Judge Dennis Prince gonna git him some raggits—and some rolls—and some reazinrizin! Ah ha hah!
After completing a successful four-season run as undercover operative Alexander "Scotty" Scott in I Spy, Bill Cosby sought out a new vehicle to impart his perspective, insight, and plaintive humor upon American television audiences. Having been the first black actor to lead a television series (and receive Emmy awards for his efforts), Cosby was a shoo-in for his own self-titled show. The success of his comedy routines, captured on vinyl and played time and again on American's console stereos and portable turntables, made it easy for NBC to greenlight The Bill Cosby Show.
The first episode premiered on Sunday, September 14, 1969, at 8:30 p.m., and introduced viewers to high school P.E. teacher and basketball coach Chet Kincaid (Cosby). In this first outing, Chet is jogging downtown when he happens to answer a ringing pay phone. The woman on the other end is desperate to find her husband Calvin (Vic Tayback, Alice), who should be at work at the garage across from the phone. Unwittingly, Chet finds himself in the middle of a marital dispute in which he must help the couple resolve their differences or else wind up on the wrong side of the law (it's a long story). That's largely the formula; The Bill Cosby Show takes everyday situations and works through the apathy, animosity, and absurdity that people bring to such moments. While Cosby as Chet is always embroiled in the middle of some predicament—whether having to unexpectedly deliver a baby or struggling to curb the foul mouth of one of his basketball players—he serves as a functional narrator of what is essentially a fable, often imparting omniscient observation and a conclusive moral before the 25 minutes are up.
Although the show was clearly Cosby's effort to help black actors gain access to more important roles in television, the show is thankfully "color blind." That is, Cosby portrays himself—as he always had—as just a regular guy working alongside other regular people, getting along and getting by. Chet serves as a cultural bridge to the other characters yet never draws distinct attention to race, creed, or color. Interestingly enough, it seems that, for the strides the show likely achieved on this level, its curative elements are again very much in need today.
For those who watched the original airings of The Bill Cosby Show, they'll typically cite the jazzy opening with an overflowing fondness, a title where Cosby himself provides energetic scattin' vocals alongside the inimitable Quincy Jones's catchy tune. With the mood set, the show generally follows a rather laid-back pace as Chet always manages to maintain his composure in and out of each situation. Of the 26 episodes, the first season's highlights include the formerly noted foul-mouthed basketball player episode ("This Mouth Is Rated X") and makes inventive use of a censor cue to obscure the player's profanities—it's the recognizable Road Runner "beep-beep." In addition, look for a unique experience from "The Elevator Doesn't Stop Here Anymore" where Cosby teams up with legendary Henry Fonda, who plays a fellow teacher, and Elsa Lanchester, who plays a non-English speaking charwoman. The three become trapped in an elevator and resort to word games and an occasional nip from the charwoman's Thermos to pass the time; it's perhaps the best episode of the entire first season.
On an included interview, Cosby himself explains how he insisted there be no laugh track for this show (and there isn't). He complained that he didn't want to tell viewers when to laugh but rather to allow them to decide where the humor may be. To that end, the first couple of episodes you watch may cause you to feel a bit uneasy—we've all been well programmed to laugh whenever a studio audience guffaws in approval or upon being chided by an in-studio prompter—but here we're on our own. So rather than being goaded into chuckles, we get an experience that feels very much like eavesdropping and essentially forces us to be more interactive in disseminating each episode—and that is very welcome and refreshing.
Longtime fans of the show have been making do with poorly videotaped copies of the episodes but will be thrilled to see the quality and completeness of this The Bill Cosby Show—Season One from Shout! Factory. The 26 first-season episodes are spread across four single-sided discs, contained in a gatefold digipak keeper and stored in an outer slipcase. Here's the disc-by-disc breakdown:
Each episode is presented in its original 4:3 full-frame format and they look downright spectacular. The colors are vibrant and true while the detail of each is absolutely incredible (take special note of the suit-jacket knits throughout and the elevator walls in "The Elevator Doesn't Stop Here Anymore"). The production crew originally chose to shoot on film rather than video, much to our present-day benefit. The source prints are remarkably clean although you will see some occasional dirt from time to time. The audio is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono and it likewise performs better than expected, always clear and very energetic (it does get particularly shrill, however, during "Lullaby and Goodnight"). As for extras, you'll find a very generous 2006 interview with Cosby in which he talks about all aspects of the show—its inception, its guest stars, its abbreviated run, and, of course, its theme song.
So if you're truly looking for a new television experience, try something a little bit older. The Bill Cosby Show has a quality that you may enjoy without all the overstimulation of today's fare. You might find you enjoy it more because it lets you decide what it's all about and why you should care.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
• 25-Minute Interview with Bill Cosby (2006)
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