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'The Cosby Show' - the TV Series

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I brought you into this world and I'll take you out! - Doctor Heathcliffe Huxtable.

The Format

The Cosby Show was a groundbreaking American television show of the 1980s. It revitalised situation comedy at a time when the genre was floundering. It was also notable as one of the first shows to feature minorities without negative stereotypes since the less well-known Julia in the late 1960s.

By the 1980s, Bill Cosby was established as one of the best-known black comedy actors in the business. In the 1960s, he had co-starred in the hit series I Spy and appeared as a guest host on The Tonight Show. NBC (the National Broadcasting Corporation, a major American network) were eager to develop a show with Cosby after the Executive in Charge of Entertainment, Brandon Tartikoff, saw his monologue about child-rearing on The Tonight Show. Two executives, Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner were assigned to developing it.

Cosby started work on a family comedy similar to many failing shows of the time. It originally featured his character as a plumber, but Cosby's wife suggested making him a professional, so the character was made a doctor and his wife a lawyer, making this household a minority upper middle-class family. The show strived to avoid cheap comedy gimmicks such as catchphrases or running jokes. Indeed, the format was, on the face of it, rather bland, dealing with the everyday problems of a family, without unlikely plotlines.

So The Cosby Show went into production. Bill Cosby worked hard in casting the roles of his children and earned a reputation as something as a control freak (Cosby's name could be seen in the credits as many as six times each episode).


Doctor Heathcliffe Huxtable (Bill Cosby)

Heathcliffe 'Cliff' Huxtable is the patriarch of more than half-a-dozen descendents. He tries to raise his children well, but it is implied that he is jaded and sometimes frustrated. Through his sarcastic threats and jokes directed at his children, you can see his playful side, especially with the smallest of them. By the second season, Cosby was known for his patterned sweaters and dancing in the opening theme sequence1.

Clair Huxtable (Phylicia Rashad)

Clair Huxtable is the matriarch and voice of reason of the Huxtables. She is a very smart and practical attorney. When Clair wants something done2, she can get her children to do it, or trick Cliff into doing it.

Sondra Huxtable-Tibideaux (Sabrina LeBeauf)

Sondra is the eldest Huxtable child, and as she was tied to the family home less than the younger children she was seen less often than her siblings. In the early seasons, she is referred to more often than she appears. The character of Sondra was added because Bill Cosby wanted to highlight the end result of raising children. Sondra married Elvin, making her the first Huxtable child to marry, and the first to produce grandchildren for Cliff and Clair, the twins Winnie and Nelson. She went to Princeton Law School, but dropped out to assist Elvin in a camping supply store endeavour.

Denise Huxtable (Lisa Bonet)

Denise is rather an outcast from the ways of the other Huxtables. She is something of a rebel, bringing home unsavoury boyfriends and generally doing things her own way. She dresses outrageously and has an attitude. All this secured her her position as the 'different' child.

She is the second-eldest, and graduated from high school to go to college for much of the show's run. In 1987, Denise would star in the spin-off, A Different World.

Like her character, Lisa Bonet was the rebel of the 'family' of cast members, which Cosby liked to cultivate. She often clashed with him and turned up late to rehearsals, reportedly making Bill distraught and regretting his casting decision.

Theodore Huxtable (Malcolm Jamal-Warner)

'Theo' is the only male child. Though Cliff has high hopes for him, he is a bit of an underachiever. Theo is smart, but is diagnosed with dyslexia, which the family recognise could have been partially responsible for some of the problems he had experienced academically in the past. The first and last episodes involve Theo's schooling. The first episode gives him a tutorial of the life he might live without college and the last episode is about his graduation from New York University.

Vanessa Huxtable (Tempestt Bledsoe)

Vanessa is the middle child of the family. She is the bossy one that tries to play mother to anyone younger than her. She occasionally tattles on the other children and does almost everything by the rules.

Rudy Huxtable (Keshia Knight-Pulliam)

Rudy is the baby. She and Cliff have a very special bond. Cliff probably enjoys her innocence and how much easier it is to raise her than the older children. Rudy gets her own way most of the time because her parents adore her.

Elvin Tibideaux (Geoffrey Owens)

Elvin is the husband of Sondra. He has a reputation for being old-fashioned with his antiquated and possibly sexist views of women. He tries to fit in the family, but generally has a hard time. He went to medical school, but dropped out to open a camping supply store.

Kenny/'Bud' (Deon Richmond)

The somewhat short-lived, but altogether still well-known character of Kenny was Rudy's 'boyfriend'. He is easily bossed around by Rudy, who called him 'Bud' because she preferred the name.

Peter Chiara (Peter Costa)

One of the only white members of the cast, Peter is a friend of Rudy. He never really says much, but is well characterised as the neighbourhood child that wears sweatpants, runs away and never says anything. He is intimidated by the Huxtables and usually ends up running home or hiding. Costa was also intimidated by the set. Many of the times that he was silent weren't in the script - he had usually forgotten his lines.

Martin Kendall (Joseph Phillips)

Martin is a navy lieutenant married to Denise. They were married in Africa, a surprise to the rest of the family. Cliff and Claire respect Martin's status and maturity, which is in contrast to Denise. Throughout the show, Martin occasionally leaves his daughter Olivia with Cliff and Claire when he is at sea.

Olivia Kendall (Ravon Symone)

Olivia is the young daughter of Martin and is probably the only one who threatens Rudy's role as the baby of the family. Olivia was four when she was first introduced, while Rudy's age started to go into double digits. She and Cliff develop a bond.

The Show

Throughout the 1980s, NBC had suffered in the hotly-contested ratings war, and was desperate for a hit show. The Cosby Show, being a sitcom, was a surprise hit at a time when the genre was losing out to newly-popular soap operas - Dallas being the most notable. What made it all the more surprising was Cosby's poor track record as a scriptwriter: his three previous attempts had all flopped. The Bill Cosby Show lasted less than a year. The New Bill Cosby Show lasted longer, but with poor ratings. Cos was a similar flop, only created because of the momentum of his first hit show I Spy.

Scheduled for the autumn schedule of 1984, The Cosby Show immediately performed well, with a highly creditable third place in the ratings for its first season. For the next five seasons, it was number one. However, by the 1990-91 season, quality and interest had dropped, along with the ratings. Season seven marked the first time ratings fell below third place. The season eight saw it finish at a disastrous eighteenth place. The last show, a two-part episode, was aired on April 30th, 1992. It was the two hundredth show, and unsurprisingly had the best ratings of the season.

The Legacy

In part because of The Cosby Show, the NBC network rose to be one of the main networks once again. Quickly, NBC developed a juggernaut on Thursday nights, called 'Must-See TV' featuring The Cosby Show, Cheers and Family Ties regularly. These three shows illustrated NBC's dominance of the ratings of Thursday nights. Years later, Scrubs, Will and Grace and Friends continued the legacy of strong Thursday night TV.

The Cosby Show left behind it a number of stars and quite a following. It lives on in syndication, on various local stations and sporadically on Nickelodeon's Nick at Night programming. It also inspired a two-hour special entitled The Cosby Show: A Look Back on 19 May, 2002.

While Bill Cosby is still a star in many ways3, the other cast members have gone on to do many things as well: Malcolm-Jamal Warner has spread his wings as an actor - he starred in a number of sitcoms - as well as turning his hand to directing; Tempestt Bledsoe hosted The Tempestt Bledsoe Show in 1995, and starred in a few other movies and TV shows; Lisa Bonet starred in the very successful A Different World while The Cosby Show was running and shocked her co-stars with her very explicit sex scene with Mickey Rourke in Alan Parker's film Angel Heart; After The Cosby Show, Phylicia Rashad also went on to star in Cosby and Little Bill; Ravon Symone starred in That's So Ravon, Kim Possible and Hangin' With Mr. Cooper.

The Cosby Show certainly carved a niche for itself in television history. Without it, NBC might not have survived, several careers might never have started and racial and class representation may have continued to remain stereotypical and somewhat outdated.

Related BBCi Links

  • Take a nostalgic stroll through the classic television, hideous clothing and embarrassing hairstyles of the past with I Love the 1980s.

1Perhaps both these things constitute 'catchphrasing', after all.2She is very strong willed.3He starred in the less successful 'Cosby' (which recycled old scripts from the British show One Foot in the Grave), bringing the number of sitcoms based on his name up to five. He occasionally does stand-up comedy, produces and narrates Little Bill and hosted Kids Say the Darndest Things.

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