Sunday, September 21, 2014

Nostalgia Theater: The Cosby Show Turns 30!

"Hey, don't give me your sob story. I'm the guy who passed on The Cosby Show."

Per author Bill Carter in his book The War For Late Night, that quote was uttered by former ABC exec Lew Erlicht after being approached by a homeless person seeking help. And while Carter couches that anecdote as likely apocryphal, the truth behind the probable fiction is that Erlicht did indeed (much to his regret) reject a pitch by producers Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner for a family comedy centered on comedian Bill Cosby. He passed, the show was picked up by NBC prexy Brandon Tartikoff, and the rest is TV history.

One Year Ago in Nostalgia Theater: XX Years of The X-Files

Three decades of history, in fact. In news that's sure to make a lot of folks of my vintage feel positively decrepit, last night marked thirty years to the day that The Cosby Show premiered on the Peacock, introducing America to the upper-middle class Huxtable family, headed by doctor dad Cliff (Cosby) and lawyer mom Claire (Phylicia Rashad), with four (later five) children. On its journey the '80s, it  revived the sitcom format, changed the playing field for African-Americans on TV and, depending on the telling, rescued NBC, which had spent the better part of the last decade on-the-ropes, from insolvency.

Here's one of my fave bits from the very first episode:

It's a little jarring to realize that when I first watched, I was a little younger than Theo, and now I'm a little younger than Cliff (but no more wiser sadly).

I was living in Saudi Arabia at the time, and The Cosby Show aired even there. That's how all-encompassing it was. What made it work? Why was it the right show at the right time? Any attempt to say its success was a foregone conclusion is only through the benefit of 20-20 hindsight. Cosby, while hugely popular on the stand-up scene, hadn't yet built a TV resume (I Spy and Fat Albert notwithstanding) that pointed to The Cosby Show being an obvious blockbuster, and viewership for traditional sitcoms had been dwindling since the heyday of Happy Days in the late '70s.

Two Years Ago in Nostalgia Theater: Pulling Over The Highwayman

Nonetheless, before the show had even premiered, Cosby confidently asserted to the press that his new skein would save NBC. And he was right! On its opening night, September 20, 1984, The Cosby Show beat CBS mainstay Magnum, P.I., in the process sounding the first klaxon that the zeitgeist was shifting away from the hourlong actioners that had dominated the early part of the decade. Cosby won its timeslot every week that season, singlehandedly creating a "rising tide" that lifted bubble shows Family Ties and Cheers, birthing what would become NBC's Thursday of "Must See TV," which NBC would leverage all the way into the aughts.

Three Years Ago in Nostalgia Theater: Starman Edition

The Cosby Show ended its run in April of 1992 (mere weeks before my family permanently moved back to the States, as it happens), with the 1987-launched spin-off series A Different World, centered on college-bound daughter Denise, wrapping up the following year. And while The Cosby Show's place in the cultural mind-space had since been supplanted by Fox's The Simpsons (which Fox scheduled opposite Cosby in a bit of bravura gamesmanship on the part of the baby net), there was no doubting that the Huxtable clan, having racked up 202 episodes over eight seasons, were leaving the field as champions.

To see how The Cosby Show adapted to the changing times almost every year it was on, check out the collection of intros from throughout its run below:

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