Creating Cosby: The Power of Television


This article originally appeared in Issue# 35

Of all popular media, television illustrates the power of mass communication to inform, educate and influence the public.

While industry insiders often deny this power, saying television is just for "entertainment," it is clearly obvious that both adults and children learn a great deal from watching television week after week.

Critics complain that television too often teaches negative values - stereotyping, consumerism, a superficial and trivial approach to life. In contrast, many have applauded "The Cosby Show" as a breakthrough for television's positive potential.

For years after receiving his EdD in education from the University of Massachusetts, comedian Cosby rejected all offers to do traditional television comedy. So what makes his new show different? And does Cosby and his creative team intentionally try to educate their viewers?

In exclusive interviews with co-executive producer/head writer John Markus and producer/ writer Carmen Finestra, Media&Values probed for the principles behind "The Cosby Show." Intern Allen Eisenach summarized the conversation.

Can a loving, Supportive television family successfully replace the more familiar images of wisecracking children and inept parents — and be a commercial hit at the same time?

Ranked as the number one television series for two seasons in the United States, "The Cosby Show" is also immensely popular in Australia and South Africa, and a weekly hit in Norway and Sweden.

Such an impact of successful comedy in an arena usually associated with global powers has its responsibilities. "I think Bill knows that he has a power, and that he thinks of it very judiciously. He is conscientious and sensitive to the minds of people who watch the show. And he is very respectful of their intelligence," said Markus. 'He sees that a more powerful tool in education is to entertain and engage the audience in a delicate manner rather than to hammer home a message. We want to educate, but we never want to Sermonize."

Underlying this vision for the show, Markus and Pinestra outlined four equal operating principles for creating the weekly show.

First, the show looks at problems from a fresh perspective. Cosby's loose style inspires a refreshing break from crusted formulas in scripting, Markus indicated. "Bill is a big jazz fan, and I think his approach to comedy is very much like a jazz musician. He doesn't want to hear the same notes every time. He wants to know there are chords in the background, but he wants some room to play with that.'

Secondly, the family faces their various situations in a loving and supportive fashion. One of the most favorable audience reactions, according to Finestra, is towards the playful affection displayed between the parents, Claire and Cliff. "There is a real feeling for a couple being married 23 years still maintaining a tremendous physical attraction and love for each."

And that love is extended to the children by simply allowing them "to be," said Markus. 'The Huxtables do not try to control their children. They allow them to make mistakes while providing them with a safety net so they don't kill themselves."

And that sometimes makes for irritations. One of the truths of family life is that "perfectly good, intelligent children that you love can be very annoying. I like the fact that we show the parents getting annoyed with the kids. They laugh at and with them, and that to me is real," Markus commented.

As Cosby himself stated to a meeting of NBC affiliates, "I'm a parent with five kids. Those of us with real children know it is possible to have a precocious kid who's not a snot."

But with all the differences between personalities and ages running about the same brownstone, it makes for "endless possibilities," Markus concluded. "Events that might sound trivial — a goldfish dying, a son's first shave, a fight over a hairbrush — there's poetry there if you look closely."

This poetry takes a "slice of life" approach that allows the various ages to laugh at their own and others' preoccupations without the belittling humor of other sitcom families. While Vanessa's age causes consternation over a pimple in the middle of her forehead, Denise's seventeenth birthday fuels a wish for wheels in New York City. But with only $1600 in savings for a clunker, the Huxtable safety net instructs Denise in a responsible purchase that includes the items few wheel-bound teens consider upkeep and insurance.

Theo's slice provided a story on drugs that won a coveted Humanitas Prize for humanizing achievement in television for the 1984-85 season. "We did a show in which the parents discovered a marijuana joint in their son's schoolbook," explained Markus. "Now, audiences may be trained to think right away; 'Uh-oh, this is a show about drugs.' But it became a show instead about trust — the parents' trust of their son, and the son's concern about what his parents thought about him.

"At the end of the show, there was a very subtle anti-drug speech that was over very quickly and simply reflected Bill's personal attitudes. The drug problem hadn't been 'solved.' It had Just been experienced, in a constructive way that real-life families could relate to."

That real life approach is the third underlying principle of the show. It simply must be real and honest. "We never sacrifice reality for a joke. Life does not unfold three jokes at a time (according to the classic theory of sitcom writing in Hollywood), and it doesn't unfold with cliffhangers at the break and things don't get tied up at the end with a neat little bow," Markus says.

"Bill's philosophy — and it's an immensely challenging one for all of us — is that in true situation comedy, you can put the characters in a funny situation and let the humor evolve naturally.

"At one point, I remember, he held up a tennis shoe and said; 'I'd rather that you held up the tennis shoe, and instead of telling a joke about the tennis shoe, Just say, 'This is a tennis shoe.' What he meant was that a joke should work from the inside out — not as an unrealistic tag-on.

And lastly, comedy must be funny! "If it's comedy, it's funny and real, human, intelligent and compassionate," said Markus, encapsulating each of the four operating principles of the show. "The people who are watching us all have interesting families of their own — and are quite smart enough to learn with us, not from us," concluded Finestra.

According to Nielsen, that power of learning through laughter is medicine not to be underestimated.

Author Bio: 

Allen Eisenach is a graduate student at the School of Theology at Claremont, California, where he is working on a master's degree in religion and the fine arts.