Show Business: He has a hot TV series, a new book - and a booming comedy empire

He has a hot TV series, a new book -- and a booming comedy empire

  • Share
  • Read Later

(3 of 8)

Perhaps the most puzzling question surrounding Cosby is why, after a long career that seemed to have plateaued somewhere short of superstardom, he suddenly found himself the proprietor of TV's biggest hit of the decade. By most objective standards, The Cosby Show is an unlikely candidate for through- the-roof success. In contrast, say, to the Norman Lear comedies of the early '70s, it breaks little new ground in style or subject matter. It has none of the gag-writing brio of The Mary Tyler Moore Show or a half a dozen comedies that followed it. Indeed, The Cosby Show might be a classic illustration of ex-Network Programmer Paul Klein's theory of Least Objectionable Programming. With its gentle humor, upbeat message and crosscultural appeal, The Cosby Show has nothing to offend anybody.

But the series stands well apart from most other current family shows, with their contrived plots and wisecracking tots. Parents on The Cosby Show are figures of calm authority, not boobs, and episodes revolve around the realistic trivia of everyday family life: Dad goes out to buy a new car, or a daughter tries to explain her bad grades. Such plots, of course, are simply a throwback to slice-of-family-life shows of the '50s and '60s like Father Knows Best and Leave It to Beaver, and Cosby's success may partly reflect nostalgia for those simpler old times.

But The Cosby Show outdoes even those ancestors in presenting an antiseptic portrait of family life, a comforting parable for parents. This "realistic" family has petty squabbles and conflicts, but they are resolved easily, without pain or embarrassment for anyone. Dad may look beleaguered at times, but in a pinch he always reacts with just the right mix of firmness and compassion -- and never a hint of self-doubt. (Even Jim Anderson agonized in the kitchen over his fatherly duties.) Children may misbehave, but their disobedience only provides an opportunity for the parents to demonstrate how to deal with such matters -- or better yet, for the kids to show how they have internalized their parents' values. When a friend of 13-year-old Vanessa lights up a cigarette in the house, the Huxtable children take turns berating the girl; even little Rudy comes on like an ad for the American Cancer Society.

Whatever the explanation for Cosby's magic touch, it seems to work just as well in print as on TV. In Fatherhood, Cosby sympathized with every dad who has ever been pestered by a child for money or got Soap on a Rope as a Father's Day present. Time Flies has the same broad appeal, with wry, wistful comments on every middle-aged trauma from the onset of love handles around the midsection to the embarrassment of searching for glasses that are sitting on top of one's head.

Most of these bite-size chunks of Cosbyana are little more than stand-up material set down on paper, without the flair that Cosby brings to them in live performance. (His unbilled collaborator on both books was Humor Writer Ralph Schoenstein.) But the quips are frequently funny, and pure Cosby. Noting that underwear keeps getting tighter as one grows older, he observes, "It is a point of pride for the American male to keep the same size Jockey shorts for his entire life."

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3
  4. 4
  5. 5
  6. 6
  7. 7
  8. 8