Thursday, July 13, 2006
When I was growing up in suburban Virginia, my father, my mother and my brother and I each had our own things going on during weekdays. My dad would wake up early, grab his paper bag with his standard-issue peanut butter and jelly sandwich and head off to work as a civil engineer for Virginia Power. My mom would try to finish all of the things that needed to be done around the house so she could get out to my grandmother’s to ride her horse. My brother and I went to school but spent our afternoon hours trying to find a way to build more effective rubber-band guns with our allies the Houck brothers.
Every night, the whole family had to convene at the dinner table for my mom’s homecooked meals at six sharp. On Thursday nights, the whole family would migrate from the dining room downstairs to the basement, where we would all tune into The Cosby Show with the family dogs, Flip and Hooter.
On the phone from Virginia, my dad, who is sipping on a bourbon and water, tries to recall why he personally enjoyed The Cosby Show. “Hold on a minute,” he says. “I’ve got to scratch my ear.”
After getting rid of the itch, he starts theorizing.
“I thought the show was extremely good and the characters were developed really good,” he says. “I related to being a father. It doesn’t matter what color you are—you go through the same stuff.”
While Cosby had a string of sitcom failures in the ‘60s and ‘70s—The Bill Cosby Show, The New Bill Cosby Show, Cos—the former standup star hit comic paydirt when The Cosby Show aired in 1984. Until 1992, when the series broadcast its final episode, families like ours all across the country tuned in to see Cliff (Cosby) and Clair Huxtable (Phylicia Rashad) raise their five children. The show, which followed the trials and tribulations of a middle upper class African-American family, was criticized by some for ignoring the plight of other African-American families.
Though my dad easily identified with Cosby’s gruff yet loveable father figure, all of the sitcom’s other characters rang equally true. My mom could easily relate to Clair, who seemed perpetually amused by her husband’s humor, while my brother and I thought Theo (Malcolm-Jamal Warner), a teenager who had a deadbeat friend named Cockroach, was a cool guy.
Even before The Cosby Show ever became popular, my father was already a big Cosby fan. “Before he ever had that TV thing, he had comedy records that were just hilarious,” he says. “It was about babies and changing diapers—not that I ever did that.”
My dad is most likely referring to Cosby’s hit 1983 comedy album Himself, which features the comedian doing his amused and exasperated family man routine. The release features a funny account of a trip to the dentist, along with a bit about children not following directions, titled “Brain Damage.”
Cosby’s comedy career began in earnest 19 years earlier with the 1964 live comedy record Bill Cosby is a Very Funny Fellow, Right? While other comics were doing controversial material at the time, Cosby was doing homespun, character-driven work, like his bit about a skeptical Noah building an arc.
My dad thinks there is one main reason why he has enjoyed Cosby’s comedy over the years. “True comedy is based on truth,” he says. “You have to have some truth in comedy for it to be funny.”
Probably, my father’s favorite Cosby endeavor was the mid-’60s television show I Spy, where the comedian was the first African-American star of a TV drama. Cosby and Robert Culp played two spies that were undercover as traveling tennis players. “Oh God, that was the greatest show,” my father says. “It started out as a serious spy thing but quickly degenerated into a huge comedy.”
Cosby has had his hand in a number of other successful endeavors. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, Cosby created and hosted the popular Saturday morning kid’s show, Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids. He also had a segment on Captain Kangaroo called “Picture Pages.”
Since The Cosby Show went off the air, Cosby has hosted the show, Kids Say the Darndest Things, and created an animated program for preschoolers titled Little Bill.
Recently, Cosby also embarked on a career as a children’s book writer with the release of 2003’s Friends of a Feather: One of Life’s Little Fables and 2004’s I Am What I Ate…And I’m Frightened.
In 2004, Cosby came under fire for a speech he made at the 50th anniversary of the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling, a case that made racial segregation in schools illegal. He appealed to fellow African-American families to make education a priority and to not assist members of their race who are involved in criminal activities.
It is just another aspect of Cosby that my father supports wholeheartedly. “He emphasizes family values,” my dad says. “I think he’s a fine man and extremely interesting.”
BILL COSBY performs his comedy act at the Golden State Theatre, 417 Alvarado St., Monterey, Friday at 7pm and 9pm. $65-$95. 372-4555.