1992: Particularly, the 30th of April: the Night "The Cosby Show" Ended in the Year I Began

posted Apr 30, 2012, 11:11 AM by Terrence Moss   [ updated Aug 16, 2014, 9:47 AM ]
It took me twenty years to realize this, but 1992 turned out to be quite a pivotal year in my life. Last month, I wrote about the lingering impact of that year’s made-for-TV movie Doing Time on Maple Drive. But so much more went on -- the series finale of The Cosby Show (among many others that year), the LA Riots and the first time I ever saw an Emmy award telecast.

On a personal note, my family moved from Illinois to New Jersey, I discovered that I had entered puberty and my passion for television was sparked.

The most jarring of these was the end of The Cosby Show. The Cosby Show is my all-time, all-time favorite TV series…of all time. It was the show my parents used to teach me the difference between real-life and TV. Now I just vacillate between real-life and the TV show existing inside my head of which I am the star.

The Cosby Show was the reason why I quit cub scouts when a pack meeting conflicted with an episode I really wanted to see. That, or pack meetings were shifted from Wednesday evenings to Thursday evenings (for shame). Either way, the episode was “Once Upon a Time” from the fourth season where Rudy writes a story that is acted out by the cast in a fantasy sequence. Based on the preview, it was not an episode I wanted to miss. We didn’t have a VCR and TiVo was about a decade and a half away.

It’s one of my earliest TV memories and the one I point to as an exemplification of how much I have always loved The Cosby Show.

I looked forward to the season premieres to see how the opening credits would change. I remember lying in front of the TV for the fifth season premiere in 1988 when the opening credits faded in from black to a wide shot of the shadow of Bill Cosby standing alone before he motions for the rest of the cast to join him. Each run in and hold different poses until the lights came up. The cast, dressed in pastel vacation attire, began dancing around the Hawaii-themed stage under a symphonic version of the theme song arranged by James DePreist.

A year later, I sat in front of that same television set in anticipation for the new season’s opening credits. That season’s opener was an upbeat saxophone arrangement by Craig Handy. I wondered who the hell Joseph C. Phillips and why he was dancing with Lisa Bonet. Then I saw Raven-Symone and wondered who the hell she was. Bill Cosby’s trademark dancing at the end of the opening credits cracked me up. I went to school the next day to ask if anyone had seen the new Cosby Show opening the night before.

Apparently, they had all jumped onto The Simpsons bandwagon. At the time, it was a new show that FOX aggressively scheduled opposite The Cosby Show to siphon away younger viewers.

The following season’s opening credit sequence had an urban feel to it as a reflection of the show’s move toward more issue-oriented storylines with characters from the inner city such as Cousin Pam, her boyfriend Slide, her best friend Charmaine and Charmaine’s boyfriend Lance. The cast wore brightly-colored threads and danced to a punchy trumpet version of the show’s theme song. I remember there being some controversy about the mural in the background so this version only lasted an episode or two. The opening credits reverted back to the previous season’s with a minor change. Who the hell was Erika Alexander?

In the summer of 1991, I read in Jet magazine that the upcoming eighth season of The Cosby Show was going to be its last. I refused to believe it. I refused to believe it with every episode I watched from the premiere (which saw the reinstatement of the previous season’s original urban-themed opening credits) to the penultimate episode the following spring. I refused to believe it when WWOR-TV, then an independent station in the New York market that had long been airing reruns of the show, ran a three-hour marathon of The Cosby Show leading up to the finale itself.

I didn’t believe it when Ebony magazine gave readers a backstage look into the last episode. I didn’t believe it when TV Guide had Phylicia Rashad (Clair Huxtable) write the article “My 8 Years As Mrs. Huxtable” as part of its feature tribute to the series. I’m not even sure I believed it as I sat down to watch the finale on April 30, 1992.

That night, WNBC broke away from its regular Prime Access programming to run a special called The Last Laugh: Memories of “The Cosby Show” at 7:30pm. Hosted by Malcolm Jamal-Warner (Theo Huxtable), the special featured outtakes as well as Phylicia Rashad’s (then Ayers-Allen) and Raven-Symone’s auditions. There were also cast interviews with Tempest Bledsoe and Raven-Symone about their favorite episodes. The special ended with a tribute version of Boyz II Men’s It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday, sung by Boyz II Men and tailored to The Cosby Show with lyrics like “the one show that made us laugh”, “Thursday nights won’t be the same” and “it’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to ‘The Cosby Show’”.

Then came the big event, which began with an extended version of the opening credits that incorporated elements of all previous opening credits dating back to season two. It still makes me smile to this day.

In the episode, Cliff and Clair’s only son Theo graduated from college. It was a momentous occasion for them because Theo’s grades in high school would never have portended such an accomplishment as he was planning to just slide by and be a “regular person” for the rest of his life.

The finale included an extended clip from the show’s pilot featuring the classic scene where Cliff uses Monopoly money to show Theo the life of “regular people”. It also featured Theo’s speech about being loved as a “regular person” and Cliff’s even more classic reaction – “…that’s the dumbest that I’ve ever heard in my life!”

Even at the age of 12, I understood the importance of college. And given Theo’s evolution over the course of the show from a slacker to a hard-working student despite the discovery in season six that he suffered from dyslexia, I also understood why Theo’s college graduation was so momentous and why the show chose to end on such a note.

What I didn’t understand in those days was statistics. I was not aware that a lot of young black men weren’t afforded the opportunity or didn’t take the opportunity to attend college for any number of reasons. I was not aware that many of those young black men who did go to college didn’t always finish for any number of reasons. It wasn’t until I was in college myself, became aware of those statistics and watched friends of mine (young, gifted and black) graduate ahead of me that I understood the gravity of what we had accomplished – in my case, with the help of my parents.

As Cliff himself reflects on how far Theo has come, the Department of Psychology is called and Theo officially graduates – to Cliff’s confusion as he was expecting to hear his son’s name called. The episode ends with Cliff and Clair dancing off the set to a standing ovation from the audience, walking through the studio and out the door into storied TV history.  

Then “To Our Loyal Viewers from NBC” unexpectedly flashed across the screen. What followed was the network’s own tribute to the series’ legendary run -- beginning with how the television situation comedy was pronounced dead in 1983 and images of news clips about the then-new Cosby Show. Images from the series and clips of classic moments followed as the network thanked viewers for 8 years of magic. The final image was of a smiling Bill Cosby.

And then came the closing credits.

It was all over. The one show I most closely identified with and grew up with was off the air. Though I had a summer of reruns to look forward to, it was the end of an era that seemed to encompass my entire life and I truly felt at a loss.

Fortunately I had my “Cosby Show” tape. We had recorded that aforementioned marathon, the tribute special and the finale. I watched and rewatched that tape until it all but wore out. Like an idiot, I taped over it years later for reasons I can’t even recall. Since VCRs gave way to DVRs, it wouldn’t matter much now anyway.

Strangely, while I was in my Cosby Show haze ensconced in the predominantly white suburb where I was raised, a city I would call home about a decade later was embroiled in civil unrest stemming from the acquittal of four cops in the beating of Rodney King more than a year earlier.

At the age of 12, I wasn’t all that aware of the concept of race or even my own blackness for that matter. Since it wasn’t openly discussed on The Cosby Show, it wasn’t anything I felt I needed to be concerned with. As far as I was concerned, we had overcome and it was a thing of the past. I actually feel blessed for that because that naivete/innocence would inevitably be lost in the coming years.

So at that time, I didn’t truly understand the implications of that verdict or the factors leading up to the LA Riots. All I saw was black people burning and pillaging their own communities, which made no sense to me. I wondered why they didn’t go to Beverly Hills instead.

It wasn’t until I came up with the idea of this article that the odd juxtaposition between the Cosby Show finale and the LA Riots became apparent to me. One had nothing to do with the other, but for eight years The Cosby Show had presented general audiences with the first portrayal of a close-knit, intact, upper middle class black family on television. No one was played for a fool. Blackness was secondary to the comedy of everyday family situations. Albeit idealistic – and rightfully so, this presentation was purposed to show the world how it COULD be.

Sadly, the LA Riots showed how far the world was from that. Blacks were/are still more disproportionately poorer than their non-black counterparts – some self-perpetuated, some not.

Though sixteen years from first hearing about “reaching across the aisle” (at least for me), we still haven’t. Tensions between the races are still elevated. Where eased, we make jokes because a joke is easier than honest dialogue – and certainly better than the alternative.

There hasn't been another comedy series on TV like The Cosby Show. Perhaps there never will be. For all the talk about how “unrealistic” it was – I’ve always hated hearing “I’ve never known a black family with a doctor and a lawyer in it” – most of the people I speak to about it point up how funny it was and how funny it still is. Perhaps that’s our answer.

The Huxtablesque family I grew up in is no more. My parents are divorced. My father lives in Illinois. My mother lives outside Los Angeles. My brother lives in Baltimore. We don’t talk often. It’s not that we don’t get along, we just all have our own lives. We always have. It’s why I like to frequently visit the Huxtables – even more than 20 years later.

It’s also where my foundations in comedy were established. My first play in high school was a comedy – a Shakespearean comedy. I knew nothing of Iambic Pentameter. But I knew Bill Cosby. But the director wasn’t going to let that fly. Throughout rehearsals, he had to keep telling me that I wasn’t Bill Cosby and that I had to stop pausing every three words.

It’s where I understood the concept of a TV show. To fill The Cosby Show void, I started creating my own when I was in high school the following year. The first was called On Her Own – about a 22-year-old fresh out of college making her way into the adult world. I was years from this myself so I consider myself a bit of a prodigy.

I started to analyze television – in my own way. I sat in front of the living room set and took notes. I noted when laughs came in. I noted if they carried over into the next scene (I understood nothing of editing). I noted how big the laugh was and gave the show points for audience response (I understood nothing of laugh tracks or sweetening).

I started reading news about the television industry. I started to research television history. I looked forward to the TV Guide each week – when it was still small. I’d read the articles and everything in the close-up boxes.

I discovered the Emmys that September and have been hooked on them since -- despite my disagreement with many of their choices of the years. I remember Candice Bergen winning what I later found out was her third Emmy (out of an eventual five) for Murphy Brown, a show that made it onto my radar because of the Dan Quayle controversy and its entrance into syndication. Later that night, I remember the show itself winning. I don’t remember what either of them said but I remember the images of Bergen and Executive Producer Diane English on stage.

And that’s how it began. The Cosby Show was obviously never just another sitcom to me. It sparked something in me that I wasn’t aware of at the time. The foundations of what I do now as a writer are rooted in that initial spark.

The Cosby Show sought to revolutionize how the black family was portrayed by mining comedy out of the everyday situations to which any family can relate. I seek to do the same with my short story series that began as My Name is Erick Davidson, became Starring Erick Davidson and will someday be I Am Erick Davidson as a TV/web series. Though it’s about the life of a single black gay thirtysomething as opposed to that of a family, the mindset is the same – mining humor from everyday situations into which everyone can put themselves regardless of the person who is in it.

20 years ago my all-time favorite TV show went off the air – as did The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, Who’s the Boss, Growing Pains, MacGyver and The Golden Girls. 20 years ago the city I now call home was burning itself to the ground. 20 years ago I began my coming of age. 20 years ago I became the star of the TV show inside my head that continues running to this very day.

And Thursday nights have never been the same.