COMMENTARY : Staying Power of the Cos

The very existence of the television re-run business implies capitalizing on a residual affection built up over time.

It doesn’t matter if it’s “The Gale Storm Show” or “Hill Street Blues.” After all, TV is still the medium that plays to our living rooms and flickers at the end of our beds before we turn in for the night, a unifying force for the deep pockets of loneliness in America.

The humongous syndication sale price for “The Cosby Show” (see adjoining article) represents a huge gamble on the part of the station buyers that the Cosby mystique will hold up, even if the shows are lacerated by cheaper and more plentiful commercials.

Syndication is something like a second marriage: A manifestation of hope over experience. What is it about Cosby that compels such commercial faith?


The answer may be faith itself.

To the extent that no cultural enterprise exists outside of its historical environment, it should be said that “The Cosby Show” and the Ronald Reagan era have been mutual beneficiaries. Cosby’s show has been to the Reagan era what “Father Knows Best” and “Leave It to Beaver” were to the 1950s, a model for the sturdiness of the nuclear family in the face of which potentially serious and even cataclysmic problems are reduced to the scale of comic eccentricity. (You can bet that none of the Huxtable kids will get AIDS.)

Most of the comic relief is offered by the kids, who will say and do the darndest things in the process of growing up in a rock ‘n’ roll world. Mom and Dad will grin and bear it, and enlist our sympathies in the process, and in a tilt toward modernism’s tenet that we’re all a little bit screwed up, they will show us what it’s like to have a bit of conflict between them, and what it feels like to grow older in a world that has little tolerance for the mature sensibility.

(“thirtysomething,” as an example, shows us the posturings of post-adolescents to whom the condition of adulthood is still baffling.)


The Huxtables are members of the professional class, which has been generously stroked by Reaganomics. They live in a large, well-appointed house--the kind of spread that is increasingly unavailable to the American middle class. No crisis that enters the door will ever shake the essential familial warmth and jocular humor that permeates the house like the smell of good cooking.

Some critics have charged that “Cosby” puts out a fake image of the way blacks live, but that’s not altogether true: There is a hefty professional and managerial class of blacks in America that lives comfortably and well. One of the most remarkable things that Cosby has done in the creation of the Huxtables--and this is by no means a trivial effort--is to make them colorless (except for those portions of black culture that lend them a hip veneer) and thereby separate them from the residual rage with which virtually every black in America has to deal.

None of the Clark Terry Mr. Mumbles influence or the takes that he shares with Richard Pryor get into Cosby’s TV family act (which isn’t true of his stand-up routines).

His patriarch can be put-upon, bemused, momentarily flummoxed, but he’s never out of control for long. He’s never out of control, period. He’s an “Our Town” dad for the ‘80s who phrases the universal tug between parents and children in a contemporary vernacular of mock-tolerance and uncertainty.

But nothing truly awful will happen to this man or his family. He will never spend a sleepless, sweaty night pitting hope against monumentally bad event--the stuff of great comedy. He will always prevail. He will always be the triumphant, archetypal dad.

Maybe that’s the illusion of family life that we have always cherished, the notion of a bountiful mom and a dad

whose deep sense of duty or the ingrained capacity for doing and saying the right thing--or at least having the last, just word--transcends the tortuous mess of living. After all, we’re all somebody’s child, and isn’t oversimplification the very stuff of these family shows? They tell us that life is manageable, even if the lives they’re showing aren’t quite our lives.

Another thing “The Cosby Show” offers by way of contrast with shows that deal with teen-agers as a wise-cracking class of self-righteous urchins is a format that acknowledges a providential--as opposed to repressive and dumb--ruling class of parents.


(It could be argued that a lot of TV shows have been created by writers and producers who are divorced or are themselves the products of divorced parents, against whom they have attempted to create their own brave new worlds).

The sunny, munificent vision of an honest America hard at work needs the image of family at its core to lend a sturdiness to the twinkle of high hopes. This is what Bill Cosby has brought to the Reagan epoch.

The wonder of Cosby’s career, aside from this show, is in how he has been able to overextend himself as much as he has without wearing out his welcome. His artistic instincts are by no means infallible (as we saw with “Leonard, Part IV”). His stand-up concert routines sometimes bear the passive weight of the overfed. His books are consumer disposables--you crunch through them once and they’re done with. For a man of his educational achievement, he is a surprisingly inarticulate or at least prosaic spokesman for civil rights, whose cause he champions. He is wealthier than some Third World nations; he seems to have shilled for more commercial products than the late Arthur Godfrey. (Advertising Age places him top among celebrity ad spokesmen, ahead of Ronald Reagan.) And underlying all his enterprise is the fierce engine of an ambition that never shuts down.

If this were anyone else’s resume, you might assume that Cosby was riding for a fall. But we don’t observe his career the way we watch Eddie Murphy, for example, wondering how long he can ride the crest of super-celebrity before topping out into the inexorable paranoia of a show-biz skid. Over the decades Cosby has had every inducement for falling into the swoon of celebrity hypoxia, yet we have never gotten a whiff of what used to be called scandal and is now only the common trash found in everyone’s fast lane.

Cosby, in a word, is someone the American public has learned to trust--no small feat in the quasi-public career span of the celebrity. But it isn’t only a moral trust. He also happens to have an apparently inexhaustible talent to amuse. From the moment he burst on the scene with Noah’s question to God, “What’s a cubit?,” he has continuously struck us with his unerring capacity for asking the question that we would ask, or seeing just what we would see.

There are no great Cosby jokes, but there are any number of piquant Cosby observations. All comedians are to one degree or another surrogates for our sense of being victimized; Cosby has played the role fabulously. Through him, we see ourselves at the mercy of time, of our bodies, of each other, of our kids and spouses, and even more inexplicable forces of weirdness at large in the universe.

For decades Bill Cosby is one of those people who has gotten us through. He is the one we turn to at the banquet or the campfire for the memorable afterword. He has helped us bear witness to ourselves in a folksy way that cautions us: If we don’t learn tolerance for life’s eccentricities, we will be undone by them.

The Cos has been with us for decades, yet he seems never to have been very young. Perhaps it’s that aura of reassurance that’s kept him so safe among us over the years, and that the syndicators are literally banking on now.