I watched the first six episodes of THE BILL COSBY SHOW tonight. No, not THE COSBY SHOW or COSBY or THE NEW BILL COSBY SHOW or THE COSBY MYSTERIES or even COS (which are all actual titles of TV series starring Bill Cosby).
THE BILL COSBY SHOW debuted on NBC about one year after Cos' first hit show, I SPY, left the airwaves. It was Cosby's first sitcom, and he starred as Chet Kincaid, a P.E. teacher and basketball coach at an inner-city Los Angeles high school. Shout Factory has just released the first season on DVD, which is the first time that hardly anybody has seen it in decades. THE BILL COSBY SHOW ran only two seasons, and has barely been rerun on television at least since the 1980s, when it aired on the little-seen CBN cable network.
Disc 1 came from Netflix today, and the "Play All" option sucked me in to watching all six shows on it straight through. THE BILL COSBY SHOW is an interesting little series and would never get on the air today. One way in which it was ahead of its time is the absence of a laugh track. Cosby claims that was a constant source of disagreement between him and NBC--a disagreement that eventually led to the series' premature cancellation. It's relatively common to see sitcoms without laugh tracks today (THE OFFICE, MALCOLM IN THE MIDDLE, ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT, ENTOURAGE...), but I doubt if any were doing it fulltime in 1969, when THE BILL COSBY SHOW debuted (it ran until May 1971).
What really differentiates the show from today's sitcoms is that there are no jokes. Or few jokes. The setup/punchline format of today's shows (the punchline almost always being either an insult or a sexual reference) make THE BILL COSBY SHOW seem either fresh or quaint, I'm not sure which. All of the comedy comes out of the characters, and it's a gentle comedy with no insults or coarseness. Much of it comes from Cosby's nightclub routines, and the constant hamming and funny faces and voices often blurs the line between comic and character.
In the pilot episode, surprisingly directed by action veteran Harvey Hart (I don't recall Hart ever doing sitcom work), Kincaid is out for a Saturday jog and passes a corner telephone booth (remember those?). The phone rings and he answers. It's a woman asking to speak to her husband, Calvin (Vic Tayback!), who works at the garage across the street. Could Chet please call him to the phone? Kincaid's exasperated efforts at doing favors for strangers slowly build until he eventually finds himself sitting in a police interrogation room, accused of a robbery.
Other shows find Chet fighting school bureaucracy to order a tiny needle valve so he can pump up basketballs (the great Jay Sandrich directed this one) and Chet reluctantly dealing with an unexpected houseguest, an 8-year-old girl who refuses to speak. In another, Chet is asked to fill in for a sick algebra teacher, but unfortunately is not up on his math skills. These are all very simple story ideas, sort of if a bunch of writers came up with one-line concepts and threw them into a hat. A major problem with today's sitcoms is that the plots are often needlessly complicated (they're trying to ripoff SEINFELD). All Bill Cosby needed was a simple concept, and he was off. There are admittedly few heavy bellylaughs in THE BILL COSBY SHOW, but the chuckle-per-minute ratio is pretty high.
Also interesting is the number of minority actors seen on the show, not just out front, but as extras and bit players. Many of the students seen in the classrooms and hallways are Asian and black, and race seems never to be a major topic. Cosby was the first black actor to ever star in a dramatic TV series (I SPY premiered in 1965), and he was the first black actor to star in a sitcom since AMOS & ANDY was pushed off the air in the early 1950s. He did his pioneering by not calling attention to his race. Cosby-as-Kincaid wore dashikis and counseled poor black children, but he did so quietly with great humor and grace.
THE BILL COSBY SHOW, judging from just six of its 52 episodes, is not a great comedy nor is it among its star's greatest accomplishments. But it's warm, entertaining and fun. Which, for all its quality, is more than one can say about ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT.
Plus, THE BILL COSBY SHOW has a kickass theme composed by Quincy Jones and scat-sung (in purposely silly, rambling lyrics) by Cosby. "Whooo Lawwwwd!"