‘The Cosby Show’ Was Profound, Influential--and Indispensable
Howard Rosenberg severely underestimates the impact of “The Cosby Show” in his column, “ ‘Cosby’: A Classy Farewell” (Calendar, April 30). Rosenberg lists a host of shows, from “I Love Lucy” to “Monday Night Football,” as examples that set standards in their genres--some-thing, he suggests, “The Cosby Show” did not do--and states, “There have been funnier series and, despite Cosby’s desire for his show to rebut stereotypes, many more profound series and more influential series.”
I say there has never been a show that has had a more profound influence on the way black America views itself, and how white America views us.
“The Cosby Show” is credited with single-handedly rescuing the sitcom form. And as for funny, Cosby’s reality-based clowning set new standards. No character rendered a simple honest reaction funnier than Cliff Huxtable.
Rosenberg states that “unlike ‘I Love Lucy,’ the Huxtables didn’t set standards for TV clowning that would resonate in sitcoms for decades.” Well, decades have yet to speak for themselves, but the “The Cosby Show” set standards of parenting that will resonate in society forever. Cosby established the quintessential father by which fathers of all races, in and out of television, will probably be measured from now on. Farewell, “Father Knows Best”!
“Unlike ‘All in the Family,’ ” Rosenberg says, “ ‘The Cosby Show’ didn’t shock a nation and force-feed it a new, socially conscious category of prime-time comedy.” Absolutely! Instead, it delivered equally relevant messages as gracefully as Michael Jordan gliding to a basket.
Surely, he can’t believe “All in the Family” fostered greater understanding between the races than “The Cosby Show.”
Before “Cosby” burst onto the scene, black sitcoms made occasional, albeit cumbersome, stabs at social statement--and not always good ones. There were the “over the top” antics of “The Jeffersons,” a very funny and well-intentioned show that, however, seemed to suggest: “You can take a black out of the ghetto, but you can’t take the ghetto out of a black.”
There were the noble black poor of “Good Times.” This was a struggling family that managed to preserve a sense of dignity despite the lack of available jobs and decent housing.
After several years, however, even this noble premise began to sour. How come this otherwise industrious father still could not land a steady job? It strained credibility . . . and respectability.
Lastly, there were those abominable shows where whites raised black children (“Diff’rent Strokes” and “Webster”). To their credit, the well-to-do white parents were always loving, caring and understanding--actually saccharine. They stood in stark contrast to black sitcom families where insult humor reigned as the cornerstone of the comedy.
Black sitcom characters talked at each other more often than to each other. An unspoken and not too subliminal message inevitably emerged: Whites are better at raising black kids than blacks.
The token employment of black writers did little to enhance the integrity of these shows. Instead, our input was kept to a minimum and our presence merely tolerated.
Advancement resulted less from the sensitivity we brought to black characters than from our ability to write them as our white producers did.
In contrast, Bill Cosby is personally responsible for the employment, encouragement and artistic support of more black writers than anyone in the history of television. Even now, legions of his young beneficiaries populate the landscape, poised to redefine not only the way the industry will depict and view blacks, but how Americans will view each other.
Cosby’s fatherly presence buried the “whites raising black children” genre. He confirmed that we can truly raise and educate our own kids to be racially proud and socially responsible human beings.
Cosby showed blacks can be well-to-do and possess commensurate class. He showed that a black man can not only get a job, but also that he and his wife can have thriving professional careers.
“The Cosby Show” captured the natural rhythms of middle-class black behavior, shunning the broad antics and forced jokes so much the norm even now. The fact that the high, reality-based comic standard he set has not been widely emulated does not detract from his legacy. (The challenge may simply be too great.)
On a personal note--until “The Cosby Show” came along, I never felt television ever gave my own father his due. He was a hard-working and educated businessman, a great provider and an enormously ethical person with a great sense of humor.
I felt the black fathers reflected by the TV screen were an insult to millions of black fathers like him.
Days after my father’s funeral, I had not shed one tear for my loss. Then, I caught an episode of “The Cosby Show” where Cliff sat with his own father, respectfully seeking his advice. And with the quiet calm, wit and wisdom of his many years, his father advised him. The tears I’d held back finally fell. At last, television was paying homage to my father.
For many like me, no television series has been more influential or profound. Much more than Cliff Huxtable’s clowning will resonate in our minds and hearts in the years to come.
I’m still unclear how Rosenberg measures the legacies of “I Love Lucy,” “Masterpiece Theatre” and “Monday Night Football,” but I know how I measure the legacy of “The Cosby Show.” Tear by grateful tear. . . .
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