“This is Bill Cosby coming at you with music and fun, and if you’re not careful you may learn something before it’s done. So let’s get ready, OK? Hey, hey, hey!”
By the mid-’60s, Bill Cosby was one of the biggest stars in America, and certainly among its most influential performers. A master of didactic storytelling, an evocative conjurer of youthful innocence, and possessed of an everyman’s confidence and armchair wisdom, Cosby may have been the greatest comedian of his generation. Even Richard Pryor (the burgeoning genius who would take the crown from Cosby a decade later) began his career apeing him, right down to the cadence of his voice.
Part of what made Cosby such a brilliant performer was his agreeably homespun stage persona. Amid the cacophony of the ’60s – the calamitous race riots, the day-glo psychedelia, the disastrous war in Vietnam, the sexual upheaval, the uncertainty, the disillusionment – Cosby’s routines emphasized order, nostalgia, religion, family, and stability. Even if they made frequent reference to his own inner-city childhood, his material was never bitter. It may have been about a black experience in white America, but it was rarely tinged with any unsettling political statements. His was a comforting voice.
In short order, Cosby emerged as an apparent avatar of a liberal, post-Civil Rights Act America: a black funnyman that white people could embrace, identify with, even know. (And while this was a major factor in his astounding rise to fame, it has also been ground zero for attacks on his career by those who see him as a milquetoast, a kind of comedic Uncle Tom for his integrationist approach.)
By the time of his fifth album in three years, the 1967 masterpiece Revenge, Cosby was a millionaire TV star and household name. A bestseller, Revenge featured a pair of memorable bits about Cosby’s childhood in Philadelphia – “9th Street Bridge” and “Buck Buck” – which introduced a cast of goofy kids like Fat Albert and Old Weird Harold making do with what little they had in under-served North Philadelphia. Representing a rich new territory for Cosby to mine, the “Cosby Kids” (as they’d come to be known) were a huge hit with audiences. Their playful, silly, but ultimately lesson-based adventures proved funny to adults but potentially even funnier to inner city children who could readily identify with these archetypal misfits.
Exercised by the lack of quality children’s programming available – especially programing which reflected children of colour – and sensing a perfect outlet for his ongoing fascination with education, Cosby lighted on the idea of bringing his “Kids” to TV. In late 1969 NBC aired a one-off special called “Hey Hey Hey It’s Fat Albert” and then in 1972 a full-blown animated series made its way to air called “Fat Albert & the Cosby Kids”.
This 15-disc collection from the redoubtable Shout Factory gathers all 110 episodes of the show in its various incarnations from 1972-1984, packages them up beautifully, and augments them with a one-hour documentary featuring the Cos himself.
Though the original NBC special (and the three Holiday specials) are regrettably absent – rights issues getting in the way of completest ambitions, yet again – this is about as close as we are likely to get to holding the entire run of the series in one hand.
So, how does it hold up? Pretty amazingly well. Both as a record of a certain era in post-Voting Rights Act America and as a celebration of the comedic mind of one or the greatest funnymen of the 20th century, this is a fascinating and entertaining boxed set. Sure, some of the language won’t pass kid censors today – lots of “dumb” and “stupid” and other insults are flung casually back and forth between characters, for example – and the laugh track is irritating and unhelpful, but the heart of the show retains its warm, instructive, lesson-based approach to the Saturday morning cartoon.
The format was fairly predictable, even if the characters themselves felt utterly fresh. Each episode featured some (usually minor) problem that needed solving – one of them has been lying, they’re playing hookey from school, they’ve lost their football, etc., but sometimes the problem is deadly serious (child abuse, for instance, or drug addiction). Always Bill (the character modeled on Cosby himself) or Fat Albert will emerge as they voice of reason, the super ego for the collective psyche of the group, and the situation will be resolved.
Episodes always feature a joyful jam session in the junkyard, each character picking up some piece of trash and using it as an instrument while they sing a song about that week’s educational themes. And Cosby, who would take his work on this program to graduate school where he’d earn a PhD in education in 1976, remained a constant presence, introducing episodes and voicing several characters (including the big kid himself).
Jubilant, playful, funny, and educational, Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids was nothing short of revolutionary in its approach to children’s programming. It ain’t going to be cheap, but I say check it out. Na Na Na, you’re gonna have a good time.