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Liquid Nostalgia #19

The Cosby Show: A Look Back

 

"Suppose you just graduate from high school. Let's say you just 'slide by.' Alright, now you gotta find a job. Now, what kind of salary do you expect for a 'regular person?'"

"Hmmm...$250 a week."

"$250 a week?"

"Yeah."

"Sit down...Alright, I'll give you $300 dollars a week. $1200 dollars a month, alright?"

"Great! I'll take it!"

"Yes you will, and I'll take 350 dollars for taxes."

"Whoa!"

"Huh? Oh yeah, you see the government comes for the 'regular people' first."

 

Oh, how I miss shows like this, and the 80s were full of them. It was also a time when sitcoms were the standard for television as well as producers and networks churned them out (some from the 70s into the 80s as well, such as the Jeffersons). Newhart. Cheers. Night Court. Family Ties. Mr. Belvedere. Wonder Years. Alf...ok, so standards were sometimes low, but the one that rose above all else and lasted for eight years was The Cosby Show, still one of the most popular, fondly remembered, successful and overall well-done sitcom in the history of television, up there with All in the Family, I Love Lucy, MASH, The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Seinfeld. The characters are iconic and memorable as well, which as any writer will tell you, is what really separates the good from the great movies and television programs. Cliff, Clair, Rudy, Theo, Vanessa, Denise and Sondra, and hell I'll throw Elvin in there too, are a part of pop-culture history as much as Bill Cosby is himself.

The Cosby Show was one of the earliest shows I remember sitting down every week to watch. This was back before cable, so the reception on the television wasn't always the best, but NBC always came in nice and clear. The Huxtables were the beset thing on TV at the time, next to my cartoons of course, and a lot of it has to do with their simple family-life approach. Today, where hindsight is 20/20, we see it as pretty basic and standard fare. At the time, though, it wasn't so much the comedy that people loved, and it was solid comedy, but it was the family itself. This was a cast people just loved to spend their Thursday nights with. 

The show was consistent for years, except it's last couple of seasons where a the writing took a bit of a dive and many scenarios were shadows of older seasons, but the characters were always there. Being invited into the Huxtable home each week was a joy, the home itself rather believable with its iconic look of a pretty realistic looking home. I wanted to live in that house. Not just because it was a believable one, but because it was a believable family on top of it all - especially to Cliff. I mean, who wouldn't want Cliff Huxtable as their dad? He was the best dad on television for almost a decade, and is probably one of the best in TV history.

The age of the sitcom has pretty much passed. Everything now is single-camera shows without a studio audience, other than a few CBS stragglers still trying to hold on. A show like The Cosby Show would never work today. It just can't. It barely worked in the 1990s with Family Matters, Fresh Prince and Full Hose being the "family centric shows." As with many installments of this series, it's knowing that and appreciating it, and I think we all should certainly appreciate The Cosby Show.



A Brief History of the Cosby Show

 

-As is often the case, in the early 1980s two of ABC's top creative executives left the network to form their own productions company, The Carsey-Werner Company (Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner). They immediately began looking to producing new television shows.

-At the same time, comedian Bill Cosby, though having done little in film or television(a mildly successful one in ISpy but a number of failed sitcoms in 1969, 1972 and 1976), was one of the most popular comedians in the country.  

-The producers approached Cosby with an idea of doing a sitcom based on his stage material. After a discussion, it was decided that a) Cosby would have complete creative control b) it would be an upper-middle class African American family rather than blue collar and c) it would take place in and be shot in New York (episodes were shot in front of live, Brooklyn audience, to be exact).

-Cosby was to portray the father, Heathcliff (Cliff) Huxtable. Phylicia Rashad was cast to play his wife, Clair.

-Cast has the children, from oldest to youngest, Sabrina Le Beauf as Sondra, Lisa Bonet as Denise, Malcolm-Jamal Warner as Theodore (Theo), Tempestt Bledsoe as Vanessa and Keshia Knight Pulliam as Rudy. The character of Sondra, though, was less apparent due to her being older and living outside her parent's home.The cast grew as more and more characters came into the Huxtable's lives, the most popular being Sondra's husband, Elvin,played by Geoffrey Owens, Rudy's best friend Kenny, played by Deon Richmond, and little Olivia Kendall, played by Raven-Symone. Two other popular characters were Heathcliff's parents, Anna and Russel, played by Clarice Taylor and Earl Hyman, the latter of which nominated for an Emmy for his performance in 1984.

-Unlike many other African American sitcoms and television shows, Cosby never brought race into the picture. Rather, he uniquely used it as a promotion of the race rather than an issue, such as the ideas of African heritage, Jazz Music, the setting of Brooklyn and numerous guest stars such as Dizzy Gillepse, Stevie Wonder, BB King, Pam Grier, Lena Horne and Sammy Davis Jr. The show, however, did touch occasionally on the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King Jr, as shown in this rather unique ending of the episode "Vanessa's Bad Grade" that simply shows the family watching television. 

-Also, unlike man sitcoms in general, it's been noted how there are few one-liners, recurring gags or stuntwork in the show. It focuses entirely on character and situation and smart writing to earn laughs, rather than being "cheap."This was a conscious decision by Cosby himself and the writers to continue his stage routine by telling "stories."

-The Cosby Show lasted for eight seasons. From 1985 to 1990, it was number one each year in ratings (it's debut season of 1984 it was at number 3). Only two other shows in the history of television achieved this: All in the Family and American Idol. 1991 and 1992, its final two seasons, saw ratings drop significantly.

-During its run, it won the Emmy for Best Comedy in 1985 (nominated three times). Phylisia Rashad was nominated twice while Warner, Bonet and Knight Pulliam were all nominated once (and all in 1986). Cosby himself was never nominated for an Emmy. The show also spawned one of the most successful spinoffs in history: A Different World - that show was also in the top 10 in ratings (other than its final season) and lasted for six seasons. 

-A total of 201 Episodes were shot, though not all aired, and the final episode aired in 1992 during the Los Angeles riots.


 

Top Ten Cosby Show Episodes

 

Well, where to begin here? Amazingly, out of so many sitcoms I've seen over the years, I still remember much of the Cosby Show. Even more amazingly, I really could have made this a Top 20 just as easily...because narrowing down to ten is pretty much impossible and there's so many classic ones that putting them into an order is near impossible. I watched other 80s sitcoms such as Cheers, Family Ties and The Wonder Years just as much, but I only remember specifics of those when I see them on repeats and it all comes back to me.

In the case of The Cosby Show, though, I seem to remember them far more specifically. Through my own recollections of what I remember as great, and the research from the series of tubes known as the internets, I think below are ten great ones the show had, though far from comprehensive or definitive. I think if people saw these ten, they'd be hooked. We all have our favorites, though.

 


10: Back to the Track, Jack (Episode 20)

 

If there's anything you can see about Cliff Huxtable, other than being a great dad, is that he isn't quite as great as he thinks he is. Or, rather, as he remembers. Maybe that's why we loved him so much. How many have dads that go on and on about the good old days of his youth, but haven't quite realized time has officially caught up with them? Here, Cliff is to return to form in a race...and he quickly needs to get in shape.

 

 


9: Rudy Suits Up (Episode 31)

 

Rudy (who, by the way, has grown up quite nicely) discovers she has a talent. A talent for football, earning her the nickname "Sweet Feet." This is kind of funny considering Theo tried out for football in the first season and failed miserably. But I digress. This episode is full of a lot little scenes centered around the big picture of Rudy as a football star (and how quickly kids lose interests in things) and Story B (every sitcom has an A and B story) about Theo's school's problems. One I love is when Cliff and Theo are sitting on the couch watching TV, another after Rudy's first game and Clair and Cliff reminiscing about Cliff's sports days and how he wasn't nearly as good as he thinks he was, and definitely the small scene of Clair watching football with Cliff and comparing Rudy with Walter Payton. Cliff checks out when Denise joins and they start talking about color schemes for uniforms.

Also, I really love it when all the kids are together in the house. It just makes me feel all warm and fuzzy seeing as how not every kid is accounted for all the time over eight seasons.

 

 


8: Off to see the Wretched (Episode 147)

 

I love how this episode walks the line between drama and comedy. Basically, Vanessa sneaks out to see a band in Baltimore called The Wretched. Her parents find out...and holy shit does Clair lay in to her. If I recall, it was pretty much this episode that got Rashad her second Emmy. I think her yelling at Vanessa touched every person who's ever had an angry mother. Because of that relate-ability, we find some fantastic comedy as a result and, now older and looking back, really "getting" that old feelings of a kid again.

 

  And for the best part: CLICK HERE.


7: Call of the Wild (Episode 75)

 

Just the thought of this episode made me smile. Sondra and Elvin return from their honeymoon with news for Cliff and Clair: both of them are abandoning their dreams to be a lawyer and doctor respectively...to open a "Wilderness Store." I just love how this episode build and build as the reveals and reactions gradually come. It's like a car accident.

"I changed my mind...."

"Change it back."

Just great dialogue in this episode too. Love the "that's my baby" speech and overall delivery from Rashad and Cosby here. Really one of the best.

 For some of the best reveals and reactions: CLICK HERE


6: Full House (Episode 43)

 

Probably one of the simplest episodes, yet I would say one of the most effective. All Cliff wants to do is read in private. That's it. But when you live in a house with a wife, three daughters, one son and people always coming and going, you'll be lucky to. Cosby barely says a word here, his expressions and fantastic scene directing and timing really says it all in such a minimalist story. This is kind of us observing the day to day life in the Huxtable house through Cliff. There's really no story, just observations that I'm willing to bet many families have had at some point.

The scene stealer here, though, is Denise's friend Eddie. Eddie likes Reggae, and let's just say he really gets into the music. "I saya ey mon!"

 

 


5: I Know that You Know (Episode 70)

 

This episode had everything. Great touching family moments and a good turn for the show with the engagement angle. What's great is how it sets up Cliff's "yeah right" approach to everything due to the practical jokes and his plan to get back at everyone. Cosby just owns this episode with his usual "oh...really" attitude and dead-pan and overly-confident delivery. The audience watching and knowing stuff  the characters don't is a staple of The Cosby Show's approach to comedy, and won't be the last time we see it used so well on this list.

 


4: Theo's Holiday

 

I had debated what really struck me more, the scene in the original pilot of Cliff using Monopoly money to teach Theo about the real world, or when the entire family teaches him about the real world. This was something that The Cosby Show always did, and it always seemed to be Theo learning the lessons of life, which is probably why he was one of the more popular characters. He was likable, but naive (Elvin, Sondra's husband, was also used in this manner though more socially aware, as he was unintentionally misogynistic), and here the family role plays to teach him how the real world works.

Plus "I'm gonna be a model" is just a classic line. "As a model....I'll be making the big money."

 

For the classic scene from the pilot: CLICK HERE.


3: Happy Anniversary (Episode 27)

 

The first couple of seasons were on an absolute roll. Almost all were pretty simple and straightforward too, here one where the family is trying to figure out what to do for Cliff's parent's anniversary (which they would revisit in a later season with a different song). Many might call this the first iconic moment in the series, and I might agree with them. Plus, Cliff's parents are just great characters and always a joy to see in an episode here and there.

 And for the best part: CLICK HERE.


2: Bird in the Hand (Episode 152)

 

One of the better late season episodes. Bird in the Hand pits Cliff against Clair, only they have no idea they're betting against each other for a rare jazz record. This is comedy fundamentals here: humor can come from the audience not knowing what's going on, but the characters do or the audience knowing what's happening and one or more characters are clueless...and boy are Clair and Cliff clueless. This is just a great episode through and through, though the highlight is the auction itself.


1: The Shirt Story (Episode 5)

 

Absolutely no question here. Most people always remember this episode where Theo wants to impress a girl (as he always did) with a new fancy shirt. His big sister, Denise, says she can make him a similar shirt no problem. The reveal is just one of the best in television history, and Theo's reaction to Denise's shirt design shows that Malcolm-Jamal Warner really had some comedy chops at such a young age. In fact, all the kids did which is probably why the show went for so long. This is just classic.

 And for the best part: CLICK HERE.


Honorable Mention: The Days the Spores Landed (Episode 132) and Cliff's Nightmare (138)

I don't think these episodes will go down as a couple of the better ones, but they're certainly the most unique and probably memorable for many people. At the time, it was one of the more surreal things on TV (Twin Peaks was still a year away). It goes like this for our first one, The Days the Spores Landed: Cliff eats a sandwich which doesn't agree with him, and he ends up passing out and dreaming that all the men in the world are pregnant. He also gives birth to a sandwich.

There's another very popular dream episode, Cliff's Nightmare, that guest-stared the muppets. Again...very bizarre, but both pretty damn enjoyable. As is the case with any long-running series (usually) they start to use little gimmicks like this (other gimmicks include wacky inventions or going to theme parks etc...the Cosby Show never really had those happen except for new things Cliff would buy that wouldn't work in one episode). Still, though, they are memorable.



 

The Cosby Show did exactly what Bill Cosby wanted it to do. It entertained and it educated. I was going to do one of the "Top Ten Lesson" for the end here, but in a way I feel they work hand-in-hand because each of these teaches us a lesson, from the role playing real world, to not lying, to respect and appreciate your elders, to never trust your sister to make your clothing. In fact, many episodes have a "point" to them over the course of eight years, similar to a previous great sitcom, All in the Family, and one that would come later, Seinfeld, where the writing worked on multiple levels and were a little above merely "a situation comedy."

It touched on a lot of things, from dyslexia (Theo's Gift) to drugs (Theo and the Joint) to alcoholism (I'm In with the In Crowd) to mortality (Autumn Gifts) or cancer (The Visit) to becoming a woman (The Infantry Has Landed) and the basics of growing up (many, many episodes). A lot of shows did this, but, somehow, The Cosby Show never felt preachy while doing it as though it's entirely a set up to "learning a lesson." It has a casual, nonchalant way about it where everything feels natural and it never has to try too hard.

If you grew up during the 1980s (and into 1992), there's no way you weren't watching this show. It was one of those shows you couldn't even accidentally miss, now in syndication on numerous channels, shown online and on DVD you can continue to not miss it. Not that that's a bad thing.

So, Dr. Huxtable, let me get this straight.  If I make $300 a week...

 


 

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