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.
“Cliff and Clair, they did their jobs in terms of giving themselves hard work, education and becoming what they wanted to become. They get married and then they have children, and that’s when things start to get wobbly. So it’s about the rearing of the children. It is about Theo and the family learning about dyslexia and how to work with it.”
Frustrated by the dearth of positive images of African Americans on television since his show ended in 1992, Cosby—who is still popular on the standup circuit—is actively working on a similar sitcom that is scheduled to hit the airwaves sometime this fall.
“The writers are writing, and I think they are going to take us along the lines of an experiment,” says Cosby, who confesses that he doesn’t watch much television these days. “I would have dry heaves if I watched this stuff. These people are writing comedy like there’s only one way to get a laugh, and that is to have somebody say something stupid.”
Though he’s adamant that in the new pilot there won’t be a Cliff or Clair, he’s counting on his loyal followers—those who enthusiastically embraced the Huxtables—to tune in to the show when it airs.
“I’m at the airport sitting there minding my business, waiting for them to seat me. And they’re coming up in all colors, shaking my hand and saying, ‘Mr. Cosby, I heard you’re coming back. Please, please, Mr. Cosby, please.’”
Never shy about expressing his views, Cosby says that blacks should prepare now to aggressively challenge efforts to disenfranchise their vote at the ballot box in November’s midterm elections.
“We already know the enemy, and we know the enemy well, but it’s up to us to be better prepared,” says Cosby. “When these fools come along and start to harass our people in the lines, we should have more than enough people to stand there and tell our people, ‘Pay no attention to this. Your papers are clear.’”
Cosby says that citizens should come to the polling booth armed with their cameras to photograph voting irregularities. “When these fools decide they are going to move in and shut down voting booths, we have the lawyers prepared with papers to set the law in motion to stop it. But we have to start getting ready right now.”
Jamal Watson is the senior staff writer for Diverse: Issues in Higher Education and the author of a forthcoming biography of the Rev. Al Sharpton. Follow him on Twitter.