An Exclusive Talk with Bill Cosby
Did the Huxtables make the Obamas possible? On the 25th anniversary of "The Cosby Show," Cos on Clair's Dominican roots, Cheney, Bush, and a different kind of "taking the house back."
For eight television seasons (NBC, 1984-92), the Emmy Award-winning The Cosby Show, written by and starring comedian Bill Cosby, beamed an unflinching, yet humorous black family portrait into living rooms across America. Cosby, as Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable, presided over this historic foray into black upper-middle class life. The sitcom was a window into a certain, often enviable kind of black familial and romantic love, a showcase for amazing talent, and a place where the situations or “problems” of a black family were mostly just the same as any other family’s. The No. 1 hit celebrates its 25th anniversary this Sunday.
In this first installation of Cosby’s exclusive interview with The Root, the show’s star and creator shares never-before-told stories about the show and explores the political legacy of the Huxtables: Did Cliff and Clair Huxtable make Barack and Michelle Obama possible?
The Root: Why did you start The Cosby Show?
Bill Cosby: I didn’t like what was on TV in terms of sitcoms—it had nothing to do with the color of them—I just didn’t like any of them. I saw little kids, let’s say 6 or 7 years old, white kids, black kids. And the way they were addressing the father or the mother, the writers had turned things around, so the little children were smarter than the parent or the caregiver. They were just not funny to me. I felt that it was manipulative and the audience was looking at something that had no responsibility to the family.
TR: You and your TV wife, Phylicia Rashad, raised five children on that show who were pretty well-behaved. What accounts for that?
“Raised” is right … Episode One might very well be one of the strongest episodes of any sitcom. Because it is the beginning of the boy, Theo, announcing that he does not want to become a person who has to study, to get a career, that he wants no particular responsibility toward studying or school. He sees somebody with a job, and he calls them ‘regular people.’
What I didn’t plan for was that the audience started to applaud … The applause floored me because it really made me feel that these people are saying, ‘Well, he’s right! He should be allowed to be a regular person.’ And I thought to myself, Hey, man, I’m in trouble.
But I knew and believed that what Cliff was about to say was the right thing … So I said, “I brought you into this world, and I can take you out.” Then the people started clapping for what I said. So now I said to myself: Are they back on track? How can they applaud for him and then applaud for what I’m saying? Is the audience split on what is going on?
TR: But wasn’t Cliff himself going to be a "regular person"—a truck driver? What happened?
The chauffeur thing was my idea. Also Clair was going to be a plumber in the union …. Clair was also going to be Dominican, and have a mother and father speaking Spanish—which would be the reverse of [I Love] Lucy. I would be the person that didn’t understand when she spoke Spanish. And in the first show, Phylicia speaks Spanish and throughout the show, she understands Spanish. She doesn’t use it the way I wanted to use it. Mrs. Cosby, along with [executive producer] Marcy Carsey, said, ‘No, we think it’s more interesting to have this career professional.’ And I’m not going to argue with my wife.
The day [Rashad] got the part, I was sitting in the back, and women were … reading with a couple of the kids. And many of them when … they were going to tell the kid off, started the head moving like a bobble doll … (laughs). And when Phylicia’s turn came and she was reading with Malcolm [Jamal-Warner] and he said something to her … there was a pause from her. And do you know what she did in that pause? She did something with her eyes. She didn’t bop her head; she didn’t throw her hand up on her hip; and she didn’t say anything out loud. She cut a look that said, oh, maybe four or five things (laughs)—and none of them were good. And I turned to Marcy, and I said ‘That’s Clair.’