Because of the historic success of The Cosby Show, its star Bill Cosby has been preserved in amber as the family-friendly, goofy Dr. Cliff Huxtable. Though his public persona is that of a curmudgeon who’s grumpiness is benign and silly. Of course for performers to be as successful as Cosby, they cannot be pushovers. In Mark Whitaker’s book, Cosby: His Life and Times, the comedian’s perfectionism and temper complicate that grinning, mugging face that entertained millions during the 1980s.
For most, the passages dealing with The Cosby Show would be the most interesting. The iconic NBC show not only revitalized its channel, but it also resurrected the then-dying sitcom, and it has been credited for opening up discussions of race and class in popular culture. Detractors of The Cosby Show and the comic himself argue that the ethos of the show: an avoidance of race issues downplayed racism in favor of large audiences. Whitaker doesn’t see it that way, and brings up the different ways that the show challenged preconceived notions of the black middle class. Cosby bristled at accusations that he wasn’t “black enough” or that The Cosby Show was “Leave It to Beaver in blackface.” And Whitaker agrees with the assessment, as well.
In fact, Whitaker comes to his subject’s defense when relating the “Pound Cake” controversy in which Cosby again brought up questions of race when he was perceived to blame poor black people for their poverty. He takes on Cosby’s critics, namely Michael Eric Dyson who took particular aim at the TV star’s politics in his 2005 book Is Bill Cosby Right? Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind? which took Cosby to task for what he saw as victim-blaming. Whether readers will agree with Whitaker that Cosby was given a bad rap is irrelevant, because the author does argue convincingly.
Aside from Cosby’s race politics, there are also peaks into the comic’s creativity as well as his work process. It’s clear that though he’s a dedicated and hardworking individual, he’s not necessarily the nicest employer to have. There are details of Cosby hazing and possibly bullying writers on The Cosby Show, which resulted in insane turnover among the writing staff. Interestingly enough, the much-publicized feud Cosby had with his onscreen daughter, Lisa Bonet is breezily covered with a perfunctory treatment. That Bonet might’ve been cast as a spoiled and impatient diva could be one way to tell the story; or, Whitaker could’ve also looked at the relationship as a willful young woman chafing against a patriarchal source of authority – either would be interesting, but instead Whitaker rushed through the Bonet/Cosby relationship. It’s admirable that he doesn’t want to indulge in showbiz gossip, but just as Cosby represents race discourse in pop culture, gender also finds its way on The Cosby Show.
After The Cosby Show, Bill Cosby’s career took on a rockier road. He starred in some failed vehicles (You Bet Your Life and The Cosby Mysteries) and suffered some personal tragedies, most notably the 1997 murder of his son, Ennis. His public persona also took a beating because of reports of his extramarital affairs as well as allegations of sexual assault, and the aforementioned “Pound Cake” speech that alienated many young African-Americans. It’s a testament to The Cosby Show, that despite these obstacles, the comedian is still universally-beloved.
Interestingly enough for a figure as important and influential as Bill Cosby, Whitaker’s book is the first serious look at his life and work. Whitaker shows a prodigious talent for research. His Bill Cosby is a deeply conflicted but ambitious man who could be prickly and unpleasant, but also generous and deferential (according to Whitaker, he thought very highly of Madeline Kahn). For his fans, Cosby: His Life and Times is a great look into one of the most iconic faces of television.