Bill Cosby vs. Bart Simpson -- TV's top pop prepares to battle the smart-aleck
Bill Cosby stands magisterially onstage in New York’s Kaufman-Astoria Studios, where Paul Robeson filmed The Emperor Jones and Fred Astaire took one of his earliest screen tests. Today, Cos is a combination of the two: The emperor of TV is shooting the dance sequence that will open each episode of this season’s The Cosby Show. Each year the melody is the same, the style different: Last season it was a ’60s riff, the year before an 84-piece orchestral arrangement. This time, it’s a rap-flavored track graced by Lester Bowie’s incandescent trumpet graffiti.
Posed before a dazzlingly colorful mural depicting Harlem, Cosby mugs and does his moves as his prerecorded voice booms through the huge room: ”YO! Chill out! DON’T put your face in the MUD, pal-ee.” Translation: Climb out of the mire of our permissive society! Get some respect for the family and for yourself! And get an education! Shorter translation: Father knows best!
But Father Time has caught up with Father Cosby, and the rest of his TV family can literally dance rings around him. Once the fastest halfback at Temple University, Cosby is now a relatively rickety 53. In his 1987 book, Time Flies, he calls himself ”a quarter-miler whose son now says, ‘Dad, I just can’t run the quarter with you anymore unless I bring something to read.”’ On the set, a stand-in young enough to be his son tells Cosby he ought to do the hip, kinetic dance step called the Running Man — ”something a little more street,” as the kid puts it. Cosby listens, gives him a calm nod, and does a take featuring his own interpretation of the Running Man — more of a Sauntering Man, exceedingly cool and very, very slow. Under control. ”Cliff (his TV character) plays against the kids,” Cosby explains afterward. ”They’re moving with all that energy, and Cliff is smoothing.”
But these days Cosby’s got more kids to play against than the Huxtables. This fall, an upstart brat named Bart Simpson and his cartoon clan are taking Cosby on in head-to-spiky-head combat Thursday nights at 8. Starting in 1984, The Cosby Show helped propel NBC from the bottom to the top of the ratings. In 1990, the Fox network hopes to do the same with The Simpsons. Astoundingly, considering that Fox has 131 affiliates versus NBC’s 209, Bart already has finished in the weekly Nielsen top 10 seven times since his January premiere. Bart did so well that Fox moved him from Sunday night into direct competition with the slightly declining but possibly still invincible Cliff Huxtable — one of the greatest David and Goliath fights in recent TV history.
Cosby has a characteristically sly response to the assault. At a concert several months ago — one of about 100 he does every year, dozens more than the Grateful Dead — he spotted a kid in the crowd wearing a Bart shirt, persuaded him to part with it, and donned it himself onstage. Cosby got to proclaim his appreciation of his competitor — and make friends and big bucks while doing so.
In his trailer outside the studios, he voices a comparably equivocal generosity. Asked whether he personally likes Bart, Cosby fires up a Hoyo de Monterrey stogie the size of a highway flare and replies, ”Yeah! Yeah! There’s really nothing wrong with Bart…But we’ve got a job to do. This series goes into syndication” — actually, 124 episodes are already in reruns; the rest will follow in a year or two — ”and I’ve got to maintain my standards. I can’t force things in to compete. Let’s say NBC told me, ‘Look, we’ve got to juice it up; it’s got to be more oriented to getting teenagers.”’ Cosby insists that NBC executives aid no such thing; but if they had, he says, he would have refused. He’s not a mere money-conscious comic — he’s a man with a mission. ”There was a quote box in USA Today,” he says with pride and a trace of concern, ”with somebody saying he’s gonna watch The Simpsons, because he feels after you watch Cosby you learn too much.”
This reaction perversely pleases him: He’s determined to educate, not just entertain. ”It just isn’t in me to alter what I’m doing below my commitment to education and aiding better family understanding. On All in the Family, Archie Bunker never learned, never apologized. The Huxtables learn, they apologize. And yet you hear the loud voices (of critics) saying that these people are too perfect.”
TV taste is a pendulum, and the excellence of the Huxtables inevitably inspired the creation of their opposites. Has Cosby felt pressured by popular but screwed-up Fox families like the bewildered Simpsons and the bitter Bundys of Married…With Children? He answers in circumlocutory terms. It’s not clear precisely which shows he’s talking about, but his general drift — a word that aptly describes Cosby’s conversational style — seems critical of Fox. ”TV should be moving in a direction from the Huxtables forward, not backward,” he says. ”The mean-spirited and cruel think this (kind of programming) is ‘the edge,’ and their excuse is, that’s the way people are today. But why should we be entertained by that?”
All of which is probably a roundabout way of saying that Cosby isn’t changing his show to beat Bart, he’s doing it as a matter of principle. ”I’m working harder and enjoying it more. And whether the audience is there in the numbers or not, I am proud of what we’ve done.” Somebody on the set clearly agrees: In the men’s room of the Kaufman-Astoria soundstage, the wall bears this scribble: Bart Watches Cos.
Regardless of Bart, Bill Cosby has made radical changes in his show this year. ”I’m re-energized because we have nine new writers,” he says. ”Four of them are women. (The original three writers, all men, have left.) I think I’m going to get a different voice coming. I felt that women could not only check, as in chess, what the male writers were writing, but could color things in a way that the men never could have thought of.” The show shot the previous night, for instance, concerned a bachelor party. Thanks to the new women writers, ”the script turned into a good debate, a battle of males and females on what’s demeaning and what is not.”
The other big change involves a penniless new member of the patrician Huxtable household. ”To give an uplift to lower-economic people,” Cosby explains, ”I decided to bring in a 17-year-old female.” The newcomer is Pam Turner (Erika Alexander), a refugee from New York’s Bedford-Stuyvesant ghetto; she’s a second cousin once removed of Clair, Cliff’s wife, played by Phylicia Rashad. He says Pam — streetwise, angry, and vulnerable — will be a kid with a difference. ”There are certain things you can’t do when a child isn’t yours. Cliff and Clair are playing with a home-field advantage, but with a disadvantage too. The rules they’ve set are not necessarily the rules the visiting team wants to play by. It gives us a little extra spice.”
Cosby cannot stress enough his contention that the show’s redesign has zero to do with Fox. ”All of the changes made were ‘B.B.’ — Before Bart.” Still, the prospect of a battle royal has clearly revivified him at a time when he could easily have kicked back and relaxed. His annual income is estimated at $60 million (a little more than $9,000 per waking hour). And this year NBC reportedly doubled his weekly payments for the show.
His competitive instincts are unquenchable. Cosby may dance in a leisurely fashion in the show’s opening credits, but the man at the controls is definitely not ”smoothing.” He’s spoiling for a fight and as happy as the champion athlete he used to be. The Cosby philosophy is best summed up by last year’s addition to the cast, the adorable 4-year-old Raven-Symone, who plays Lisa Bonet’s stepdaughter, Olivia. Striding into the studio, Raven-Symone lays down the bottom line. ”Okay,” she pipes up, ”let’s make some money!”