I honestly couldn’t continue on with “Black History Month” without doing a special feature on one of the most successful sitcoms of the 1980s. In fact, many critics and fans of this NBC series credit this show with breathing new life into the genre known as the sitcom, and over its eight years on the air, it brought fans many laughs, raked in the awards, and completely shattered any possible stereotypes that may have lingered at the time.
It seems hard to believe now, but there was once a time in which NBC was the home of “Must See TV”. As far as I’m concerned, when “Friends” and “ER” were cancelled, the network began its plummet into the depths of the ratings, with both CBS and ABC surpassing them by the time the 2010s rolled around.
During the period known as the 1980s, it seemed as though almost every household had to tune into the network, as some of the most talked about programs to ever air during the 1980s aired right on NBC. “Hill Street Blues”, “L.A. Law”, “Miami Vice”, “The Golden Girls”, “The Facts Of Life”, “Diff’rent Strokes”, “Family Ties”, and “The A-Team” were all humongous hits during the time period known as the 1980s. In fact, I think I remember being a kid in the 1980s, and always having our television set on channel six (before we got cable, NBC was on Channel 6 on the dial), because the best shows aired there.
And, that also included “The Cosby Show”, the topic of discussion for today. Have a look at one of the eight different introductions below. This particular one is the one that I remember the most.
That was one way in which “The Cosby Show” stood out. Each time a new season began, the opening was tweaked around. Sometimes the theme song would change, while other times the whole opening was redone. At least this way when you were watching it in reruns, you could tell what season you were watching because of the opening.
Of course, the opening wasn’t the most important breakthrough that was showcased on “The Cosby Show”. But, before we get to that, let’s talk a little bit about the show creation.
“The Cosby Show” was created by Bill Cosby, and aired on NBC between September 20, 1984 and April 30, 1992.
(Ironically enough, the show ended smack dab in the middle of the 1992 Los Angeles Riots that erupted after the controversial conclusion of the Rodney King trial.)
Anyway, “The Cosby Show” was largely based off of Bill Cosby’s comedy routines, and focused on the fictional African-American Huxtable family of Brooklyn, New York. Cosby played Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable (though in the pilot episode, his name was Clifford), an obstetrician. The rest of the members of the Huxtable family we’ll meet a little later, but each one was based off of a real-life member of Bill Cosby’s family.
The show itself was groundbreaking in that it depicted African-American families in a light that many people had never seen on television before. In previous television sitcoms that had a predominantly black cast, they were portrayed as being working class citizens (heck, Redd Foxx’s character worked as a junk dealer on “Sanford and Son”). Very rarely were African-Americans portrayed as being rich and successful.
“The Cosby Show” changed all that. As mentioned before, Dr. Huxtable was a successful obstetrician. His wife Clair was a powerful lawyer. They lived in a beautiful Brooklyn townhouse and raised a son and four daughters together. In a way, the show destroyed a lot of stereotypes by telling people that anybody could have it all, no matter what their skin colour was. In many ways, “The Cosby Show” helped open the doors for other television shows featuring a predominantly black cast to be featured on the air, which included “Amen”, “227”, “Living Single”, “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”, “Family Matters”, and “Sister, Sister”.
The show was ranked the #1 television show in ratings between 1985 and 1990, and even when the show went off the air in 1992, it was still a Top 20 hit. It’s one of the very few television sitcoms to keep its time slot for all eight seasons (Thursday nights at 8:00pm), and the show also spawned a spin-off program called “A Different World”, which also aired on NBC for six seasons between 1987 and 1993.
So, you can see how “The Cosby Show” changed the course of television for years to come, and why people regarded it as one of the best sitcoms of the 1980s.
Now, let’s meet the characters of “The Cosby Show”. We’ll learn which member of Bill Cosby’s real life family they were based off of, some of the storylines that they got caught up in while they were on the show, and if I’m able to find any clips, I’ll post those as well.
Why don’t we start with Clair Huxtable (played by Phylicia Rashad)? Clair is probably the very definition of elegance and intelligence. She displayed both in almost every episode. But, she didn’t have an air of arrogance associated with her. She treated everyone as an equal, and in a lot of cases, she could let her hair down and be goofy and playful if the situation called for it. It should come as no surprise that the character of Clair was loosely based on Bill Cosby’s real-life wife, Camille.
Believe it or not, when “The Cosby Show” was being plotted out, Clair was supposed to be a stay-at-home mother who took care of the couple’s children. However, it was decided in a mutual agreement by Cosby and Tom Werner and Marcy Carsey to make Clair a lawyer instead. And, though we only saw Clair inside of a courtroom once during the whole series, we saw her “attorney side” working at the household. After all, she was the main disciplinarian of the Huxtable household, as this clip below will show you. Let it be a lesson to all of you. If you’re Clair Huxtable’s daughter, don’t go to Baltimore.
TRIVIA: Between 1984 and 1985, Phylicia Rashad was credited as Phylicia Ayers-Allen. She changed her name when she married NBC sportscaster Ahmad Rashad in 1985.
Next, we have eldest Huxtable daughter, Sondra (Sabrina LeBeauf). Now, Sondra’s an interesting case. In the pilot episode, she does not even exist, as Clair and Cliff talk about their four children, and Sondra didn’t make an appearance until the middle of season one! It was later explained that Cosby wanted to add Sondra to the cast to show that they did have a child who had successfully graduated college.
Sondra’s your typical overachiever and wildly intelligent, which earns nothing but respect from Cliff and Clair (well, except for that one time she told Clair that she was skipping law school to open up a wilderness store with her love, Elvin). Other than that, she’s the most responsible one in the whole Huxtable family. Unfortunately, she was also one of the most invisible, only appearing in a handful of the 202 episodes that were filmed. But in the episodes that she was present in, she played a huge part. She married her long-time love Elvin Tibideaux midway through the series, and gave birth to twins Nelson and Winnie (named after Nelson and Winnie Mandela). She is loosely based off of Cosby’s oldest daughter, Erika.
TRIVIA: Would you believe that Whitney Houston was once considered for the role of Sondra? And, would you believe that Sabrina LeBeauf was only ten years younger than Phylicia Rashad (which almost caused her not to get the role)?
Next up is another Huxtable who popped in and out of the show. Denise Huxtable (played by Lisa Bonet), is the Huxtable child that could be considered the square peg of the bunch. She’s quite bohemian, and marches to the beat of her own drum. She loves music and fashion, but not enough to want to go to college to pursue a career in them. She was always portrayed as popular, having a different boyfriend in nearly every episode of the first two seasons, and she would often come up with some bizarre ideas that made Cliff or Clare stare at her in disbelief.
Denise was the Huxtable that kickstarted the spin-off series “A Different World”, in which her character began attending Hillman College (based off of the real-life Spelman College). At some point, she returned to “The Cosby Show” only for her character to venture off to Africa for a year. When she returned home, she was married to a man named Martin Kendall, and became the stepmother of little Olivia (Raven-Symone), who became a permanent cast member in the latter part of the series.
TRIVIA: The reason why Denise was written out of “A Different World” was because she had gotten pregnant during the show’s first season. She gave birth to daughter Zoe in 1988. The father? Singer Lenny Kravitz.
Middle child Theo (Malcolm-Jamal Warner) was the only male child in the Huxtable family, and was based off of Cosby’s only son Ennis (who was tragically murdered in 1997).
Now, in many ways, Theo could be considered the Huxtable child who ended up getting the most attention, and therefore ended up with the most interesting storylines. Many people didn’t know this, but Ennis Cosby was dyslexic, and before he was killed, he was working on becoming a teacher. Because of that, the show also opted to make Theo a dyslexic. On the first episode of the series, Theo was a straight-D student, and received a very memorable lecture from Cliff. By the series finale, he was a student teacher helping other children overcome their learning disabilities, and graduated from New York University with a degree in psychology (the show itself was one of the few sitcoms to film entirely in New York City).
TRIVIA: One of Theo’s friends was played by future NCIS star Michael Weatherly, and Theo’s girlfriend Justine was played by the late Michelle Thomas, who also starred as Steve Urkel’s obsessed girlfriend Myra Monkhouse in Family Matters.
Huxtable daughter number three is Vanessa (Tempestt Bledsoe), and the one thing that I can say about her is that she is like a Chatty Cathy doll with a permanent on button! She talks and talks (though not nearly as much as her friend Kara), and gets into typical teenage mischief. She is also the Huxtable kid who almost always gets involved in some sort of trouble (she’s the one that you saw getting schooled by Clair earlier). She was also the Huxtable who found herself in situations involving drugs and alcohol. Although she wasn’t smoking when Theo caught Vanessa’s friends smoking cigarettes in her room, she did take part in a drinking game that involved twenty-six letters and a lot of liquor. And this prompted Vanessa’s parents to teach her a lesson. Vanessa was loosely based off of Cosby’s daughter, Ensa.
TRIVIA: Tempestt Bledsoe later went on to host a short-lived talk show in the 1990s.
The final child in the Huxtable family tree is Rudith Huxtable (Keshia Knight Pulliam), otherwise known as Rudy. And, I have to admit that when I was growing up, Rudy was my favourite...probably because she was the closest in age with me (the actress that played her is only two years older than I am).
Rudy was based off of Cosby’s daughter, Evin...but it was originally planned for Rudy to be a male character instead of a female. Jaleel White (who later played Steve Urkel on Family Matters), once admitted that he auditioned for the role of Rudy at the time!
Anyway, as the youngest child in the Huxtable family, Rudy didn’t have a whole lot of big storylines (in the first season, she skipped out on her goldfish’s funeral to watch television), but keep in mind that Knight Pulliam was on the show between the ages of five and thirteen, which meant that she reached puberty while on the show. I can only imagine how uncomfortable it must have been for her to have the whole world watching her come of age!
TRIVIA: Keshia Knight Pulliam became the youngest nominee for a primetime Emmy Award ever in 1986. Unfortunately, she did not win the award. But still, it must have been an honour to be nominated...especially at the age of seven!
So, that’s our look back on “The Cosby Show”. Now, I will open the floor up to you.
BONUS QUESTION: Which Huxtable character was your favourite? And, which episode was your favourite?