In the early to mid 20th Century, apart from radio dramas and Sunday “funnies,” entertainment in most forms was largely found outside the home in movie houses, live theater, concert venues, etc. Similarly, avenues of education, while found primarily in the classroom, were supplemented by parental interaction and oversight. In a sense, managing the proper balance of entertainment and education was easier because both were compartmentalized well enough that they could be controlled and moderated by parents seeking to raise decent, socially well-adjusted children. The introduction of television changed this dynamic entirely.
Television brought the world of Hollywood into the living room. A host of entertainment was now easily accessible at the mere flick of a switch and turn of a dial and parents began to make necessary judgment calls about which programs were appropriate for their children and which were not. As broadcasters introduced cartoons and other “children’s programming” into the mix, the need for parents to find a balance between homework and “TV time” became increasingly important. While it wasn’t impossible, it was a very real challenge for parents in the new age of television.
While all this was going on, a young, African-American comedian from Philadelphia was generating buzz, not only because he was funny, but also because his material dealt with real family situations balancing humor with a moral backbone. His name was Bill Cosby.
In the early 1970s, Cosby addressed the presumed need for educational children’s television with the introduction of a cartoon called Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids. In this cartoon, a group of urban youth was confronted by real-world problems such as vandalism, stealing and violence and would ultimately reach a socially productive conclusion, which would be summed up by a catchy song at the end of the program. Fat Albert is still recognized for its moral lessons and even became the focus of Cosby’s doctoral dissertation when he earned an Ed.D degree from the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 1976. Cosby himself was well on the road to establishing himself as America’s moral compass.
He parlayed his moralistic and humorous approach into The Cosby Show in the 1980s. In the midst of primarily milquetoast situation comedies of the era, the Huxtables (the family portrayed on the program) were the one TV family, which many American families sought to emulate. The character of Cliff Huxtable was the humorous, loveable, moral rock of the family and the character himself, though factional, became intrinsically tied to Bill Cosby. Mothers and fathers across the country were happy to hand off their parental responsibilities to Cliff Huxtable, if only for a half hour every Tuesday night. For many of us, Cliff and Bill were the same person, and we had no real reason to believe otherwise. He was more than just a TV dad; he was our dad… America’s dad.
Sure, along the way, a few maverick allegations were made against him for sexual misconduct. They made us a little uncomfortable for a while, but when nothing seemed to become of them, Cosby’s “dad” status would emerge from the fray, and all was right with the world.
That world is beginning to crumble in light of an onslaught of new allegations of sexual misconduct against Cosby and these ones don’t seem to be going away. To those of us who have built up Bill Cosby’s image to be of equal or even greater status than our own fathers, we are itching to cry out, “Say it ain’t so, Bill! Say it ain’t so!”
At the same time, Bill Cosby, the man who established himself as America’s moral compass may, in the end, be nothing more that a sexually deviant criminal if what his accusers say about him holds true. Somehow, I doubt that even Fat Albert could compose a catchy tune to sum up this one.