MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Tomorrow marks the 30th anniversary of the debut of "The Cosby Show." A new biography of its co-creator and star was just released. It's called "Cosby: His Life and Times." NPR TV critic Eric Deggans spoke with author Mark Whitaker, about the man whose comedy has had a huge impact on America's ideas about family and race.
ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: "The Cosby Show" really sounded like a situation comedy that was transforming network television. Especially because the situations, often centered on parents Cliff and Clair Huxtable, seemed so ordinary.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE COSBY SHOW")
PHYLICIA RASHAD: (As Clair Huxtable) I was a beautiful woman once. Before the children came.
BILL COSBY: (As Cliff Huxtable) I just hope they get out of the house before we die.
DEGGANS: But author Mark Whitaker says scenes like this subtly revolutionized TV. They showed an upper-middle-class black family, strongly connected to their culture.
MARK WHITAKER: There was more blackness in that show than people either knowledge at the time or remember. But it was always done in a very subtle and specific way without trying to call attention to it.
DEGGANS: Like the African-American art on their walls and the jazz playing in their home. Whitaker, a former editor of Newsweek, has written the first major biography to get cooperation from Cosby himself. And in telling Cosby's life story it details how "The Cosby Show" grew out of his comedy style. Which focuses on storytelling about universal things. For example one of Cosby's biggest routines from 1960s was about Noah and God.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
COSBY: Noah. What? What do you want? You got two males down there and you need to bring in a female. I'm not bringing nothing in, you change one of them.
WHITAKER: There were people in the 60s who thought he should be addressing racial issues in his comedy. Cosby always had a sense of - a very deep sense of the impact that his work was going to have on race relations.
DEGGANS: That impact grew in 1965. When producer Sheldon Leonard cast Cosby in a ground breaking new show called, "I Spy."
DEGGANS: "I Spy" featured Cosby and Robert Culp as a team of hip undercover agents. It was the first time a black man co-stared in a TV drama. And wouldn't have been possible without white supporters like Culp and Leonard. Something Whitaker says Cosby appreciated greatly.
WHITAKER: He even had a term for his white supporters and mentors, he called them abolitionists.
DEGGANS: Fans who weren't used to seeing Cosby talk about race were likely shocked when he took the stage at a 2004 NAACP event to deliver the pound cake speech. An off-the-cuff criticism of poor black people for failing to better themselves.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
COSBY: People getting shot in the back of the head over a piece of pound cake. And then we all run out and we're outraged. Ah , the cops shouldn't have shot him. What the hell was he doing with the pound cake in his hand?
DEGGANS: Whitaker notes that Cosby overcame similar challenges himself. Which included growing up poor with an absentee alcoholic father.
WHITAKER: You know, I think Cosby's message underneath all the comedy along has been, if black folks want to be respected they have to respect themselves.
DEGGANS: But Michael Eric Dyson, an educator and pundit spoke out against the remarks and eventually wrote a book called, "Is Bill Cosby right? Or Has the Black Middle-class Lost its Mind."
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: I thought he was being elitist and condescending and dismissive of the poor and uncomprehending about their live. Then we talked and he said look, I was really quoted out of context. And so he sent me a copy of the speech and when I heard it, it was venomous, it was acerbic. The tone of the speech was nasty and brutal.
DEGGANS: Dyson says Whitaker's been seduced by Cosby. He notes the biography doesn't mention a jarring accusation from 2004. When several women claim the comic drugged and sexually assaulting them.
DYSON: So, how is it that accusations of immorality that have been levied against Mr. Cosby's don't make it into a book where the author defends Mr. Cosby in terms of his own attacks on young people?
DEGGANS: Whitaker, who did write about times when Cosby cheated on his wife said he never asked his subject directly about the assault allegations or interviewed the accusers. As a journalist Whitaker says he wasn't comparable including complex accusations in the book that he couldn't prove.
WHITAKER: And I just did not want to be in a position of printing allegations and denials and then be in a position as a journalist writing the most thorough biography that's ever been done. If people said to me, well what do you thing really happened? And I would say, you know, I don't know.
DEGGANS: A representative for Bill Cosby declined an interview request for this story. The book does note that Cosby's show may even have made it easier for all Americans to picture a black family like the Obama's in the White House. That may be the most enduring legacy of "The Cosby Show" and Cosby himself. Indirectly challenging stereotypes by telling stories that moved a nation. Eric Deggans, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.