maybe it was doug. the fact is most scenarios relate to somebodies life. i remember arguing with someone about good times saying how can you hate on that show. it was realistic and didn\’t try to be so happy. i think that these two shows gave a pretty good representation of two types of black families. how much were they flawed? should we even pick them apart after all they weren\’t showing us like they did in the old days?

  • Loved the show, and especially love how well it has held up: my kids love the reruns of the show today. I guess the extent to which the show is perceived as “cutting age” depends on your age. I am in my mid 40s and it was definitely a new thing to see a loving Black couple (shown in bed together, snuggling, and kissing, no less) who both worked outside of the home (well, in Cliff’s case–next to his home, I guess) in professional jobs. The show was “realistic” to me and many other Black folks who had grown up middle class–a notion which some of us had to defend ourselves against to folks who would claim that such families did not really exist in Black America.

    I guess another part of my love has to do with being a lover of jazz. Cosby showcased more jazz on that show than probably any other sitcom in the history of TV.

    There were also many moments that will forever be classic for me: little Rudy singing “The Night Time is the Right Time” with all the drama she could muster; Cliff’s famous “regular people” demonstration to Theo using Monopoly money; the family sitting around the TV silently, listening to King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

    My age is probably also why I do not find some sitcoms that some consider “cutting edge” worth the airtime they take up. “Family Guy” is a prime example. At some point I hope we move beyond the infatuation with shock for the sake of shock.

    Whether or not one thinks there was “there” in the show I guess depends on taste–particularly taste in Cosby’s stand-up performance. Like many sitcoms starring stand-up comedians, it was really a venue for the enactment of Cosby’s act. Unlike “Seinfeld” (which I loved, BTW), the supporting characters never really emerged as strong personalities in their own right. They were, instead, the sounding boards and illustrations for Cosby’s jokes.

  • Sergio


    It’s not an “age” thing. I’m older than you and The Cosby Show just didn’t do it for me. And like you also as well grew up in a solidly middle class two parent houehold, the only guy with sisters just like in The Cosby Show. As others have suggested maybe it’s simply just a matter of taste. I love “cutting edge”, offensive, crude humor and always have which is why The Family Guy appeals more to me so much. (and why I still think Bruno was the funniest film I’ve seen all year) Also I forgot to mention Roc with Charles S. Dutton. Though it sadly lost its way during its final season, that show was everything that to me that The Cosby Show was not. A very very funny show with interesting, human characters.

    Also I will admit that sit-coms have never been my thing. Growing up as a kid I only watched TV shows with a lot of action in them, Fist fights, shootouts and chases.

  • Sergio, perhaps you ought to check out the porno version.

  • AccidentalVisitor

    “Frank’s Place”.
    Best. Black. Sitcom. Ever.

    Even as a boy I lost my faith in black people when they worshipped the ground “The Cosby Show” walked on while ignoring “Frank’s Place.” The Cosby Show was pretty good but the writing was nothing special. I also never forgave CBS for cancelling Frank’s Place after its president said it would be returning for season two. And I never forgave the Emmys for giving the Best Comedy award to “The Wonder Years” (which was a midseason replacement and only put out about ten episodes) over “Frank’s Place” which was the critical darling. “Frank’s Place” was every bit as sophisticated as “Cheers” and all of its characters were so well realized.

  • pnc

    I never thought the Cosby Show was funny. Laugh out loud funny? Never. It wasn’t groundbreaking either. It simply showed black people as middle-class. Big deal. No real substance. A Different World tackled weightier issues. The Jeffersons, a decade earlier, was both funny and groundbreaking, and oddly enough, said more about middle-class black life. In the 80s, 90s, Married with Children was much, much funnier to me.

  • hellonewworld

    You saying that family guy is a better show than the cosby show is rocking my world. You’re entitled to your opinion but…wow. It’s wild to me.

  • junebug

    Thank you, Accidental! Frank\’s Place was sheer brilliance! I tried to tell people about how great that show was, and I would get the RCA Victor dog look. Personally, my MAIN problem with the Cosby show was Claire. She was just too damn snooty and boughie-actin\’ for me (just look at her in the picture up-top and tell me you don\’t want to smack her face).

    Now like Sergio, I did find the later Cosby hilarious! The one episode that got me hooked was when some freeloading relatives dropped by, then one of the freeloaders tries to involve Hilton (Cosby\’s character) in a \"get-rich-quick\" scheme, then Cos compares the scheme to an old Amos & Andy episode, then Cosby goes into a whole routine impersonating the Kingfish! They would\’ve NEVER done that on the Huxtable show. And it reminded me of the younger, funnier Cosby from the 70\’s. And Rashaad wasn\’t acting a bitch. Sometimes I don\’t like learning funkin\’ lessons on sitcoms…Sometimes, I just want to laugh.

  • junebug

    Another thing…CAN Y’ALL PLEASE GET SOME EASIER TO READ SECURITY CODES! It’s like you need x-ray vision just to read these things! Who y’all tryin’ to keep out!?!

  • Harlepolis

    While I ADORE “The Jeffersons”, it lost its substance after the 4th season, from then on, it relied more & more into buffoonery. Same with “Good times”, it had a promise in the 1st couple of seasons, but after John Amos left,,,,I mean FIRED, it was a Dy-No-Mite coon mess from then on.

    Thats what happen when you put a show based on black people’s life on a predominantly white staff.

    “The Cosby Show” was an ideal concept, thats why some people think its unrealistic. But not to me, I know many Cliff & Claire Huxtables, I know many Rudys, Vanessas, Sandras, Theos and Denises,,,I know those people, and I didn’t have to grow up in a middle class household in order to identify with them.

    As for the sitcom being shallow? Not true! Mr.Cosby has ALWAYS been subtle when it comes to his work. American entertainment has always been shock value oriented, anything below the surface is a no-no, thats why his “laid back” method took many by a surprise.

    Plus the fact that you have NEVER seen black people looking so dignified, wordly and sophisticated before or since, no wonder why its still a BIG DEAL,,,,To me, The Cosby Show was to sitcoms like what Duke Ellington was to music. Simple yet VERY universal.

  • Sergio, after I typed that about age I almost qualified it–My husband is my same age and he loves “Family Guy,” so perhaps it is a gender thing as well/more so.

    Sounds like it is just a taste thing for you as well as others. To me, that is a good thing. There *should* be a range of tastes and preferences for a group of people who are themselves so diverse. I have never been one to use some pieces of cultural expression (e.g., a food dish, a song, a movie) as “tests” of “Blackness” (or tests of anything else).

    Accidental Visitor, I, too loved “Frank’s Place.” I think the reasons why it never found an audience are complex. I actually think it was the type of program that would have done better today, and in a non-network TV setting.

  • mlm

    @junebug haha i’ve been thinking the same thing. sometimes i just want to post by logging into the site but i get lazy.

    i want to thank you guys b/c now i will go check out frank’s place on youtube and watch cosby. i’ve been looking for more shows to watch since i don’t have a TV life here.

  • The Cosby Show was to sitcom television, what Will Smith is to the movie industry: safe, predictable, universal, even “post-racial.” It had cross-over appeal the way previous “black-themed” shows weren’t quite able to achieve. White people loved it!

    Up until those years, we hadn’t quite seen a black family like this – one that looked like any other family, regardless of skin color.

    It rarely dealt with race directly. In fact, it seemed to want to make it a non-issue. Although, Cosby, to his credit, who was said to have had immense creative control, frequently promoted the talents of real life black artists – especially musicians.

    Also, Cosby’s brand of humor, looking back on his stand-up routines before the Cosby Show, were never what you’d call “edgy;” again, much like the show, he touched on universal issues – family, marriage, children, etc, and he did so in a way that reached a lot of people (especially in the middle class) for whom those were important issues. It was clean and safe. He wasn’t interested in offending or dividing people.

    He wanted the program to be educational, which shouldn’t come as a surprise, and, as he’s done today, I think he wanted a show that was aware of race, but, in a way, transcended it. White people and many upwardly mobile black people liked that.

    Keep in mind though that, initially, Cosby’s idea featured a blue-collar black family, with a stay-at-home mom and father who drove a limousine, with two sons and two daughters. However, the studio execs didn’t care for the idea and asked Cosby to make the family upper-middle class, with an MD father and an attorney mother. Maybe the original idea would have been more “real” to some of you.

    I’d say that the family represented an ideal for a lot of black people (and non-black people) in this country. They were kind of an escape from the doldrums of daily “real” life. So, even though the Cosby’s mostly carefree lifetyle may have been unattainable for most of us, it was possibly something to strive for.

    But really, it belonged to that cadre of late 80s sitcoms that were, quite frankly, not at all that funny, and wouldn’t survive the marketplace today – “Who’s The Boss,” “Family Ties,” “The Facts of Life,” “Growing Pains,” “Silver Spoons” and others. The one thing a lot of the more popular shows of that time had in common is that they dealt with family and family issues, and, again, did so in a very predictable, safe, non-confrontational manner. The Cosby Show was in that class.

    So, it was just a different time then, and audiences got what they were able to swallow. Most, if not all of those programs wouldn’t make it in today’s TV world.

  • Sergio

    @ Undercover Black man”
    “Sergio, perhaps you ought to check out the porno version”

    I did. It’s funnier than the original. :)

  • “Roc” owns all! :)

    I definitely think that any animated comedy I’ve watched is funnier than the Cosby Show. I also agree that A Different World was a great spin-off. I’ve seen that recently and I still feel basically the same way I did as a kid.

  • I think Tambay put it best. There’s nothing for me to add but that, maybe today at the age I am, The Cosby wouldn’t entertain me but growing up, I thought it was great and like Tambay said, my life wasn’t like that but it was something to aspire to.

  • I agree that the Cosby show wouldn’t cut it in today’s market and I think that it was very much tailored to a lot of romanticized, Cosby-driven notions of what life for Black people should be like.

    Still, to its credit, the show provided a widely accessible portrayal of Black life that most had not been accustomed to see before. People didn’t even know what the Black middle-class looked like before the Cosby show.

    Was it idealized and corny? I think so. Was it good that it was put out? I think so.

  • I have to admit, I looooved the Cosby Show and still do.

    Recently Cosby was given the Mark Twain prize for humor and during the event Malcolm Jamal Warner, who played Theo, told the story about how he was cast for his part. He said he went into the audition and decided to act like all the other sitcom kids, being smart-alecky with their parents, etc. etc. And then Cosby stops him and asks, “Son, would you talk to your real parents that way?” And Warner said no, so Cosby instructed him to re-read the part, acting like he was talking to his real parents. That’s what the Cosby Show was – it really wasn’t these bratty kids always trying to, and getting away with, conning their parents (I don’t know about you all, but if I talked to my parents the way most sitcom kids did, it wouldn’t have been pretty).

    For sure it wasn’t edgy the way some of the others shows mentioned were. But it was a show I did laugh at, and I could sit and watch with my parents and they laugh, too. The show has been criticized by some for being tame and aiming to make whites feel comfortable with blacks. Say what you will about that, but there are many people in the United States (and abroad) who have never met or been friends with a black person. What they know is what they see on T.V. The Cosby Show was a very small, but positive step in tipping scales that have, for centuries, been pitted against blacks. Cliff Huxtable is time and again rated television’s most beloved dad by Americans. Think about that for a moment… When most popular depictions of black fathers are either bad ones, or just plain absent, that’s refreshing to hear.

    So yes, in the way of pushing the envelope in terms of being edgy, Cosby show wasn’t. But a show doesn’t have to do that to be good. Especially given the time it was aired, and what the popular depictions of the black family were up to that point (the most well-known nuclear family up to that point were the Evans’ in Good Times, and even that show was originally supposed to be about a single mother raising her children in the projects), it was monumental.

  • “It never transcended or totally turned upside down and inside out the entire sit-com format as like The Family Guy or HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm.” — Sergio

    You lost me when you said Family Guy. Talk about lame jokes. This shows where your taste is at.

    “It was very slight, shallow and to me just tepid.” — Sergio

    And The Family Guy isn’t slight, shallow and tepid? Lol.

  • It was ground breaking because it WAS so ordinary. Before the Cosby show, the other sitcoms with a black cast had us being very poor and clownish. “Good Times” as great a show as it was had us trapped in the Ghetto. “Sanford and Son” had us surrounded by junk. Most reasonable people would not think that all black people lived this way, but when they are the ONLY depictions around, it is easy to jump to some conclusions. When I first saw the Cosby show I was shocked. Here was a normal family with problems that weren’t drugs, poverty, etc. It’s easy to take this for granted today (although there aren’t that many shows on TV today with black people in the lead anyway) but the images do affect you, especially when you are young.

  • Samuel

    The Cosby Show was an extension of Cosby’s successful stand up show, Cosby Himself about his family life. For me the first two years, the show pretty much holds up in that vein.

    The ground-breaking part was more of a historical note, since Cosby headlined Thursday night and helped Family Ties and Cheers get their footing. NBC was hoping or maybe expecting it to succeed. When it came out the historical part was that it saved the Sitcom on American TV, not just what it meant to the black community. Now it’s just known for mostly the latter.

    In context of the time, some of the jokes don’t hold up as well or the situations, but I would say those first two years were pretty solid. After that I know I was watching it to see Theo’s girlfriends, Naomi Campbell had a walk on, the other Vanessa Williams, Michelle Thomas and when Lisa Bonet glammed up before her exit.