By Mark Anthony Neal
This month marks the 30th anniversary of when The Cosby Show first aired.
The sitcom — which focused on the lives of two African American professionals and their five children — was groundbreaking for its consistent depiction of black middle-class life, without any of the stock stereotypes that had largely accompanied previous presentations of black life on television and in film.
For five of the eight years that the show was on NBC, it was the most-watched television show in America.
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As a young black man, I should have been enthused by The Cosby Show's aspirations — universalizing the travails of a black family for mainstream consumption — and its popularity. But I wasn't.
Bill Cosby was just old-school; he was the first comic I ever remember seeing as a child. My parents would dutifully sit me in front of the television whenever he was on because he served as an example of good clean Negro humor.
To be sure, there were no Redd Foxx or Richard Pryor recordings in our home.
By the time Cosby launched Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids in 1972, I was a relative veteran of his humor at the ripe age of 7; I still have vivid memories of seeing Let's Do It Again in theaters with my mother.
That's not to say that I didn't watch The Cosby Show.
As a college student in the mid-1980s, watching Cosby Thursday night in the dorm TV lounge was part of the rituals of survival on a predominantly white college campus. And, of course, there was daughter Denise (played by Lisa Bonet), who was everybody's crush.
Had I been my father's age, I probably wouldn't have minded seeing wife Claire (Phylicia Rashad) on TV every week, either.
Yet the show's pacing and deliberate avoidance of the world outside the Huxtable household rang hollow.
Many of us were being politicized by the South African divestment movement, the two presidential campaigns of Jesse Jackson (whom Cosby publicly supported), and racial attacks in Howard Beach and Bensonhurst.
To be clear, no one could ever accuse the Huxtables of being a black family in whiteface, but we also understood that there would be no Malcolm X speeches in between segments. Cosby navigated race much like the first black president, Barack Obama, does — letting the images of black respectability do the heavy lifting.
To Cosby's credit, he was aware of the criticisms of the show's tepid race politics, launching the spin-off A Different World in the fall of 1987, with daughter Denise at the center. During its six-year run, A Different World addressed many of the issues — and more, like HIV — that The Cosby Show would never touch.
In this regard, A Different World was Attorney General Eric Holder to The Cosby Show's Barack Obama.
Indeed, A Different World generated higher ratings than The Cosby Show during its final two seasons, signaling the emergence of a hip-hop generation that Cosby always kept at arm's length.
Television sitcoms would never be the same after The Cosby Show stopped production. With the emergence of niche programming — where black audiences were driven to upstart networks like Fox, WB and UPN — few of the major networks have felt the need to present black-themed programming for a broad audience.
Though there were earlier shows, like Sanford and Son and The Jeffersons, that were popular among white audiences, The Cosby Show was an outlier, breaking racial ground on television and being the last of a breed.
Mark Anthony Neal is a professor of African and African American studies and director of the Center for Arts, Digital Culture and Entrepreneurship at Duke University.