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Revisiting the Huxtables

10 Aug, 2005 By: Thomas K. Arnold

Bill Cosby doesn't yet own a DVD player, and his favorite form of entertainment is watching black-and-white “Gunsmoke” reruns on The Western Channel.

Yet the veteran comic is making his mark on TV DVD with “The Cosby Show,” the groundbreaking sitcom about a prosperous, loving African-American family.

The Cosby Show: Season 1 ($49.99) contains 24 episodes from the show, which debuted in 1984 and quickly became the top-rated show, remaining No. 1 for five consecutive seasons.

The Huxtables and their family life also set the stage for other black comedies focused on family, from “Family Matters” and “In the House” to “Hangin' With Mr. Cooper” and, most recently, “The Bernie Mac Show.”

“It was one of the funniest, most successful and most important television shows in the history of the business,” said Eric Doctorow, COO of Ventura Entertainment, which beat several big studios for video distribution rights and produced the set in partnership with TV powerhouse Carsey-Werner.

Looking back, Cosby is proud of the show's legacy, particularly in light of his recent comments about how the black community should stop playing victim and accept more responsibility for its own fate.

He stirred up anger in the black community when he called on poor blacks to discipline their kids and not blame society for their plight. While he said the backlash taught him “you have to be careful of what you say — it'll get you in trouble,” he said those sentiments are nothing new. Indeed, the same philosophy is at the root of “The Cosby Show” and is what attracted him to the concept in the first place.

“I think the thing that made such an impression with the audience was the clear fact that this show was different — and not just in the color of the people or the fact that they were professionals,” Cosby said. “What was different and what made me want to do the series was that as a parent watching situation comedies with my family, I wanted to take the house back as a parent.”

At the time, Cosby said, television writers “were writing as though they never did like the parents who brought them up. They were writing as if the adult or the parent didn't have a clue about what was going on in the world or in the home or in the apartment, and the little kids always had the punch line. I don't mind when a child has a punch line, but when it becomes smart aleck and adults have to take the position that they don't have a clue and they're stupid and the kid is running the house, that's when I decided, no, no, this is wrong, and I want the house back.”

Cosby recalled that initially “The Cosby Show” was turned down by both ABC and CBS and ultimately wound up on NBC because then-network chief Brandon Tartikoff “was a fan of my personal monologues.”

“We went up against ‘Magnum P.I.,’ Cosby said. “At the time, the shows that were popular were the fellows with the big pistols and the cars, shooting and rolling cars. Sitcoms were not doing well at all. Period. So when we went on, we didn't really expect what happened to us, the growth. But it was the audience that told us they loved what they were seeing.”

Not surprisingly, Cosby isn't keen on today's television landscape, dominated by reality TV and sitcoms “about these magical people with no jobs who live in apartments.”

“I was told maybe nine years ago by an executive who was working for a major network that the networks from now on are going to be entertaining 13-year-old people, and that's what began to happen, and this is what you see today on television,” Cosby said. He blames Fox for “leading the way” as well as TV critics for “applauding new shows that have an ‘edge,' quote-unquote, close to profanity and showing things that were never allowed before or were censored.”

Cosby is especially critical of family sitcoms that dominated the ratings after “The Cosby Show” finished its run in 1992, such as “Married … With Children,” “The Simpsons” and “Roseanne.”

“Each time a new family came,” Cosby said, it was billed as a “real family” as opposed to “The Cosby Show,” which was branded a fantasy.

“Network executives never did understand what made our show work,” Cosby said. “Although they wanted things like that in their own executive homes — a wife who works and children doing well in school — that's not what they wanted to put into the homes of the American people.

“They wanted Bart Simpson and were telling people, ‘yeah, this is a hip person, this is the kind of kid you want to love.' And ‘Married … With Children,' let's lower the standards and talk back to your parents. There was this whole run of ridding TV of our kind of family and getting on with the easy kind, to lower the standards and lure those 13-year-olds right into 8-o'clock.”

With “The Cosby Show” back in the limelight on DVD, Cosby said he just might have to run out and buy himself a DVD player.

“One of the beauties of watching our show is that really and truly it remains fresh because you're dealing with human beings and their behavior,” Cosby said. “I mean, for instance, if you follow Theo's life with us, you see a young man and how he studies and how he learns to learn and to understand himself and go on and become successful.”

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