But then again, he's been doing it so long, he doesn't have to work out tightly-constructed bits and rat-tat-tat punchlines. He just tells stories, and he's so naturally funny and so entirely in command of his instrument that he gets bigger laughs talking about his day than most comics do from running down their most intricately-constructed piece. When he started out as a comic, he worked in tight, punchy sketches (the kind of bits heard on early records like Bill Cosby is a Very Funny Fellow, Right! and I Started Out as a Child), but around the mid-60s, he relaxed himself onstage, and was free on an album like Wonderfulness to do 12-plus minute routines like "Chicken Heart" and "Tonsils." He became even more free-wheeling in the 70s, as he worked more in Vegas; his last two albums (1986's Those of You, With or Without Children, You'll Understand and 1991's Oh Baby) have side-long routines, showcasing the kind of naturalistic storytelling and humor-of-recognition that became his stock in trade.
So it's no surprise that his 1969-1971 television sitcom, The Bill Cosby Show, traffics in the same kind of low-key, slice-of-life humor, rather than wacky situations and broad characterizations. He came to the series with considerable clout--he had won three Best Actor Emmys for his work on the hit spy show (and racial groundbreaker) I Spy, and co-created the series with Michael Zagor and his future collaborator on The Cosby Show, Ed. Weinberger. NBC execs wanted Cosby to play a comical detective, but he was dead set on playing a high school teacher; it wasn't much of a stretch, as he continued to pursue his education while his career was in full swing in the subsequent years, even briefly contemplating a show-biz retirement to become an educator in the mid-1970s. Instead, he found ways to be an entertainer-educator--by appearing on The Electric Company, by creating and fronting Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, and by playing Holmes High School gym teacher and coach Chet Kinkaid on The Bill Cosby Show.
The title is quite accurate--this truly is Cosby's show, as there are no either regular cast members and precious few semi-regulars (likable pixie Joyce Bulifant returns periodically as guidance counselor Mrs. Peterson, and Lee Weaver appears, though not nearly often enough, as Chet's wry brother Brian). In fact, he's the only star in the opening credits, which are scored for the second season with a slightly jazzier new mix of Quincy Jones and Cosby's theme (for my money, the third-best TV theme song of all time, behind only Sanford and Son and The Rockford Files).
As for the show itself, it has aged remarkably well. Its gentle humor and situation-based comedy was perhaps a bit ahead of its time--as was Cosby's insistence on eschewing the nearly-mandatory laugh track (a move which did him no favors among NBC executives, and which he claims cost him marketing attention that led to the show's cancellation after two seasons). In fact, with its easygoing humor, naturalistic vibe, and lack of canned laughter, The Bill Cosby Show would make a smooth fit into the network's Thursday night comedy line-up of 2010 (the episode profiling Cliff's battles with the health insurance industry seems particularly prescient).
Claims of network indifference notwithstanding, the show's first season ranked 11th in the ratings, so Cosby and his crew didn't go fixing things that weren't broke for season two. It sticks to roughly the same formula, usually with Chet getting himself into a fix or unfortunate social situation either at our outside of school (the episodes are balanced about 50/50), or helping a new friend out of a spot of trouble. Lessons are often learned, but not in a preachy way--and most intriguingly (and in marked contrast to the mostly "father knows best" story arcs of his The Cosby Show a decade and a half later), more often than not Cosby makes himself the object of ridicule who must right the error of his ways. In various season two episodes, Chet is guilty of hubris (thinking he can sell a house for a realtor friend), impatience (with an elderly neighbor), ego (expecting a surprise party for his birthday), and jealousy (of a potential girlfriend's other suitor). It says much about Cosby's personal charm and charisma that Chet remains so likable; with his screws turned a couple more times, he could very well be Larry David.
Much of the fun of The Bill Cosby Show is seeing Cosby working out formative ideas and comedy concepts that would appear later in his career. The "March of the Antelopes" episode--in which a group of inner-city kids attempt a camping trip--bears a passing resemblance to the "My Boy Scout Troupe" cut on his 1971 When I was A Kid album, while the "Deluge" episode (with his frequent film co-star Gloria Foster) finds Chet helping a neighbor woman deliver a baby (shades of Cliff Huxtable). And his funny dancing on the episode "The Generation Gap" will strike a chord with all of us who loved those Cosby Show dance-heavy opening sequences.
Cosby gets plenty of opportunities to make us laugh; the show makes Chet the kind of likable goofball who can take the stories in unexpected directions. In the season's first episode, "Anytime You're Ready, C.K.", he uses the acquisition of an 8mm camera for football game films as an excuse to make goofy home movies (we even get to see Cos do some old-school silent comedy, and credibly). In the students-on-strike episode "To Each According to His Appetite," he explains his experience with "revolutionaries" as "when I was in the Navy, putting down mutinies and things of that nature." He also gets considerable comic mileage out of Chet's swinging-bachelor status; we always tend to think of Cos as the family man, but it's fun to watch him as a silk-voiced smoothie whose flirtations occasionally get him in over his head.
Season one was notable for its guest stars, particularly a wonderfully-crafted episode with Henry Fonda. This season's biggest star is Dick Van Dyke, whose turn as drunken magician "Miraculous Martin" is a throwback to the kind of slapstick pantomimes that he did on so many old variety shows. He and Cosby make a pretty good comedy team (particularly during the business with the handcuffs in the last few scenes). Don Knotts doesn't fare quite as well--he's overdoing it (even for Don Knotts) and his broad overplaying doesn't jibe with the show's low-pitched vibe. Other guest stars, including Elsa Lanchester, a pre-Starsky & Hutch Antonio Fargas, and Wheezy Jefferson herself, Isabel Sanford, provide able support.
There are some stumbles in the second season. The two-part "Deluge" episode stretches a slender idea until it just about breaks, and the Cosby-directed "Sesame Street Rumble" is too broadly staged, taking dips into cartoonish absurdity that the show is usually careful to avoid. And as in year one, some of the supporting players--particularly the students--are pretty wooden. But those aren't game changers; the awkward familiarity of "The Generation Gap" (in which Chet spends a few days alone with his dad and runs out of things to do or say) or the clever construction of "A Dirty Business" (in which Chet attempts to recruit a student who fancies himself a spy) confirm that the charming, loose Bill Cosby Show is a winner that ended too soon.
It may prompt more smiles and chuckles than big, hearty laughs, but The Bill Cosby Show remains an underrated treasure. Its stories are simple and the execution is graceful, and Cosby is as eminently watchable as ever. Shambling, laid-back, and sweet, The Bill Cosby Show is as warm and comfortable as an old blanket.
"The Bill Cosby Show- Season 2" hits DVD on Tuesday, April 20. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review at DVD Talk.