Author Mark Whitaker will release his much-anticipated biography of Bill Cosby this week, three decades after the comedian debuted The Cosby Show and single-handedly altered the portrayal of African Americans on television.
Could Cosby have known back then that the NBC sitcom would become an immediate hit?
“Oh sure, I recognized it,” he told The Root with a hearty laugh. “Get out of here! The only thing I kept saying is, ‘I just hope I get enough viewers to keep it on the air.’”
For years The Cosby Show dominated the television ratings war and introduced the now 77-year-old Philadelphia native to a younger generation, unfamiliar with his well-established career as a standup comic and movie star. It also showcased Clair and Cliff Huxtable as stern but loving parents to five children.
But when writer-producer duo Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner initially tried to persuade the networks to pick up the show, they faced immediate rejection.
“I know when Tom and Marcy went to pitch the show about a family and to put it on the air, they knew that black people were coming,” says Cosby. “They didn’t say ‘black people’; they said Bill Cosby and his family. And since nobody said that they would have a white daughter-in-law and a white dog, they knew his children and his wife were black.”
Cosby was intentional about using the show—as well as the spinoff sitcom A Different World—to highlight African-American life and culture.
“Black people are often portrayed as monolithic. We are poor; we don’t like education. We have anger towards each other. We don’t hug and kiss. And certainly when something is wrong, we react in a very violent, verbal way. We talk about each other, and the word ‘ugly’ flies all over the place,” he says.
“When you measure The Cosby Show and you measure A Different World, the behaviors of these two shows give you a certain kind of people,” says Cosby. “You get away from the monolithic image that says that we are not caring about education, that we really don’t see ourselves as strong and [that we are] not caring about voting.”
The show’s focus on the family, Cosby says, resonated with all Americans no matter their ethnic backgrounds.