*Bill Cosby did a remarkable thing for black people and television in general 30 years ago. He used his education, comic genius, courage and skill to demonstrate that people of all races and socio-economic rankings can sit around a television set and watch a show where a family with children go through the same things all families go through.
But this family just happened to be black.
And he made it look effortless. And it was enjoyable. The Cosby Show did change what was possible if you were black and on television. It did show that you didn’t have to play to type, and that there truly is a universality of the human experience. It made you believe you actually could be anything. Unapologetic. Out loud! Whether it be a doctor, a lawyer, heck, a homeboy in outer space. And you can be sure that the eight-season-success of this formula called “The Cosby Show” proved beyond the shadow of a doubt to NBC that with the right kind of support, successful shows, with positive messages, can be brought about by an all-black cast.
But of course this wasn’t the mindset BC: before Cosby. Where the most prominent programming was black sitcoms built on a racist past. Shows like radio’s Amos ’n’ Andy – a staged minstrel-turned-television show that starred black actors playing roles with safe characters who were non-threatening to white folks. Dress these folks up or down, but keep them sassy, with that ham-bone talk coming out of their mouth because these characters were only seconds out of the cotton patch, and now struggling in the big city.
In those days, the development of black television programming moved incrementally slow. Sanford and Son soon followed before we moved on up to Norman Lear’s Good Times. And both of these shows still demonstrated that “jive talking” spectacle from a colorful array of struggling, working-class people. But as stated in The Root, it’s not that all these shows were bad, they just had distant roots in the minstrel mold and they sat there, comfortably, for a l-o-n-g time, with no greater expectation of what middle or upper class black life looked like.
Why was it so important for the viewing audience to laugh when a program had a black cast?
But The Cosby Show blew a hole in the psyche of that viewing audience, and nobody even knew what hit ’em. It happened so quickly that by the time white America realized it was a “black show,” they were hooked, and nobody gave a damn.
Instead, audiences excitedly embraced everything from what was going to happen with Cosby’s only son, “Theo,” next week, to what new experiences little “Rudy” will come upon, to which sweater Bill Cosby will wear. The show was decidedly well educated while still maintaining an authenticity deeply rooted in the African-American experience.
“The Cosby Show” ran for eight seasons, bringing in 20 million viewers each Thursday night. It remained in the top five for seven seasons and is only one of three programs that have ever consecutively been the No. 1 show on television for five straight seasons. (The other two are All in the Family and American Idol.)
And since money talks, and it made lots of it for NBC, Bill Cosby was green-lighted to create a show about a fictitious historically black college (“A Different World”). That show was a success too. And it ran for seven seasons and is considered by some to be the greatest black sitcom ever made.
Of course, seeing this, the network execs attempted to duplicate what they believed was the formula from “The Cosby Show” and “A Different World,” and a string of other sitcoms with black casts followed throughout the 1990s into the early 2000s. But for what was probably a variety of intricate reasons, the quality of the shows were often hit-or-miss, which made the attempts unsuccessful overall.
But they are still trying! Even the new sitcom Black-ish on ABC (set to debut Sept. 24) has that Cosby-esque sheen of being about an upper-middle-class family, but now, instead of struggling to make it in the big city – we’ll see their attempts to exist in a mostly white suburb.
So why might we never see another show like “The Cosby Show” in the modern era of today?
Here’s why: Not only was the show developed and maintained by a comedic genius; timing had a lot to do with the success of “The Cosby Show.” It happened at a time when people were not inundated with choices; there was room was something new and refreshing. And the show was smart – without being cocky. The writing was great and it was realistic. People didn’t have to stretch their imagination to eat up the words. On top of all that, it featured a beautiful mother who shared wisdom lovingly, and a host of talented, adorable children who sought out their parents advice and listened, respectfully.
For all this effort, though, the success of The Cosby Show—like Michael Jackson’s Thriller, Seinfeld and legendary newsman Walter Cronkite—is unlikely to be surpassed. Of course other good shows will come along, but because our media market has changed so drastically, and an insatiable public appetite has been developed it seems impossible for any one thing to dominate American culture the way The Cosby Show did.
We simply have too many networks, too many websites, and too many options for viewers.