Bill Cosby was the king of television in the ‘80s. The Cosby Show was a ratings bonanza for most of its eight seasons and was both family friendly and funny, a rare commodity then as now. Watching the The Cosby Show today is still a pleasant experience. There is an instructional quality to much of the show, a self-conscious public service vibe that is front and center in nearly every episode. These simple moral lessons ranged from the dangers of underage drinking to respecting your elders, and even the most cliché subjects were handled with a sincerity that endeared the show to millions.
Cosby, often listed as William H. Cosby, Jr., Ed.d, in his shows’ credits, is a teacher as much as he is a comedian, and the combination of these two facets of his personality is present in nearly everything he’s done throughout his career, from Picture Pages and Fat Albert to his ‘90s CBS series, Cosby. Predating all of these, however, is The Bill Cosby Show, which ran from 1969 until 1971.
In The Bill Cosby Show, the Cos plays Chet Kincaid, a gym teacher in Los Angeles. Unlike the show that made him America’s surrogate father, the Cosby of this show is a bachelor, which allows his occasional awkwardness to create funny moments on the show (as in “Growing, Growing, Grown”, in which Chet is forced to pick up a date in a garbage truck). On paper, the show sounds as traditional and by the book as any of the Cos’s other series, but watching it is a different experience entirely. Instead of cute kids and guest spots by Stevie Wonder, The Bill Cosby Show’s humor come from everyday, real life characters and situations (the garbage truck excluded) that everyone can relate to.
There’s the neighbor’s dog that keeps you up at night (“Lullaby and Goodnight”), bureaucracy in the workplace (“Rules is Rules”) and family problems (“Brotherly Love”). There is wit and there is a feeling of knowing many of the show’s characters, but there are few laughs. The comedy is incidental, like the funny situations that arise out of real life situations. Like Cosby in his standup routines, Kincaid is primarily the straight man, pointing out the absurdities of the world. In his standup, though, Cosby is as much the storyteller as he is a participant in the story, and the humor isn’t in the story, it’s in the telling. This is The Bill Cosby Show’s mistake: it takes Cosby the storyteller out of the picture and replaces him with a plain sitcom narrative.
Interestingly, the show was filmed without a laugh track, leaving it up to the audience to decide what was funny. In the set’s only bonus feature, “The Bill Cosby Interview”, Cosby reveals his battle with NBC over the lack of laugh track, and his belief that it led to the show’s eventual demise in 1971, despite high ratings. It was a daring move, one that actually enhances the viewing experience. The addition of an artificial laugh track would only point how unfunny the show really is, insulting the intelligence of the viewer and performers alike.
Today, show’s like The Office and My Name is Earl pull off the laugh track-less comedy because they combine The Bill Cosby Show’s penchant for “real” characters with truly funny writing. Both the American and British versions of The Office are built upon a foundation of awkward moments, but they’re deliberate and creepy, centering on David Brent and Michael Scott’s inability to successfully interact with people. Here, the “funny” moments are awkward because they aren’t funny, because writers’ experiment with “real” comedy fails. When writers, including The Cosby Show’s Ed. Weinberger, do resort to more typical comedic situations, it’s standard and plain, a stark contrast to the show’s otherwise progressive format. The series’ debut, “The Fatal Phone Call”, centers on a Three’s Company-style misunderstanding in which Chet answers a call to a phone booth along his jogging route, causing an argument between a husband and his wife and a run-in with police. It’s tedious and awkward and makes the 23 running time seem unending.
Similarly, “Lullaby and Goodnight” features Chet visiting a department store to purchase ear plugs to block out the noise from a neighbor’s barking dog. An argument with an effeminate store clerk about the size of ear holes is more odd than funny, and yields the same awkwardness as the debut.
The season’s funniest moment is easily “This Mouth is Rated X”. This episode combines sports, another of Cosby’s favorite themes, with the educational and moral lessons prominent in the series. In the episode, Chet is forced to take the entire basketball team to task for using foul language (the curse words edited out courtesy of the Roadrunner “beep beep” sound). Punishments include push-ups and running laps around the gym backward and on one leg. The “beep beeps” are kept to a respectable number, but still manage to add a touch of the ridiculous to the show. Cosby, of course, is primarily known for his clean humor, and the juxtaposition of the unknown expletives and his uptight attitude (“I never heard a word like that before!”) is the perfect synthesis of what the show seems to be trying to do throughout the rest of the season: create laughs out of real life situations.
“This Mouth is Rated X” aside, the show’s best attraction is its music, co-written by Cosby with Quincy Jones. Cosby’s love of jazz is well known, and “Hikky Burr” (featuring a scatting Cosby on vocals) is a funky, waiting to be sampled theme that grooves harder than the ever-evolving theme music from Cosby’s ‘80s series. This great music—featuring Jimmy Smith, Carol Kaye and Ernie Watts—was released in 2004 as Quincy Jones and Bill Cosby: The Original Jam Sessions 1969 on Concord Records. A companion piece featuring remixes by Mix Master Mike, Cornershop and Mario Caldato, Jr., is also available.
The set’s sole bonus feature skips over the show’s impact on the racial climate of post-Civil Rights era America, but Cosby’s contribution to diversity on television can’t be denied. From I-Spy on, Cosby has actively sought to portray people of color more accurately than the standard servant / villain archetype of early television and film. The Bill Cosby Show is no different, with Kincaid’s Holmes High School featuring African-American, Asian, and Hispanic students and teachers alongside whites.
For all the varying quality of Cosby’s body of work, the white wash present on the rest of television is always absent. In the bonus interview, a candid Cosby talks about a series that obviously meant a lot to him. He says he wanted to do a show that was “Frank Capra in 22 minutes”, creating a wonderful slice of life that was real and easily relatable. Though the show succeeds in creating its Capraesque world, it simply isn’t worth the visit. Despite its efforts, The Bill Cosby Show is all situation and no comedy.