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.’
All I ever wanted was something on TV. I wanted to take the house back. I felt that on all these other shows the children owned the house. Now in real life, I have five children and [my wife and I] aren’t letting people go around the house the way the writers were writing for these kids.
I wanted to … show people that this is parenting, and this is home, and this is deep. And though these people have their careers, their lives, and they’re comfortable—paying their bills and such, the wheels can come off with the behavior of your children, and you have to deal with that. But you also have a lot of fun.
TR: The political backdrop of The Cosby Show was the last of Reaganomics and the beginning of the Clinton years. How much were politics forced upon you, and how much did you seek it out?
No, no. When you say politics, I think of Washington, D.C. …. I did not do anything that people who were not African-American didn’t understand …. We went straight at [the audience]; we went at them with visual art, we went at them with music; we went at them with celebrations of things that had to do with music, black culture. We went James Brown, B.B. King, Stevie Wonder. So when we talked about those things, people understood that this is a black family.
TR: The Cosby Show displayed the black middle class to a mainstream audience who might otherwise only have seen them as gangbangers, shift-workers or athletes. Without Cliff and Clair, would there have been Barack and Michelle?
My answer is yes, he would be. Yes. Because before Cliff and Clair, there was Dr. King. And that movement brought down a whole lot of things that were against black people. In those participations against racism, against segregation, there were people of all colors, cultures, races, creeds, who joined, marched, took hits, gave money, were fired from jobs, were called communist and anti-American by the New York Times and the Washington Post. Because the government and institutions were treating black people negatively. So when these people joined together and they began to win, they also married … integrating and marrying, so that it was Latin, brown people, black people, white, mixing. I think that this United States has come to a point—or had—where this man and his wife could do it.
You know, I’m not sure if he didn’t have a George W. and a Cheney and that Republican Party and what it did to people, he could have been elected. More than anything, I think people also woke up, and they were being used; they were using soldiers and holding them up as shields to keep this inept president and vice president. The nation became very, very tired of this foolishness—and they were tired of being used.
And so along comes this man and this woman, and he is what the people are looking for. The people [were] trying to get out of this mess, and it didn’t make a difference to them what color [Obama was], if he created a feeling of honesty and as he said, change.
TR: Do you think the Obamas were or are fans of The Cosby Show?
I don’t know. I think they were. They had to be. I watch the Obamas. And I’m fans of their show.
Read part two of The Root’s exclusive talk with Cosby on Friday.
Dayo Olopade is Washington reporter for The Root.
Covers the White House and Washington for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.