The show focuses on the Huxtable family, an upper middle-class African-American family, living in an brownstone in Brooklyn Heights, New York, at 10 Stigwood Avenue. The patriarch is Cliff Huxtable, an obstetrician, son of a prominent jazz trombonist. The matriarch is his wife, attorney Clair Huxtable.
They have five children, four daughters and one son: Sondra, Denise, Theo, Vanessa and Rudy. Despite its comedic tone, the show sometimes involves serious subjects, like Theo's experiences dealing with dyslexia, inspired by Cosby's dyslexic son, Ennis. The show also deals with teen pregnancy when Denise's friend, Veronica (Lela Rochon), becomes pregnant.
The Cosby Show pilot episode uses the same title sequence as the rest of the first season, and is widely regarded as the 'first episode'. However, it is notable for a number of differences from the remainder of the series.
In the pilot, the Huxtables have only four children. Following the pilot, the Huxtables have five children, with the addition of their eldest daughter, Sondra (Sabrina Le Beauf), who is mentioned in episode four and appears first in episode ten. The character was created when Bill Cosby wanted the show to express the accomplishment of successfully raising a child (i.e., a college graduate).
Whitney Houston was considered for the role of Sondra Huxtable. Houston, however, was unable to commit to the full-time television production schedule in the NBC contract as she was intending to be a full-time music recording artist.
Most of the story in the pilot presentation is taken from Bill Cosby's classic comedy film, Bill Cosby: Himself. Bill Cosby's character is called "Clifford" in the early episodes of the first season (as evidenced by his name plate on the exterior of the Huxtable home). His name was later switched to "Heathcliff."
Additionally, Vanessa refers to Theo as "Teddy" twice in the dining room scene. The interior of the Huxtables' home features an entirely different living room from subsequent episodes, and different color schemes in the dining room and the master bedroom. Throughout the remainder of the series, the dining room is reserved for more formal occasions.
In the early 1980s, Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner, two former executives at ABC, left the network to start their own production company. At ABC, they had overseen sitcoms such as Mork & Mindy, Three's Company, and Welcome Back, Kotter. The two decided that in order to get a sitcom to sell for their fledgling company, they needed a big name behind it. Bill Cosby, who, during the 1970s, starred in two failed sitcoms, produced award-winning stand-up comedy albums, and had roles in several different films, was relatively quiet during the early 1980s.
Outside of his work on his cartoon series Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, Cosby was doing little in film or television, but Carsey and Werner were fans of Cosby's stand-up comedy and thought it would be the perfect material for a family sitcom.
Cosby originally proposed that the couple should both have blue collar jobs, with the father a limousine driver, who owned his own car, and the mother an electrician. But with advice from his wife Camille Cosby, the concept was changed so that the family was well off financially, with the mother a lawyer and the father a doctor.
Cosby wanted the program to be educational, reflecting his own background in education. He also insisted that the program be taped in New York City instead of Los Angeles, where most television programs were taped. The Huxtable home exterior was filmed at 10 St. Luke's Place near 7th Avenue in Manhattan's Greenwich Village (although in the show, the residence was the fictional "10 Stigwood Avenue").
The earliest episodes of the series were videotaped at NBC's Brooklyn studios (now owned by JC Studios). The network later sold that building, and production moved to the Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens. Even though the show was set to take place in Brooklyn, the exterior façade was actually of a brownstone townhouse located in Manhattan's Greenwich Village at 10 Leroy Street/ 10 St. Luke's Place. The pilot was filmed in May 1984, with season one's production commencing in July 1984, and the first taping on August 1, 1984 (Goodbye Mr. Goldfish).
During its original run at NBC, it was one of five successful sitcoms on the network that featured predominantly African-American casts. The other sitcoms were 227 (1985–90), Amen (1986–91), Cosby Show spin-off A Different World (1987–93), and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (1990–96). Four other NBC sitcoms of that time also featured Black actors and actresses in lead starring or supporting roles--Nell Carter and Telma Hopkins on Gimme a Break (1981−87); Leonard Lightfoot, and later Franklyn Seales and Alfonso Ribeiro on Silver Spoons (1982−86); Kim Fields on The Facts of Life (1979−88), and Gary Coleman and Todd Bridges on Diff'rent Strokes (1978–85).
Although the cast and characters were predominantly African American, the program was unusual in that issues of race were rarely mentioned when compared to other situation comedies of the time, such as The Jeffersons. However, The Cosby Show had African-American themes, such as the Civil Rights Movement, and it frequently promoted African-American and African culture represented by artists and musicians such as Jacob Lawrence, Miles Davis, James Brown, B.B. King, Stevie Wonder, Sammy Davis, Jr., Lena Horne, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, and Miriam Makeba.
The show's spin off, A Different World, dealt with issues of race more often. The series finale (taped on March 6, 1992) aired during the race related 1992 Los Angeles riots, with Cosby quoted in media at the time pleading for peace.
During the third season of the show, actress Phylicia Rashad was pregnant with her daughter Condola Rashād. Rather than write this pregnancy into the character of Claire Huxtable, the producers simply greatly reduced Rashad's scenes or filmed in such a way that her pregnancy was not noticeable.
Another pregnancy of one of the main stars, that of Lisa Bonet, almost caused the actress to be fired, especially coming in the wake of appearing in the film Angel Heart, which contained graphic sexual scenes with actor Mickey Rourke. Bill Cosby strongly disapproved of Bonet appearing in the film, but she was allowed to retain her role on A Different World until returning to The Cosby Show after her pregnancy. Tensions remained, however, and Bonet was eventually fired from the show in 1991.
The show's theme music, "Kiss Me", was composed by Stu Gardner and Bill Cosby. Seven versions of this theme were used during the run of the series, making it one of the few television series to use multiple versions of the same theme song over the course of a series. For season four, the theme song music was performed by musician Bobby McFerrin.
Due to legal complications regarding the background mural, the opening for season seven (filmed in August 1990) was replaced with the one from the previous season. The original season seven opening, with slight modifications, was also used in season eight.
*Phylicia Rashad was credited as "Phylicia Ayers-Allen" during season one and the first fourteen episodes of season two.
+Prior to joining the cast as a regular, Joseph C. Phillips appears as Daryl, a potential boyfriend for Sondra in season two (episode: "Cliff in Love").
The show's portrayal of a successful, stable black family was praised by some for breaking racial stereotypes and showing another part of the African-American experience. However, it was criticized by others, including Henry Louis Gates, for allowing white audiences to think that racism and poverty were problems of the past. As a result of the sexual assault allegations against Cosby, Malcolm-Jamal Warner has stated that the show's legacy is "tarnished."
The Cosby Show aired on Thursdays at 8:00pm for all eight seasons. In its first season, the show was the beginning of a Thursday NBC schedule that was followed by Family Ties, Cheers, Night Court and Hill Street Blues.
The Cosby Show is one of three television programs (All in the Family and American Idol being the others) that was number one in the Nielsen ratings for five consecutive seasons.
Carsey-Werner Distribution handles domestic and international distribution of the series, and has done so since 1997. In the United States, The Cosby Show began its television syndication run in September 1988 in broadcast syndication, shortly before the show's fifth season premiere, and was at the time distributed by Viacom; many stations that carried the series were Big Three network affiliates, though since the mid-1990s, the show has largely begun airing on independent stations and minor network affiliates.
Fort Worth, Texas-based independent station KTVT carried the series until 1995, when it ceased operating as a regional cable superstation and became an affiliate of CBS. TBS, then a national cable superstation, carried the series for nearly a decade beginning in 1999. Fellow superstation WGN America began carrying the series shortly thereafter, and continued to until September 2010. Viacom's Nick at Nite began airing reruns of the series in March 2002, and its sister network TV Land began airing reruns in 2004, making The Cosby Show one of the few series that was shown on both Nick at Nite and TV Land at the same time.
Reruns of The Cosby Show have been pulled as a result of sexual assault allegations against Cosby. In November 2014, TV Land pulled the series from its lineup. In December 2014, the Magic Johnson-owned network Aspire removed the show from its lineup. In July 2015, Bounce TV pulled reruns of Cosby, which aired from 1996 to 2000, as well as the animated series Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids; Cozi TV ceased showing I Spy reruns; and BET's Centric (another Viacom unit) stopped airing reruns of The Cosby Show. At the same time, barter syndication The Program Exchange ceased distributing the latter show.
The show is still available on the streaming service Hulu Plus. Bounce TV, however, resumed airing the series in December 2016.
The Cosby Show's producers created a spin-off series called A Different World that was built around the "Denise" character (portrayed by actress Lisa Bonet), the second of the Huxtables' four daughters. Initially, the new program dealt with Denise's life at Hillman College, the fictional historically black college from which her father, mother, and paternal grandfather had graduated.
Denise was written out of A Different World after its inaugural season, due to Bonet's pregnancy, and the following season was revamped, with the addition of director Debbie Allen (Phylicia Rashad's sister) and new characters. Denise later became a recurring character on The Cosby Show for seasons four and five, and a regular again in seasons six and seven.
Emmy AwardsOutstanding Comedy Series (1985)
Outstanding Writing in a Comedy Series (1985) – Michael Leeson and Ed. Weinberger for the pilot episode
Outstanding Directing in a Comedy Series (1985) – Jay Sandrich for "The Younger Woman"
Outstanding Directing in a Comedy Series (1986) – Jay Sandrich for "Denise's Friend"
Outstanding Guest Performer in a Comedy Series (1986) – Roscoe Lee Browne for "The Card Game"
Outstanding Editing for a Series – Multi-Camera Production (1986) – Henry Chan for "Full House"
Golden Globe AwardsBest TV Series – Comedy (1985)
Best Performance by an Actor in a TV Series – Comedy – Bill Cosby (1985, 1986) 2 wins
NAACP Image AwardsOutstanding Comedy Series (1988)
Outstanding Actress in a Comedy Series – Phylicia Rashad (1988, 1989) 2 wins
Outstanding Actor in a Comedy Series – Bill Cosby (1989, 1993) 2 wins
Peabody Award (1986)
People's Choice AwardsFavorite New TV Comedy Program (1985)
Favorite Male Performer in a New TV Program – Bill Cosby (1985)
Favorite Female Performer in a New TV Program – Phylicia Rashad (1985)
Favorite TV Comedy Program (1985–89) 5 wins
Favorite Male TV Performer – Bill Cosby (1986–92) 7 wins
Favorite All-Around Male Entertainer – Bill Cosby (1986–88, 1990–91) 5 wins
Favorite Young TV Performer – Keshia Knight Pulliam (1988)
All-Time Favorite TV Program (1989)
Favorite Female TV Performer – Phylicia Rashad (1989)
Favorite All-Around Male Star – Bill Cosby (1989)
Favorite TV Comedy Series (1990, 1992) 2 wins
Emmy AwardsOutstanding Technical Direction/Electronic Camerawork/video control for a series – 1985
Outstanding Live and Tape Sound Mixing and Sound Effects for a series – (1985) 2 nominations
Outstanding Writing in a Comedy Series – (1985–86)
Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series – Phylicia Rashad (1985–86) 2 nominations
Outstanding Comedy Series (1986–87) 2 nominations
Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series – Lisa Bonet (1986)
Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series – Keshia Knight Pulliam (1986)
Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series – Malcolm-Jamal Warner (1986)
Outstanding Sound Mixing for a Comedy Series or a Special – (1986–87)
Outstanding Editing for a Series (multi camera production) – (1987)
Outstanding Directing in a Comedy Series – Jay Sandrich (1987)
Outstanding Comedy Series – (1987)
Outstanding Guest Performer in a Comedy Series – Eileen Heckart (1988)
Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series – Sammy Davis Jr. (1989)
Golden Globe AwardsBest TV Series-Comedy (1986–87) 2 nominations
Best Performance by an Actor in a TV Series – Comedy – Bill Cosby (1987)
1993: TV Guide named The Cosby Show the All-Time Best Family Show in its issue celebrating 40 years of television.
1997: TV Guide ranked the episode "Happy Anniversary" #54 on their list of the 100 Greatest Episodes of All Time
1999: Entertainment Weekly placed show's debut at #24 in its list of the "100 Greatest Moments in Television"
2002: TV Guide placed The Cosby Show at #28 in its list of the 50 Greatest TV Shows of All Time
2004: TV Guide ranked Cliff Huxtable number 1 on its 50 Greatest TV Dads of All Time list
2004: Bravo ranked Cliff Huxtable #44 on its list of the 100 Greatest TV Characters
2007: Time magazine placed the show on its unranked list of "100 Best TV Shows of All-TIME"
2007: USA Today's web site ranked the show as #8 in its list of the "top 25 TV moments of the past quarter century"
2008: Entertainment Weekly selected Cliff Huxtable as the Dad for "The Perfect TV Family"
2013: TV Guide ranked The Cosby Show #26 on its list of the 60 Best Series.
Two albums were produced that included various theme and background music from the show. The albums were presented by longtime Cosby collaborator Stu Gardner. They were:A House Full of Love: Music from The Cosby Show (1986)
Total Happiness (Music from the Bill Cosby Show, Vol. II) (1987)
During the series' run, the character of Cliff Huxtable frequently wore an array of knit sweaters that were often brightly colored and featured abstract, asymmetrical patterns or themes. The sweaters were erroneously thought to be designed by the Australian clothing company Coogi, but were actually designed by Dutchman Koos Van Den Akker.
They were dubbed "Cosby sweaters", a term that is used to describe sweaters that are generally deemed garish and unappealing. In May 2008, Cosby's daughter Evin auctioned a batch of the sweaters that her father had kept on eBay. The proceeds of the sales went to the Hello Friend/Ennis William Cosby Foundation, a non profit charity named for Ennis Cosby. Ennis, Cosby's only son, was murdered in 1997.The character of Dr. Hibbert, who is featured on the long-running animated sitcom The Simpsons, is modelled after Dr. Cliff Huxtable. The Simpsons writing staff decided to make Dr. Hibbert a parody of Cliff Huxtable after the Fox network moved The Simpsons to Thursday nights airing opposite the top rated The Cosby Show.
All eight seasons of The Cosby Show have been released on DVD in Region 1. Seasons one and two were released by UrbanWorks which was subsequently acquired by First Look Studios, who then released the remaining six seasons. Seasons One and Two contain special features, including the ninety minute retrospective documentary entitled The Cosby Show: A Look Back, which aired on NBC in May 2002.
It contains interviews with cast members, bloopers, deleted scenes and audition footage. In December 2010, First Look Studios filed bankruptcy, and all its assets were subsequently acquired by Millennium Entertainment, who also took over distribution of The Cosby Show DVD releases. As of 2013, these releases have been discontinued, and are now out of print.
On November 5, 2013, it was announced that Mill Creek Entertainment had acquired the rights to the series. They have subsequently re released all eight seasons on DVD. On September 1, 2015, Mill Creek released a sixteen disc complete series set entitled The Cosby Show- The Complete Series.
In Region 4, Magna Pacific has released all eight seasons on DVD in Australia and New Zealand. The first two seasons have similar artwork to the North American copies, although season two is red rather than blue. Each Australian cover also features the tagline "In a house full of love, there is always room for more".
Universal Studios Home Entertainment has released seasons 1–4 in Region 2 (United Kingdom).
Note: The Millennium Entertainment release of season one contains the edited versions of the episodes aired in syndication. However, all subsequent DVD releases (including the complete series set) contain the original, uncut broadcast versions. In 2011, Millennium quietly released season one uncut in Region 1, which featured the special features from The Complete Series set.