The Cosby Show aired thirty-four years ago and the American audience was introduced to Heathcliff, “the greatest TV dad” of all time, and the Huxtable family, an upper middle-class African-American family living in Brooklyn, New York.
At 8 p.m. EST on Sept. 20, 1984, NBC aired the pilot of The Cosby Show titled, “Theo’s Economic Lesson.” Viewers are introduced to Huxtable matriarch, Clair (Phylicia Rashad) an attorney; and her children Theodore (Malcolm-Jamal Warner), Vanessa (Tempestt Bledsoe), Denise (Lisa Bonet) and Rudy (Keisha Knight Pulliam).
In the opening scene, the family is having dinner and Clair is visibly upset with Theo over his poor grades, and Vanessa wants her brother to get in trouble for throwing food at her. Their father, Clifford (Bill Cosby), an OB/GYN, comes home shortly after the meal.
With four Ds on his report card, the family’s only son tells his father grades don’t mean much because he would forgo college to become a “regular person.” Cliff used Monopoly money to teach Theo the harsh reality of being a blue-collar worker in America. During the scene, Cliff famously says, “I brought you into this world, I will take you out,” a quote still recited to unruly children in homes across America. After the hilarious exchange, and the possibility of living paycheck-to-paycheck, Theo decides to try his best to succeed.
Later in the episode, Cliff meets Denise’s male admirer, who has spent time in a Turkish prison. He reminds his daughter of her curfew, though she rejects the “school night” rule because it is a Friday
Later, Clair and Cliff get into bed, as they would for seasons to come, and they are interrupted by Rudy and Vanessa, who are invited to sleep with their parents
In a review for the pilot, John J. O’Connor, a journalist for The New York Times, wrote: “With only the premiere to go on, The Cosby Show is by far the classiest and most entertaining new situation comedy of the season.”
The Huxtables would become a staple of Thursday night TV for eight seasons until April 30, 1992. After the first episode, Clifford became Heathcliff, and the family’s brownstone received small renovations. In the 10th episode of the season, Sondra (Sabrina LeBeauf), the eldest daughter, is introduced after her return home from college. Cosby placed the character into the story to show what it is like to raise a successful child.
Although the show was comedic, Cosby used the platform to depict serious issues including teen pregnancy and learning disabilities. The Cosby Show was a mix of family values, affluence and humor. It was the realization of the American Dream by a Black family, a lawyer-doctor couple whose children attended Princeton and NYU, something that happened easily on television but was not a typical reality in everyday life.
The portrayal of this stable Black family was praised for breaking racial stereotypes. Others criticized the show for being unrealistic and allowing White audiences to think that racism and poverty no longer affected the Black-American experience, especially in New York City during the crack epidemic.
In the following seven seasons, The Cosby Show introduced Sondra’s husband, Elvin (Geoffrey Owens); Denise’s husband, Lt. Martin (Joseph C. Phillips); and her step-daughter, Olivia (Raven-Symoné). The historic show spent five consecutive seasons as the No. 1-rated program on television and all eight of its seasons in the top 20, according to the blog, TV Talking Heads.
The sitcom’s success paved the way for a variety of Black stories and casts on television shows, including In Living Color, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and A Different World, a Cosby Show spinoff that ran for six seasons from 1987 to 1993.
The Cosby Show ran in syndication for the decades earning $1.5 billion until Cosby’s sex assault scandal resulted in major networks pulling the show. Owens, who went viral for working at Trader Joe’s in August, blamed a loss of royalty checks from the show as the reason for his taking on extra work. He is scheduled to appear on NCIS: New Orleans and The Have and The Have Nots.
Warner spoke about the “tarnished” legacy of the show with The Associated Press. “We’ve always had The Cosby Show to hold up against that. And the fact that we no longer have that, that’s the thing that saddens me the most because in a few generations the Huxtables will have been just a fairy tale.”
In March, Bonet said she didn’t know about Cosby’s inclinations but acknowledged his “sinister, shadow energy” during her years working with him. During the past five years, she’s acted on Fox’s New Girl, HBO’s Girls, and Showtime’s Ray Donovan.
Knight Pulliam and Rashad are among the few former castmates who support Cosby. In January 2015, Rashad expressed her love and support for Cosby amid rape allegations. Two years later, Knight Pulliam escorted the disgraced comedian into court saying, “it’s what you do” for a person who has paved the way for you.
Despite how you feel about Bill Cosby as a person, the importance and history of the television series cannot be denied. Whether the content and the creator can be separated is up for the viewer to decide.
The Cosby Show is still available on Amazon Video.
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Christina Santi is a news and culture writer for EBONY.com. Born and raised in the Bronx, New York, she considers herself a well-read, not so traditional feminist with a heavy interest in music, fashion and pop culture. Christina currently lives in New York City, where she refers to her Cuban & Jamaican descent often while writing about her experiences as a first-generation Afro-Latinx in America. She also devotes time writing personalized reading material for her tutees and turning ideas into words for streetwear brand, PUER By Noel Bronson.