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Cosby & Co.: What Makes The Show A Hit?

September 26, 1985|MORGAN GENDEL | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Bill Cosby's chauffeur-driven Toyota station wagon whisked along the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. It had been a long day of rehearsals at NBC Brooklyn Studios, and Cosby, puffing on a cigar in the front seat, was answering questions posed to the back of his head en route to his Manhattan town house.

Cosby is not rude. Twenty-seven hours later, he pointedly questioned a photographer's approach to shooting his picture, then moments later graciously offered to provide the photographer with a ride back to town.

Rather, he is matter of fact: about why "The Cosby Show" is a hit, about how he fits better in the front seat than the back and, mostly, about the indisputable evidence that the people who program prime-time television still don't get it .

He had heard a rumor that rock queen-turned-movie star Tina Turner was going to be cast in an episode of "Miami Vice"--as a madam. "I'll put her on my show and I wouldn't make her something as easy as a madam. . . , " he said, his finger pointing as if at a network executive who's been a bad boy.

"The networks have not even realized what the public is saying," he said, citing the Turner bit as well as "Charlie & Co."--which stars Flip Wilson and Gladys Knight in a family sitcom painfully close to "The Cosby Show" in all the wrong ways.

"These people watching us happen to be making a statement. They're saying to the networks, 'Listen, this is the kind of thing we would like to see--not just a family and children running around the house and the parents correcting and people hugging and kissing. B-u-u-t-t-t, we can also stand for shows where people have a human feeling and punchlines that we're not embarrassed about because they deal with sexual parts of the body.' "

As Cosby sees it, his show has not so much a message as a point . And the point can be as slight as showing a girls-against-boys family football game, or seeing what happens when a 16-year-old gets her first car--both coming in "The Cosby Show's" new season, which premieres tonight.

There are stories you won't see too. "There are areas I'd like to get into that Bill doesn't particularly want to," said Jay Sandrich, the veteran director of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "Soap," who has been with "Cosby" since its inception.

Sandrich, relaxing in the Brooklyn Studio's conference room before a rehearsal, spelled out his areas of concern: "I would like to deal a little more with what is really happening in some schools today. I would like to deal a little more with prejudice. They don't acknowledge that they're a black family."

Asked about this later, Cosby questioned why the Huxtables, his onscreen family, should be expected to become involved with issues that other sitcom families don't have to take up. "Everybody knows that they're black; why does this family have to deal with that?" he said.

David Brokaw, a spokesman for Cosby, later referred to this difference of opinion as "a case of preference, not a source of tension."

This is the closest the relationship between Cosby and his co-workers ever comes to being tested. The man of a dozen magazine covers and countless commercials, a hotter television commodity than pastel suits and jiggling flesh, Cosby understandably might turn out to be a difficult taskmaster. But those around him swear it isn't so.

On the contrary, everyone interviewed said there is no stress on the Brooklyn set, as opposed to some of its Hollywood counterparts.

"You can scratch and dig and look as hard as you can, but you can look at our faces and see that it's the truth," said Caryn Sneider, supervising producer of "The Cosby Show."

Indeed, the faces all looked relaxed at NBC Brooklyn, as though the air of success had smoothed out the furrows.

The writers, despite the pressure of last-minute rewrites, kidded around as they dined on cheeseburgers and homemade cookies prepared by their full-time cook. Between tapings, the cameramen, outfitted with new videotape cameras halfway through last season, good-naturedly traded off-color jokes.

Teen-age cast members Lisa Bonet (Denise) and Malcolm-Jamal Warner (Theodore) spent part of one afternoon chasing each other through the hallways outside their new dressing rooms, part of NBC's recent $2-million renovation.

"Because of the way we work and the people we hire and because of Bill and the way he is, we have a very relaxed set, you may have noticed," said executive producer Marcy Carsey, a pixie-ish woman with a big, easy laugh.

Cosby, often given total credit for the show by the media, readily confirms that "The Cosby Show" is fueled by collaboration, not creative tension. "It's not a matter of who's funny or who has the most power," he said. "I'm looking for what's best. We serve the viewer."

The genesis of the episode titled "The Juicer," taped during a reporter's recent visit to the set, was typical of that approach. (The episode is scheduled to air next Thursday.)

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