cosby show

Save The Cosby Show. Save Fat Albert, Uptown Saturday Night, and some of Cosby’s old Warner Bros. comedy albums.

Bill Cosby is a sexual predator and a serial rapist. He should almost certainly go to jail for the rest of his life, and in a karmic sense I’d like each and every one of his victims to have her own 24-hour period to torture Cosby Guantanamo-style. He’s the scum that scum walks on. No argument there.

But does that mean we jettison his entire career?

I understand that for some people, the answer is yes. Some of them were once fans of Mel Gibson and Roman Polanski and Woody Allen, and they stopped their support after certain revelations. I get that. Sometimes it’s impossible to watch an actor in a scene and forget what else you know about them. As a parent, it’s not easy, because your kids may idolize these people. And if you think that me defending Bill Cosby’s work means I’m defending Bill Cosby as a person, well then, either stop right now, or read this whole thing, because it gets a little complicated.

I happen to agree with most or even all of the outrage regarding Cosby’s personal hypocrisy – he has no right to make speeches telling others how to live. Such outrage is fair because those speeches and his predatory behavior are both part of his off-screen life. However, informally, it seems like most of the twitter-led outrage specifically concerns The Cosby Show.

What was good about The Cosby Show? I quote Vulture from two years ago:

The plots were steadfastly simplistic, steering clear of gimmicks and tired formulas, focusing instead on the pleasures and frustrations of domestic life and finding ways to spin whole episodes (and a lesson or two) out of, say, a funeral for Rudy’s fish. It offered a wry, sometimes exasperated take on parenthood, heavily inspired by Cosby’s gentle (and gently barbed) stand-up act. The Huxtable house was a home where conflicts simmered but rarely boiled over. But it was also a home that didn’t always run smoothly, where parental pride did constant battle with the threat of disappointment, and no one got what they wanted — be it a designer shirt, an unhealthy snack, or just a little peace and quiet — as often as they would like. It was the sort of home in which a lot of Americans could see reflections of their own lives, regardless of its residents’ race — a fact that brought the show understandable plaudits, but also some criticism.

So, should we excise that show from syndication now that we know who Bill Cosby really is?

There’s a certain crass opportunism coming now from those who want Cosby’s work off the air – for reasons other than his now-known sexual depravity. If networks decide to stop airing Fat Albert, The Cosby Show, I Spy, his old stand-up routines, and the funky films he directed in the 1970s, I’ll understand – that’s just the free market at work. But what I don’t appreciate are writers for major websites, who obviously never liked Cosby, seizing this opportunity to give networks a bunch of preposterous, made-up reasons to do what networks may be leaning toward doing anyway. I don’t like these polemicists taking this moment to tell us that The Cosby Show was “profoundly racist” and that it should be off the air post haste.

No.

One such article is leading the charge, and I’m afraid I’m going to spend the rest of this post explaining why I find it so objectionable. I hate to say it, but to understand you have to read Chauncey DeVega’s “How The Cosby Show Duped America: The sitcom that enabled our ugliest Reagan-era fantasies” in Salon.com. So read it, and then come back here. I’ll wait.

Finished with DeVega’s piece yet?

Okay. Let me start by saying that Chauncey DeVega (who has also written for The New York Times and The Atlantic, among others) seems like the kind of guy I would typically dig. I like that his main site is sarcastically called “We Are Respectable Negroes” – that’s funny. I like that he made the AlterNet crowd angry when he insisted on calling Elliot Rodger white. I like his annoyance with David Brooks vis-à-vis Ta-Nehisi Coates. I mean, if white people are allowed to support Black Power, I always have. If it comes to it, I’ve got plenty of examples.

Now here we go.

DeVega utterly ignores the wealth of scholarly literature on The Cosby Show – I mean acts as though it doesn’t exist. You never see that kind of myopia from Ta-Nehisi Coates (whom DeVega admires on his site). I guess I’m saying that if Salon paid me to write a piece on a show, I might have read what others had written about that show.

Nor does DeVega once mention Marcy Carsey or Tom Werner, the showrunners who – according to everyone who would know – had as much say over The Cosby Show as Cosby. It would be kind of weird to read a 2000-word broadside against Breaking Bad that mentioned only the cast, not Vince Gilligan. Nor does DeVega countenance the folk mythology that says that The Cosby Show made President Barack Obama possible. This is well-trod ground that was re-trod once again yesterday, this time by Maureen Dowd in The Times: “It has been said that Cliff Huxtable was instrumental in paving the way for Barack Obama.” Hey, maybe DeVega doesn’t like Obama; I can respect that.

Not once does DeVega mention what was, before The Cosby Show, Bill Cosby’s best-known venture: Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids. Perhaps DeVega can’t bring that up because it might confuse his point where he unfavorably compares The Cosby Show to Sanford and Son, Good Times, and The Jeffersons – “where the humanity and travails of black folks living in poverty (and escaping such conditions) were the dominant themes.” In case you missed it, Fat Albert and his friends lived in and around a North Philadelphia junkyard, and most early episodes ended with them discussing lessons learned while playing on cobbled-together instruments.

DeVega might respond that it doesn’t matter what else Cosby did. But history matters (or why read his piece at all?), at least requiring DeVega to have provided the caveat “I realize Cosby once dealt with ghetto truths with Fat Albert and 1970s films and his stand-up, but…” However, I’d argue history matters a lot more than that, and DeVega’s piece is ahistorical, perhaps anti-historical. Notice that DeVega’s points of comparison stopped producing new episodes long before The Cosby Show’s debut in 1984. Normally, when you read a think-piece about something bad from the past, it compares it to something else from the same period – if someone wants to say that Hollywood over-rated Star Wars (1977), they compare it to other films by Martin Scorsese and Robert Altman and Francis Coppola from the same time period, not The Graduate (1967).

You know what was still producing new episodes in 1984, when The Cosby Show started? Fat Albert. Look it up. Cosby was keeping the “humanity and travails of black folks living in poverty” thing alive on TV even as he was also trying something else. It’s kind of like when Beyonce drops a hip-hop album while she’s also trying something more pop-oriented. But I guess DeVega wouldn’t like that either.

See, I’m on to Chauncey DeVega. He opens by talking about watching those three 70s sitcoms and The Cosby Show as a kid playing Nintendo. Anyone young enough to be playing Nintendo (which came to American homes in the mid-80s) wasn’t old enough to have understood the difference between a Rerun and a Roger and an Original Show, nor the context of American TV when The Cosby Show began in 1984. No single human in 1984 had carte blanche to make whatever show they wanted, not even Norman Lear or Aaron Spelling. Reading DeVega, you’d assume that Cosby could have waltzed into NBC in early 1984 and pitched “Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood” (presumably NBC’s property via SNL) as a sitcom and they would have gone with it. Uh, no. Cosby wasn’t their savior yet, odd as that will seem to a kid who discovered him post-1984.

When Prince, at his career peak, sang “You don’t have to watch Dynasty to have an attitude,” he was talking about a lot more than one show. Everything on TV in 1983-84 was cotton-candy, plastic, A-Team-bullets-that-don’t-hit-anyone silliness. Look at this Top 10 list, for God’s sake. This was the white-rich-entitled landscape where Cosby and Carsey and Werner came to ask NBC for money, and The Cosby Show was practically a docudrama by contrast. (And NBC also needed something to fit into the pre-existing affluent fuzzy-sweater lineup of Cheers and Family Ties, so it’s not like they would have joined them with I Spy 2.)

As a black friend of mine said (yeah, he’s not my only one, Chauncey), pre-Cosby Show, prime-time black TV in America was basically Webster, Arnold Jackson, and Nancy Reagan on Mr. T’s lap. Now, my friend gives Cosby credit not just for getting TV blacks out of that childhood phase, but also for creating opportunities for stars like Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, Danny Glover, Wesley Snipes, and Samuel L. Jackson. I don’t know if I’d go that far, but something changed from the early-80s Eddie Murphy-only days to the early-90s stardom of those guys, and I’m not sure that Bill Cosby didn’t have something to do with it. Of course, I should be clear: DeVega’s not saying The Cosby Show wasn’t important, not saying it didn’t save both the sitcom genre and NBC, just that it was regrettable and “profoundly racist.”

DeVega says that The Cosby Show should have been more like Roseanne (began 1988) and Roc (began 1991), which were more about the fed-up working-class; the problem he doesn’t recognize is that those shows could not and would not have gotten on the air in 1984. We weren’t ready. We needed hip-hop to break through in 1986 (thank you, Run-D.M.C.), we needed the market to fall in 1987, we may have needed a show like Cosby’s, we certainly needed a drip-drip of stories like the ones DeVega mentions just below, but which Time and Newsweek basically ignored until around 1987. And DeVega would know that if he wasn’t playing Nintendo at the time.

I hate this:

“The Cosby Show” was set during the 1980s and early to mid 1990s in New York City. This was a tumultuous time of protest activity, anti-black and brown police harassment, brutality and killings, tensions between African-Americans and Koreans, anxieties about black “super predators,” “wilding,” the Central Park Five, the Crown Heights riots, and the racist murders and assaults on black youth by white racists in the neighborhood of Howard Beach.

In that context, consider the following:

  • Theo Huxtable was never harassed by the New York City Police Department because he was a young black male.
  • Cliff Huxtable was never stopped by the police because he drove an expensive luxury automobile.
  • Claire Huxtable was never racially profiled while she shopped in an exclusive boutique or high end retail department store in Manhattan.

“The Cosby Show” need not have been Spike Lee’s searing (and soaring) “Do the Right Thing” or a homage to Public Enemy’s video “Fight the Power,” but those moments and events are the context and backdrop for the show. To ignore those happenings in an act of surrender to genre norms, or because of its cross-over success as one of the country’s most popular television show, is an evasion of “The Cosby Show’s” responsibility to both Black America and the general viewing public.

Well, you say. Perhaps DeVega is saying that The Cosby Show, despite being premised on the wildly successful Huxtables, should have changed course in 1987 or 1988 to show racial profiling. If so, that’s ridiculous. You know, Mothers Against Drunk Driving got big in the mid-1980s; did Cheers (1982-93) owe us a drunk driving episode? Did Friends (1994-2004) owe us a 9/11 episode? Did The Andy Griffith Show (1960-68) owe us a Mayberry that looked more like the streets of Selma? I don’t agree with the Salon commenters who have told DeVega “get over it, it’s just a TV show” – DeVega is right to say that “popular culture is inherently political and ideological.” But the sitcom genre is inherently idealized and comfort-foody, and what sitcom has ever changed its ways halfway through?

If DeVega were talking about Family Matters (1989-97) or The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (1990-96), then maybe I could see his points about obliquely referring to incidents like Tawana Brawley and Howard Beach – those shows hadn’t pre-established a Huxtable milieu before such things happened. (Though, those were probably pitched to network executives as “Cosby with a 90s spin.”) The Cosby Show should probably have changed for its own sake – you knew it had jumped the shark in 1989 when it brought in 3-year-old Olivia as the new Rudy (dictionary definition of a shark-jump). In some ways, DeVega is just saying what the ratings already said – The Cosby Show got a little annoying because it felt a bit out of touch, not unlike the show Father Knows Best (to which it was often compared). But does gradual obsolescence really deserve DeVega’s level of vitriol?

DeVega isn’t putting the carts before the horse; he’s putting the carts alongside the horse. Do the Right Thing and the “Fight the Power” video were 1989 masterpieces – absolutely, they were – partly because The Cosby Show already existed. They may well have been pitched as “You think Cosby is the black experience? Try this instead.” It’s like DeVega is beating up Elvis Presley with the example of the Beatles. I mean, sure, the Beatles are great, and Elvis is relatively cheesy, but the Beatles never would have gotten that far if someone hadn’t beaten down the door first.

You know who knew about horses and carts? Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner, makers of The Cosby Show. You know what they created next? A Different World in 1987, and then DeVega’s darling Roseanne in 1988, both in their way unimaginable without The Cosby Show being there first, without responding to what TV almost had but didn’t, as they explain in this interview. It’s amazing what you can learn with a little research.

All right, we’ve now covered DeVega’s lack of historical perspective. What about his larger point that the show “enabled some of the ugliest Reagan-era fantasies” because lazy white racists used the show’s characters as a “model-minority myth”? (I would make a joke about Cosby and models, but it certainly wouldn’t be funny.) What about the show’s supposed “erasure of white racism and its impact on the day-to-day lives of black people”? What about DeVega saying, “Only when fixed on The Cosby Show did the White Gaze see that black folks were not some type of Other, that instead they were ‘normal’”?

“Only when fixed on The Cosby Show,” eh? Didn’t white people see the same thing when they watched Oprah Winfrey, whose show became a syndicated hit in 1986?

If lazy white racists are really using The Cosby Show as a bludgeon, since when do we let lazy white racists control what gets or stays on the air? Why let them have the only claim on The Cosby Show? What about the rest of us?

DeVega is stopping just short of calling Cosby an Uncle Tom, and that’s probably because he doesn’t want the full internet wrath that would counter such an accusation. Was Cosby a Tom? As a white person I don’t feel qualified to answer, but if Cosby was a Tom, he certainly wasn’t like any Tom who came before him, because Cliff Huxtable didn’t spend the show genuflecting to white people, unless we’re counting Theo’s one white friend (played by Adam Sandler).

DeVega’s criticism sounds like Spike Lee’s issues with the “Magical Negro” figure – the one who helps white people and doesn’t come from, or care about, any recognizable black culture (exhibit A: Will Smith in The Legend of Bagger Vance). Was Bill Cosby or Cliff Huxtable a Magical Negro? A model minority? If so, certainly not like any who’d come before. The model minority trope was (racistly) coined to describe Asian-Americans. To criticize Cosby on these grounds is a little like lambasting Al Pacino for his leading portrayal of a gay man in Dog Day Afternoon or Dustin Hoffman for his leading portrayal of an autistic man in Rain Man. I mean, don’t they get any slack for having been there first? It’s not like they had a lot of antecedents to work from. Before Cliff Huxtable, who was like Cliff Huxtable?

Sure, as a middle-class white man, I find The Cosby Show easy to watch, especially its brilliant first three or four seasons. Should the Huxtables’ easy affluence bother me? Over-affluence has been part of TV and movies forever, as in all those 1930s’ comedies that were set in mansions and big-band concert halls, as in any Hollywood musical from the 1960s, as in The Beverly Hillbillies, The Brady Bunch, Friends, and Cosby’s lineup-mate Cheers, set in a bar that’s way too large for its few customers. To say that The Cosby Show isn’t allowed to play on the same field, isn’t that…well, biased?

To say that The Cosby Show should have insisted on more working-class black culture is like insisting that African-Americans, in normal life, need to mention black culture and heritage. If an African-American person in a diverse office environment goes a week without mentioning something that schools teach during Black History Month, does that mean said person hates himself or his race? I know I’m white, but that doesn’t seem quite fair to me.

By Devega and Lee’s logic (and the logic of some of the academic articles I hyperlinked above), any African-American entertainer who fails to mention their origins or culture is somehow working to erase white racism. This could cover everyone from Oprah Winfrey to Darius Rucker to Will Smith’s peak career to Omar Epps on House to Neil Degrasse Tyson. One could argue that there’s a sort of reverse-racism at work here, a sort of soft bigotry of black-experience expectations – but I’m not going to say that, because I’m white and I don’t have that standing. So just ignore the last sentence. Look: I’ll admit that Cosby (and others) are letting me off the hook, but who says I’m relying on Cosby for all I know about black people? Who says I wasn’t listening to Ice Cube and Public Enemy albums that came out at the same time as The Cosby Show? If someone is learning all they know about African-American culture from that show – well, yes, I could see how that might be a problem. Produce that person, or let it go.

Maybe DeVega’s whole article is about his own lost innocence. I was 13 when The Cosby Show began, and I already knew Cosby from his albums. I knew how to quote his “God talking to Noah” routine chapter and verse before Cliff Huxtable ever existed. I had already grown up on Good Times; my innocence got lost when Jimmie Walker didn’t become a movie star. The Cosby Show wasn’t “here’s all you need to know about blacks, and it turns out racism doesn’t exist” but instead just…well, good times. And when that family was on that staircase lip-synching “Night and Day” – come on, those were good times.

Let’s summarize. Bill Cosby is a serial rapist and scumbag. But that doesn’t mean that his show(s) should be pulled from syndication for other reasons. People like Chauncey DeVega shouldn’t be taking this opportunity to throw out the baby with the bathwater. The Cosby Show was a fine, sometimes terrific show and a crucial part of TV history. Let’s not rewrite that history just because we can.

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