I wanted to like it.
I was the original Executive Producer on The Cosby Show. I wrote the series’ second episode “Goodbye, Mr. Fish”, featuring a family, decked out in its finest “going to church” attire, dutifully assembled around a toilet for the funereal sendoff of the youngest daughter’s recently departed pet goldfish.
I remember my first encounter with Dr. C. It was on the telephone. The Doctor – which I always called him, Bill Cosby having earned a PhD. in “Education” – was explaining the concept of his new series.
The show did not need much explaining. I had already seen the HBO Special on which The Cosby Show’s sensibility was based, as well as the fourteen-minute “Presentation”, which I would help expand into the show’s premiering episode.
I was also familiar with Bill Cosby’s comedy style, both in content and in approach. Unlike his gifted contemporary, Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby had engineered his material towards the “Universal Human Condition” rather than lasering in on the “Essential Black Experience.”
Two reasons: That – a “Universalist” – is generically who Bill Cosby is. Plus, the “C-Man” could count. (There was more “Everybody” out there than there were Black people. The “Big Money”, consequently, was with “Everybody.”)
I recall our first disagreement. As you will remember, “Heathcliff Huxtable” was a perennially “On-Call” obstetrician, his wife “Clair”, a high-powered attorney. To me that felt like “Achievement Overkill.” (Plus, since there was no “housekeeper” character, who exactly was taking care of the children?) I proposed as an alternative that Dr. C remain an obstetrician, but to alter his wife’s profession to a more “flex-time friendly” tenured college professor.
The Doctor’s reaction was deliberate and clear:
“I’m a doctor, and she’s a lawyer. Do you have a problem with that?”
I replied that I did not. But when I tried conscientiously to press my point, I heard, once again,
“I’m a doctor, and she’s a lawyer.”
Followed by what sounded like a man inhaling deeply from a gigantic cigar.
So we went with that – he was a doctor and she was a lawyer. And they lived in a “Brownstone” whose living room was large enough to safely bring in a 747, taxiing comfortably down the carpet.
The intended message was: “An affluent and successful Black family” – revolutionary because there was nothing of that nature on television at that time. (And it was the Reagan Era 80’s, where “Conspicuous Consumption” reflecting pride of accomplishment, had astonishingly – to the “Children of the 60’s” – resurfaced.
So be it. (And the show’s phenomenal confirmed its enormous cultural resonance.)
Black-ish appeared to be The Cosby Show’s thirty-year-after-the-fact descendent – an upscale black family – the mother, in an updating tweaking, is biracial – both parents high-achieving professionals, four children, a insightful but cantankerous Grandpa. Bring on the next breakthrough!
The Good News: The wife on the show, played by Diana-Ross-daughter Tracee Ellis Ross (with a comedic background on Girlfriends) sends off sporadic signals of “Natural Funny”, and Laurence Fishburne as the Grandpa is the “Genuine Article” – relaxed, grounded, blessed with indispensible comic timing and touch. (Hardly surprising since Fishburne cut his comedic teeth portraying “Cowboy Curtis” on the Saturday morning memorable classic, Pee-wee’s Playhouse.)
Anthony Anderson, who I know from his years as a regular on Law & Order, is no funnier on Black-ish than he was on that earlier show. (Not famous for its comedy.) Anderson, though demonstrably game, tries too hard, a dead giveaway of an actor venturing outside of his “Comfort Zone.”
Anderson’s delivery feels rushed. (An actor once told me he was informed that the “key” to comic acting was to go fast, to which I responded, “Go fast. But take your time.” Nobody short of Jack Benny took his time to greater comedic effect than Bill Cosby.)
Finally, there are the kids, who are either funny or annoying, depending on your view concerning child actors on television shows, written for by adults.
The premise of Black-ish, delineated overly broadly in the pilot episode – the thirteen year-old (ostensibly Christian) son wants a Bar Mitzvah and to change his name legally to “Shlomo” – triggers the father’s concern that his family is on its way to losing its essential “Blackness.”
This, to me, is a wonderful idea for a series – the “Tug of War” between assimilation and the “Loss of Identity.” (I like shows about ideas. The successful ones, however, it must be acknowledged, are about relationships.)
The Huxtables knew they were black. Check out the pictures on the living room walls, and the assiduous content choices, most particularly in the episode concluding with the family watching Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech together.
Okay, but it’s thirty years later. With the advancement of economic opportunity, the “Loss of Identity” issue may believably have moved up as a primary concern.
So the writers write about it. Maybe it is in sync with an issue they themselves are grappling with. That is always a good thing. It helps energize the material.
But comedy has rules. Concerning selection. Concerning pacing. Concerning taste. Concerning hiring actors who “get” comedy. If those rules are not adhered to, you’ve got an unfunny comedy on your hands. Desperate. Shrill. A frisky puppy, hungry to win favor, but losing favor because of its hungriness.
To illustrate that the show will not dwell exclusively on a single concern, Black-ish offered a more “universally inclusive” second episode, which is ostensibly about parent-child communication but is primarily – unsubtly and uncomfortably – about sex. (“Some of the older kids in school were talking about ‘oral.’ What is that, Dad?”)
Yikes, and oy vay!
I may or may not watch Black-ish again. (Laurence Fishburne is a hoot well worth revisiting.) To be honest, however, what really captures me interest is less the success or failure of a single, new sitcom than the issue of the successful inclusion of diversity into the (predominantly white) TV firmament.
Which I shall take a shot at – as best as I can – tomorrow.