Makes Television History

With The Cosby Show, Americans were introduced to a weekly television series about an African American family that broke from standard black situation comedy. Bill Cosby, the program’s star as well as its cocreator, coproducer, and executive consultant, had full artistic control.

Summary of Event

By 1984, Bill Cosby was a major figure in American entertainment, especially on television. Although he had been a stage performer and popular nightclub comic in the early 1960’s, Cosby did not become a national figure until he costarred with Robert Culp Culp, Robert in the action-drama television series I Spy, I Spy (television program)
Television programs;I Spy which ran for three seasons from 1965 to 1968. For his portrayal of Alexander Scott in I Spy, Cosby won three Emmy Awards. Emmy Awards At the same time, as equal costar in the series, he dismantled the television stereotype of the African American as social and psychological subordinate. Cosby Show, The (television program)
Television programs;The Cosby Show[Cosby Show]
African Americans;television series
[kw]Cosby Show Makes Television History, The (Sept. 20, 1984-Apr. 30, 1992)
[kw]Show Makes Television History, The Cosby (Sept. 20, 1984-Apr. 30, 1992)
[kw]Television History, The Cosby Show Makes (Sept. 20, 1984-Apr. 30, 1992)
Cosby Show, The (television program)
Television programs;The Cosby Show[Cosby Show]
African Americans;television series
[g]North America;Sept. 20, 1984-Apr. 30, 1992: The Cosby Show Makes Television History[05530]
[g]United States;Sept. 20, 1984-Apr. 30, 1992: The Cosby Show Makes Television History[05530]
[c]Radio and television;Sept. 20, 1984-Apr. 30, 1992: The Cosby Show Makes Television History[05530]
Cosby, Bill
Rashad, Phylicia
Tartikoff, Brandon
Carsey, Marcy
Werner, Thomas
Markus, John
Finestra, Carmen
Kott, Gary
Williams, Matt

In 1969, Cosby had a television series created especially for him, The Bill Cosby Show, Bill Cosby Show, The (television program) a situation comedy in which he played Chet Kincaid, a high school coach. The show remained on national television for two seasons. There followed the award-winning animated series Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids (television program) which ran for ten years (1972-1982); the program featured Cosby’s stories about growing up in Philadelphia. A concert film, Bill Cosby Himself, was distributed in 1982. By the 1980’s, Cosby had become a national icon, appearing in television series and specials, in films, and in stage shows as well as creating comedy recordings.

One story has it that it was an appearance that Cosby made as a guest on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson that set in motion the creation of The Cosby Show. Brandon Tartikoff, president of the National Broadcasting Company National Broadcasting Company (NBC), had been awakened by his young daughter. To pass time while he soothed his child, Tartikoff turned on The Tonight Show, on which Cosby was doing one of his monologues on the vicissitudes of rearing a family. Perhaps Tartikoff, a parent, was struck by the change that had been occurring in Cosby’s material, for as Cosby’s own family grew, Cosby had switched from creating humor about growing up to creating humor based on parenting. It could also be that Tartikoff was only reacting to an ongoing plea by Thomas Werner and Marcy Carsey, whose production company, Carsey-Werner Carsey-Werner Company[Carsey Werner Company] , had been promoting perhaps for as long as two years the idea of a new Cosby show. Whatever the case, Tartikoff became convinced that Bill Cosby should be featured in a comedy series based on parenthood.

The idea did not immediately produce positive response. Certainly, there was reason for network executives to be wary; Cosby was a forceful and determined personality. His celebrity status was significant enough to place him in a powerful bargaining position. Moreover, what he was asking for in creating a series was unprecedented: full artistic and content control. Such terms had led to the an earlier rejection of a show with Cosby by the American Broadcasting Company (ABC).

As discussions evolved, the concept of the show became bolder. First, in an echo of I Spy, Cosby was to play a detective. A later proposal was for him to play a chauffeur living in Brooklyn with his wife, who was a plumber. Cosby’s final suggestion, Heathcliff Huxtable, M.D., prevailed with NBC. Other series, notably The Jeffersons
Jeffersons, The (television program) and Julia, Julia (television program) had starred upwardly mobile African Americans in middle-class settings, but those shows featured blacks working their way into a white world. Moreover, every television series had always been controlled by established producers working with network executives.

Ultimately, negotiations led to an arrangement with the Carsey-Werner Company. Marcy Carsey was named executive producer, with Cosby as coproducer, cocreator, and executive consultant. In essence, Cosby had complete control, and he exercised his rights. He was involved in all artistic decisions, including casting, directing, story, and dialogue. One of the principal staff writers on The Cosby Show characterized Cosby as “the emperor.” Because he was a professional educator as well as a successful entertainer, Cosby intended that his show provide family education. He also intended that the show should reflect his own positive philosophy and lifestyle; he was known to reject unsuitable scripts even on the day before taping.

The cast of The Crosby Show in 1984.


It is not surprising, then, that The Cosby Show paralleled Cosby’s own life. Cosby was a graduate of Temple University and had earned a doctor of education degree from the University of Massachusetts in 1977. His wife, Camille, was a professional woman, and the couple had four daughters and a son. They lived in an upscale neighborhood in Massachusetts. The television family was headed by Heathcliff “Cliff” Huxtable, a successful obstetrician who lived with his family above his office in an upscale neighborhood in New York City. Huxtable’s wife, Clair, was a lawyer. Like the Cosbys, the Huxtables had five children, four daughters and a son.

The Cosby Show introduced important differences from other shows starring African Americans. First, it did not include any featured white performers. The show starred Cosby and Phylicia Rashad as Clair. The Huxtable’s children, the other important continuing characters, were played by Lisa Bonet, Tempestt Bledsoe, Sabrina Le Beauf, Keshia Knight Pulliam, and Malcolm-Jamal Warner.

A second innovation was that the Huxtables were a black family without financial concern. As a physician and a lawyer, respectively, Cliff and Clair were members of prestigious professions, and their children would go to college. The family members’ speech was not pretentious, but it was clearly educated.

Finally, the episodes focused on simple parenting problems, without tortured plot complications: a daughter wearing too much makeup, a son squandering his allowance, a pet goldfish whose death breaks the heart of the youngest child (the whole family, dressed in funeral attire, holds a burial ceremony next to the toilet).

From its first airing on September 20, 1984, the show was an immediate hit, and it quickly moved to the top position in the ratings, a place it held throughout the 1980’s. As the series continued, the children matured, and the parents aged so that the Huxtable family was organic, living and changing with the families who watched them for eight years.


The impacts of The Cosby Show were both immediate and long-lasting. First, the series marked the revival of situation comedy as the basic form of television entertainment in prime time. Of the top ten shows in the A. C. Nielson ratings in the 1982-1983 season, only two were comedies; the 1983-1984 season featured only one comedy. Critics had begun to discuss the death of situation comedy, but The Cosby Show proved their discussion premature. Not only was it an immediate hit, but it also encouraged the development of other situation comedies that became successful, such as Family Ties (the NBC companion piece to Cosby) and the popular ABC series Growing Pains and Valerie.

Indeed, a new artistic-commercial vision was conceived out of the impetus of The Cosby Show. Each network began to attempt to design whole evenings of programming built around appeals to an aggregate market. On NBC, for example, in the early evening, when the whole family was viewing, there was Cosby followed by Family Ties. Later in the evening came Cheers, followed by more adult fare such as Night Court and Hill Street Blues.

Nothing, however, not even an aggregate evening of shows, had the impact of Bill Cosby’s program. One commentator observed that situation comedy as an art form can be divided into “B.C.” (before Cosby) and “A.C.” (after Cosby). During the late 1980’s, The Cosby Show frequently attracted more than 50 percent of the total television audience. During its second year, thirteen of The Cosby Show’s episodes were among the fifteen most-watched shows of the entire year. The upshot of such unprecedented popularity was that NBC had a solid run as the number one television network throughout the 1980’s.

In the 1990’s, The Cosby Show was challenged as the undisputed choice of American television viewers. The challenge came in part from A Different World, a series that was spun off from The Cosby Show; it featured Lisa Bonet as a Huxtable daughter gone off to college. A more significant challenge came from Roseanne, Roseanne (television program) a series that was the artistic and spiritual child of The Cosby Show. Roseanne was created in 1987 by Matt Williams, a longtime writer and producer for Cosby, and was produced by the Carsey-Werner Company. Carsey-Werner went on to produce Davis Rules, and Williams joined with Carmen Finestra, another writer from Cosby, to follow Roseanne with Home Improvement.

All these shows were about parenting or the results of parenting. Roseanne was clearly a blue-collar twist on The Cosby Show. Home Improvement
Home Improvement (television program) probably had the closest affinity to Cosby’s formula of straightforward, no-frills episodes, featuring simple, earnest language and gentle, positive humor. The outlandish predicaments of I Love Lucy, I Love Lucy (television program) the overwrought emotions and self-conscious social significance of All in the Family, All in the Family (television program) and the fatuousness of Father Knows Best
Father Knows Best (television program) were replaced by Roseanne’s bluntness, by her overweight husband’s cheerful acceptance of life as it is, and by the deadpan humor of the family in Home Improvement. “Bill is a genius,” said Matt Williams. “We all learned from him and are applying those lessons.” “Cosby is brilliant, a mind like a jazz musician,” said Carmen Finestra.

Perhaps the most significant of Bill Cosby’s lessons, Finestra has argued, is that earnest, positive humor is the funniest. When Clair asks why the Huxtables have five children and Cliff answers that it is because they did not want six, the only possible response is undiluted laughter. Another lesson concerning earnest humor has to do with the great store that the middle class puts in the process of thinking a problem through to a solution. Thinking is hard work, however, and is meant to be done in private, with only the solution being made public. Thinking in public is thus a sort of embarrassment, a case of being caught with one’s intellectual pants down. “We knew that they tuned in to watch Bill think,” Matt Williams noted. “It was very funny when Bill thought.”

Above all, the lesson of The Cosby Show was that Americans love the ideal of the family, especially a traditional family with a frequently present father and an omnipresent mother whose whole concern is the children. Here, the Huxtables were consummate: Cliff Huxtable’s workplace is downstairs; Clair Huxtable has a highly prestigious profession, but she apparently works only when all the children are asleep. Even so, she never discusses her work, never brings work problems home. She represents complete achievement for the American woman: a satisfying profession equal to that of any man and the apparent time off from work to give entirely of herself to her children.

In its last two seasons, The Cosby Show slipped steadily in the ratings but remained in the top ten. By that time, most of the original writing team had gone on to other shows. Still, the Cosby mystique drew fifty-four million viewers for the final episode. The Cosby Show made all of its featured players stars. Awards of all types notably Emmy Awards and Peabody Awards were lavished on the actors, writers, and directors. Cosby himself refused to accept Emmy Awards, but he was without doubt a superstar and a powerful force in American family life. Cosby Show, The (television program)
Television programs;The Cosby Show[Cosby Show]
African Americans;television series

Further Reading

  • Brooks, Marla. The American Family on Television: A Chronology of 121 Shows, 1948-2004. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2005. Broadcast history provides information on American television series featuring families from the beginnings of television to the start of the twenty-first century. Places The Cosby Show within the context of the programs that came before and after it. Includes photographs, bibliography, and index.
  • Brooks, Tim, and Earle Marsh. The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows, 1946-Present. 8th ed. New York: Ballantine Books, 2003. Summarizes the story lines and lists cast members of all recurring programs aired during the time period covered. Useful for comparing shows and putting them into context. Includes grids showing prime-time programming and lists of Emmy Awards year by year.
  • Bryant, Jennings, and J. Alison Bryant, eds. Television and the American Family. 2d ed. Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2001. Collection of scholarly essays examines many different aspects of the relationship between television and families in the United States. Part IV, which is devoted to the portrayal of families on television, includes chapters that discuss The Cosby Show.
  • Crowther, Bruce, and Mike Pinfold. Bring Me Laughter: Four Decades of TV Comedy. London: Columbus Books, 1987. British authors compare American and English television comedy series and provide a viewpoint on The Cosby Show from a different culture. Intended for general-interest readers.
  • Taylor, Ella. Prime-Time Families: Television Culture in Postwar America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989. Important and insightful study of the image of the American family as presented on nighttime television from Father Knows Best to The Cosby Show. Excellent final chapter explores Cosby’s contributions, especially his positive, if idealized, approach.

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