|The Bill Cosby Show: Season One (1969)
Starring: Bill Cosby, Lillian Randolph, Joyce Bulifant, Fred Pinkard, Lee Weaver, Olga James, Sid McCoy
Let’s clarify this before anyone gets confused: we’re not talking about “The Cosby Show.” And just to clarify that, we’re also not talking about “Cos,” “Cosby,” or “The Cosby Mysteries,” or even “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids.”
This is just…”The Bill Cosby Show.”
At the time this series premiered – 1969 – Bill Cosby was, in addition to just coming off three years of playing agent Alexander Scott on “I Spy,” probably the most popular stand-up comedian on the planet…and he took his position seriously. When given the opportunity to star in his own sitcom, he didn’t want to go the typical studio-audience-and-laugh-track route…and, as a result, this sitcom was way ahead of its time. Although it only lasted for two seasons and doesn’t get rerun ad nauseum the way “The Cosby Show” does, it’s far more groundbreaking.
Cosby plays Chet Kincaid, a gym teacher at Richard Allen Holmes High School, in Los Angeles; he’s an amiable fellow who’s liked by all the kids and is friends with his fellow instructors. Sounds like a standard sitcom, right? Well, first off, as implied above, it wasn’t filmed before a live studio audience; it was done on location at the school, on the playing field, in Chet’s apartment, and so forth. There also wasn’t a laugh track, so…gasp!...the viewer had to figure out for themselves what was supposed to be funny. It’s also very possible that “The Bill Cosby Show” was the first dramedy, since it tackled a lot of social issues even as Cosby made you laugh; at the very least, you never caught the show falling back on black stereotypes…or if you did, it found Cosby putting a twist on them. For instance, in the first episode of the series, Kincaid gets picked up by the police because he fits the description of a thief; however, instead of it being a case of “picking on the black man,” though, when the police finally catch the thief, he’s played by Cosby.
First and foremost, though, “The Bill Cosby Show” remained a comedy. In “Let X Equal a Lousy Weekend,” Chet gets handed the assignment to substitute for an algebra teacher, then spouts off in the teacher’s lounge about it ain’t nothin’ to teach math, only to end up with a problem in the textbook that neither he nor the students understand…but he refuses to admit this to the students, and when he swallows his pride and asks the other math teachers for help, they respond by laughing in his face, leaving him to try to fake his way through it. In “The Substitute,” Chet is forced to play the sub for the Sex Education class...and, well, do I even need to go any further for you to guess that hilarity ensues? Actually, I do…because, like many of the episodes, it’s not really hilarity, per se. It’s a perfect spotlight for Cosby’s talents as a public speaker; he ends up standing in front of this classroom, doing a thoughtful monologue about his romantic history…and rather than go overboard with the premise, it ends up only being a blip in the episode’s plot, which ends up being more about Kincaid babysitting the kids of some friends.
There aren’t many regular characters in the series; a few of Kincaid’s family members show up sporadically, and at least one other teacher at Holmes High pops up on a consistent basis (Joyce Bulifant as Mrs. Marsha Peterson), but the focus remains firmly on Cosby, with a constantly rotating cast of students, fellow teachers, and potential girlfriends. Cosby was, however, able to throw his weight around a little bit and score some surprising guest stars, like Henry Fonda (who’d never done a sitcom before), Elsa Lanchester (best known today for playing the title character in “The Bride of Frankenstein”), Wally Cox (the voice of Underdog), and Cicely Tyson.If you couldn’t relate to the family-oriented “Cosby Show” or the grumpy-old-man aspect of “Cosby,” be sure to check out “The Bill Cosby Show” for the Cosby-as-a-single-guy side of his sitcom past. He was in his prime, and he was damned funny.