Warren Littlefield, the president of NBC Entertainment, still recalls the "initial concept pitch" of "The Cosby Show." The premise, says Littlefield, who was then working in comedy development for the network, was that "there's a war going on here between parents and children, and we parents have no intention of losing."
Not exactly the kind of concept that figured to revolutionize television.
But with the landmark series--the most profitable in TV history--winding up its eight-year run on Thursday with a special one-hour episode, the star and prime mover of the show, Bill Cosby, looked back on his efforts the other day and said in an interview: "From its outset, I wanted to give the house back to the parents." And that was fairly radical by the conventions of TV sitcoms, in which parents, especially fathers, had often been portrayed as objects of ridicule.
Explaining why he thinks "The Cosby Show" had astonishing appeal to both black and white audiences and to every age group--penetrating so thoroughly that it attracted 53% of the national audience for the entire 1986-87 season--the comedian said:
"You're talking about a man who is a doctor (Cosby) and his wife (Phylicia Rashad) is a lawyer and they have to handle the children. What people could identify with is the fact that they're trying to keep their house in order, and these kids are doing some dumb things--and how to deal with it. That's where you make the identification because the philosophy is: I don't care how much money you make--you're going to have to deal with your children."
When all is said and done, "The Cosby Show"--which transformed lowly NBC into a show business colossus, regenerated network television and brought TV comedy back from the dead--really had two thematic priorities above all: parenting and the value of education, presented with gentle humor. For Cosby and Rashad, their roles as Cliff and Clair Huxtable were defined by their depiction as parents, even more than by their relationship as a clearly loving husband and wife.
These priorities come together in Thursday's finale, in which the Huxtables' son, Theo (Malcolm-Jamal Warner), graduates from college in New York, where the series was set and shot. It is an episode that brings the series full circle because the story line for the very first episode of the show on Sept. 20, 1984, was: "Theo brings home a poor report card and claims you don't need good grades to get a job." In a classic scene using Monopoly money, Cliff demonstrated the fault with his son's logic.
In the script for the last show, Clair tells Theo as he prepares for his graduation: "It goes back 21 years to when you were born. . . . He (Cliff) promised you an education. And he hoped that you would have the same love for learning that he does."
The finale is getting the red-carpet treatment from NBC, which will tack on a three-minute tribute to the program. In addition, in a nice bit of cross-promotion and perspective on the series, the stations that air reruns of "The Cosby Show"--including KCOP Channel 13--plan to present the program's first episode on the same day that the network presents the last, according to Viacom Entertainment, which distributes the repeat broadcasts.
Only Fox TV is acting as spoiler for the "Cosby" farewell. With the May ratings sweeps in progress, there is little room for sentiment in TV, and Fox will counter-program "Cosby" with two repeat episodes of "The Simpsons," which has lately been giving the once-unbeatable NBC series a rough time in head-on competition, with its hard-edged, contemporary cartoon family that is the direct antithesis of the warm, traditional Huxtables.
Until "The Simpsons" came along, the main problem facing "The Cosby Show" was the occasional criticism that it did not deal strongly enough with racial and social issues involving blacks and was not representative of black families--as if white families in sitcoms were representative of all white families.
In 1985, after the program's first season, the late Alex Haley, whose "Roots" miniseries raised national consciousness about black history and racism, wrote admiringly about "The Cosby Show" in the Ladies' Home Journal, noting that the comedy's "appeal, and its laughs, depend less on one-liners and intricate plots than on the affectionate ribbing between family members."
Yet in 1986, in an article that also found much to admire about the series, Mary Helen Washington, an associate professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, raised the criticism again in TV Guide: "How is it that the show is progressive enough to deal with sexism, but never mentions racism?"
Asked if he thought his show would have been as popular if it had been more overtly aggressive on racial and political issues, Cosby says: "No. Because I don't know how to do that without getting angry at racial bigotry. That's not funny to me."