After airing out Bill Cosby's alleged history of sexual assault during a standup gig -- right in the iconic TV dad's native Philadelphia -- comedian Hannibal Buress, explained a bit of his motivation to the crowd last month, saying, “I want to just at least make it weird for you to watch ‘Cosby Show' reruns.”
And he has. But "weird" doesn't exactly capture it.
It feels more like wrestling. Bill Cosby's primetime creation was bigger than "Must-See TV" to me. The show -- along with its college-bound spinoff "A Different World" -- became my pop-culture beacon, beaming characters into millions of American homes that lived, walked and talked like me. Sondra, Denise, Theo, Vanessa and Rudy and their parents affirmed my very existence. (So, for example, when a freshman-year acquaintance at my performing arts high school dissected my "white girl" Catholic school diction like a fifth-period science experiment -- I was unsettled but I wasn't undone.)
Now, though, as women continue to come forward with accusations of revolting serial sexual abuse by Cosby, the TV icon's Wikipedia bio is being rewritten faster than you can make a pack of Jell-O pudding. And because the 77-year-old comedian had become nearly synonymous with his All-American dad persona on "The Cosby Show," the legacy of the groundbreaking series he created also hangs in the balance.
But should Cliff Huxtable have to pay for the perceived sins of Bill Cosby?
Some of the networks think so. While cable channels devoted to programming around African-American interests have reportedly vowed to continue airing "Cosby Show" re-runs, you won't find the hilarious Thanksgiving-themed "Cliff's Wet Adventure" episode on TV this year.
"The Cosby Show" ran for eight seasons from 1984 to 1992, and has been in syndication pretty much nonstop since 1988. The series echoed a particular black experience that had been mostly invisible on the small screen. (I've decided my years of watching re-runs after school qualify me to make this statement.) TV execs in the '70s and '80s seemed to abide by the following conventional thinking: An African American family might move on up to a deluxe apartment in the sky -- but only if they'd started from the bottom to get there.
Even Cosby flirted with the idea of writing Cliff Huxtable as a chauffeur married to a Latina handywoman before wife Camille intervened and urged him to look beyond easy clichés. To seize the opportunity to capture a different side of black life.
So Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable, a lovable obstetrician and gynecologist, came to look a lot more like my dad's brother, a successful ob/gyn. And Cliff's wife, an elegant attorney and partner at her firm, would decades later inspire my Harvard Law School-educated cousin and her closest black girl classmates to create what we jokingly called the "cult of Clair Huxtable."
"The Cosby Show" was such a bona fide blockbuster that NBC built an entire Thursday night lineup around the family-friendly comedy. Unlike like Nielsen ratings, though, what a post-"Cosby" world did for me you can't measure in hard metrics. But it was powerful. The presence of the fictional Huxtables on the most powerful medium had the normalizing effect of those Us Weekly features: "Black families -- they're just like us!"
That doesn't mean I no longer have to deal with racial micro-agressions or the kind of insidious racism that aims to deny you your humanity, but it's far less common for me to encounter people like a former supervisor from the Midwest. He once confessed that he landed in New York City, about the same year the "Cosby Show" debuted, surprised to see attractive African American couples in scenes of domesticity like walking a dog.
The tight-knit, goofy, wholesome Huxtables bled into real life over time, smashing stereotypes and validating new archetypes. Going to college, turning your living room into a community theater on your grandparents' anniversary or mutilating your brother's expensive shirt in the name of FASHION are universal experiences. I happen to have had nearly identical ones. Seeing the Huxtable clan do all of the above was pop-culture consciousness-raising. For many more, the show was simply aspirational. Proof that a reality built on hope, not hustle was within reach.
I'm still struggling with my utter disappointment in Cosby, but he's underscored a difficult truth, which is that flawed men can still make great contributions. So while I won't be giving Cosby a standing ovation today, if you listen closely enough, you'll hear me clapping and laughing ... for "The Cosby Show."