In light of the rape allegations against Bill Cosby I’ve been thinking about the man I grew up watching on TV. (Who hasn’t?) Oddly enough I never really liked him. I guess there’s a fair amount of celebrities at any given time that Hollywood declares as funny, or beautiful, handsome, and/or talented that a segment of the population doesn’t really buy into. But then who asked us? That was Bill Cosby for me. The ubiquitous Jello ads were a perfect example. The mugging for the camera, the goofy faces, the little kids laughing their heads off at his antics. Not unlike a laugh track telling the audience, see he is funny.
Still I’m part of that generation that venerated him to a star. Though I was too young for his first hit show, I Spy, my mother would talk about it in glowing terms. What a great show it was she’d claim. So clever, a cut above other shows of the time. When I was in grade school Cosby made appearances on, The Electric Company and had his own cartoon on Saturday mornings, Fat Albert. I think they were in rerun when I was a kid, and they seemed really weird at the time. The Electric company was/is in a category all its own, and for the sake of time I’ll just focus on Cosby’s pet project Fat Albert. If you haven’t seen Fat Albert it was basically the adventures of a sweet, if slightly slow, over-weight black teenager and the kids in his down-and-out neighborhood. Every member of the Cosby gang seemed to talk with a funny voice and was some weird ghetto stereotype. As a kid I couldn’t understand why we weren’t to make fun of people, but Fat Albert and his stuttering friends were suppose to be hilarious. And then, groan, there was the moralizing. What could be worse than a Saturday morning cartoon that moralized? Bill Cosby would show up some time during the show with his afro and T-shirt, conveying to us how relate-able and down-to-earth he was, and then explain the moral of the story in case it had gone over our heads. I wouldn’t know the word patronizing back then, but that’s how it felt.
Last but not least was, The Cosby Show. Really a complete turn-around from his Fat Albert days. (I think he’d received a fair amount of criticism for his portrayal of young black men by then.) Gone was were the inner city ragamuffins, replaced with the cream of the crop Huxtables, the perfect family. What did stay the same was Cosby in the role authority figure. The afro and love beads were gone but the attitude was the same. Now Cos played the old fashion fatherly type, respectable doctor and Huxtable patriarch: firm, but loving. His wife, Mrs. Huxtable was beautiful and a lawyer. Everyone was attractive, and well-dressed, they lived in a fashionable brownstone. It was like a calender for Benetton sweaters and home decorating for upwardly mobile African Americans. It was…boring. I watched it a few times and couldn’t understand it’s success. Who could relate to this? Did they think it was funny? Then again it was a wholesome, positive portrayal of a black family and everyone seemed desperate for that.
Now that I look back on it Cosby was unlike most of comedians who relish the role of the outsider, or under dog. The every man battling against the odds, the man, everything and everybody. The character we the audience can identify with. Perhaps that was the secret of Cosby’s success? He went to the right when everyone else went to the left? Cosby was always in control, in a role of authority, the master of his own fate. An authority that never seemed to be questioned in his entertainment. It’s that kind of success that gives a man the hubris to ask his audience to meme him. An audience that’s hearing more and more about allegations of rape in his past. In the end maybe Bill Cosby thought he was the invincible Doctor Huxtable.