From 1969 to 1971, between the end of "I Spy" and the rest of his long, varied and productive television career, Bill Cosby played physical education teacher Chet Kincaid in the first and least known of his three sitcoms, "The Bill Cosby Show." (There have also been, with varying degrees of success, two variety shows, a couple of cartoons, a mystery series, "Kids Say the Darndest Things," and those Jell-O ads, among other things.) Its first season is being released today on DVD, and it is a small gem, a little gift to the present from the past, and of all Cosby shows the closest in discursive spirit to the comedy records that first made his name.
Though there are recurring characters -- notable among them a fellow teacher played by Joyce Bulifant and Chet's older brother, played by Lee Weaver -- it is not an ensemble piece. Cosby, who was 32 when the show went on the air, is the focus of the show. He's in every scene, and often the only person on-screen. (The season finale is virtually an illustrated monologue, as Chet recounts and re-enacts past sports glories for a reporter from the school paper.) There are no B-stories, no stunts, just the particular progress of an ordinary guy through the mostly ordinary problems of his mostly ordinary days, comically elaborated into little works of art that replicate the loping rhythms of stand-up.
"He had to be [ordinary]," Cosby, 69, said of his character in a recent phone conversation. "I mean, race was still an issue. It's after the march on Washington, but we're also dealing with Panthers, militancy, we're dealing with resistance, we're dealing with it in the courts, in Congress -- at least two, three, four, five senators still saying 'You may be voting now but you're not later, you may be going to school here now, but you won't later.' When I did 'I Spy,' I made Alexander Scott a fellow that you could touch, a fellow that you knew. He didn't sound like he was above anybody, or below anyone.
"So the idea is to make Chet Kincaid not a super person but a guy who is trying to go about his day, wants to go from here to there, and en route, the day changes for him," Cosby continued. "He's not going to get involved with anything or anybody and -- wham. I enjoyed that, that the black man is Everyman. Just trying to get from here to the post office, lick some stamps, come on home. And he may get there at the end of the program, or he may never get there at all. May wind up in jail." Which he does, in one episode -- a reworking of the old "Pay the $2" vaudeville routine (elevated to $20, with inflation), with a dollop of "Slowly I turned ..." for good measure.
One episode finds Chet dealing with a cold, and all the people who want to help him deal with the cold; in another his brother suddenly moves in; in another he's stuck for nearly the length of the show in an elevator with fellow teacher Henry Fonda and cleaning woman Elsa Lanchester -- they pass the time playing 20 questions and odds and evens and singing songs in what I am sure is a nonexistent Slavic tongue. In another he gives romantic advice to cafeteria worker Wally Cox (who played TV's first teacher, "Mr. Peepers"). He substitute teaches classes for which he's not quite prepared -- in one of the best, he attempts to bluff his way through a math class.
Coming at a time when black actors were only beginning to get major roles on television, let alone their own series -- as the co-star of "I Spy," for which he thrice won the Emmy, Cosby was a pioneer and just the hot property to drive that wedge -- "The Bill Cosby Show" is at once something historically new and fundamentally old-fashioned.
Co-created by Ed. Weinberger, a fellow alumnus of Philadelphia's Central High School who later co-created "Taxi," the series seeks to make points about right behavior and yet is not issues-oriented, unlike "Room 222" -- another show about a black teacher that also debuted in 1969.
It is essentially color-blind and yet (perhaps for the first time on TV) distinctly African American in flavor -- Quincy Jones wrote the score, for starters -- and gives rich parts to black actors and comics whose talents were not then often allowed full cry, including Moms Mabley and film legend Mantan Moreland as his squabbling aunt and uncle; an almost unrecognizable young Louis Gossett Jr.; Cosby's acting teacher Beah Richards; and, in his final performance, Rex Ingram, whose roles included the genie in the Sabu version of "Thief of Baghdad," as an "an arrogant Santa Claus."
The first noticeable thing about "The Bill Cosby Show" is that it has no laugh track, a fairly radical tack for 1969 that makes the series play more like a collection of comic short stories than a traditional sitcom. (At the same time, it doesn't really tonally resemble any of the current one-camera, no-laugh-track comedies -- it is too unfashionably hopeful about human relations.)
"I shook the anger stick when I said I don't want canned laughter," Cosby said. "And word came back from the network, 'We want laugh tracks.' And I sent word back, 'You will not put laugh tracks on any of this. I want the audience to laugh at what they want to laugh at, and I don't want any of my writers to be able to push a button and get a laugh from something and nobody's laughing at home.' Canned laughter is sort of like ... placebo Valium. You hear it but you don't laugh. It's so close to marketing, I just found it obscene."
Next to the nightclub or theater stage, where he can simply talk and get from point here to there -- or not -- by whatever circuitous route he cares to devise, the sitcom is Cosby's natural home, because it's there that he seems most himself.
He has spent his life talking about his life -- or a version of it, but one which was always believable -- which is perhaps one of the reasons his film career never really took off: We are disinclined to take him as anyone else, whereas the roles he's played on the small screen seem to relate strongly to the Cosby we think we know. And "The Bill Cosby Show" is in some ways the purest expression of that person.
"I wanted to put my comedy storytelling [on screen]," said Cosby. "And I wanted my character to stand tall, even though he just wanted to go down to the post office, lick some stamps, come back."