Bill Cosby does not suffer foolish parents gladly.
In a recent interview with ABC News, the legendary comic, actor, writer and educator mused on the parenting philosophy behind his seminal television program, “The Cosby Show.”
Drawn from his own life experiences, the show allowed Cosby to correct something he saw and disliked in popular culture: poor parenting.
“I based the series on two important things: Number one … I hated those series where the children were brighter than the parents, and those parents had to play dumb,” Cosby said.
Indeed, the Dr. Huxtable character Cosby created for the show stands in stark contrast to the blundering idiot dads of other popular comedies before and after his time (Homer Simpson, Al Bundy, Peter Griffin, Phil Dunphy, etc.).
“Number two was that I wanted to ‘take the house back,’” Cosby said.
By Cosby’s estimation, if you want to entertain children “at the expense of parenting, at the expense of keeping children out of harm’s way to get these laughs, to make these parents look stupid, to make kids look like they are ultra-bright but still lost, then we have a problem.”
“[We] parents make it difficult," he said, "because we want to be well-liked. And I’m not saying that parenting, you shouldn’t want to be well-liked, but you also have to have some kind of judgment.”
Cosby’s own sense of parental humor, at once mordant and loving, has many fathers - not the least of whom was his paternal grandfather Cosby.
“This man had a sense of humor and a sense of warmth,” Cosby said.
His grandfather was also something of a teacher.
Cosby the grandson would visit his grandfather and, he said, “listen to his philosophy pertaining to the Old Testament. … [I would] act like I knew what he was talking about, and at the end he would give me 25 cents and I would go get some ice cream.”
The grandfather’s teachings took a practical turn when Cosby turned 14.
“He knew I was chomping at the bit … to play football for Central High School in Philadelphia," Cosby said. "[And] he said to me, ‘I just want to tell you: Don’t play football. Your bones are not strong enough. … If I were you, I would wait ‘til you’re around 23 years old.’ Twenty-three. I didn’t know what he was talking about.”
The young Cosby did not heed his grandfather’s advice, and, as fate would have it, broke his shoulder in the first game of the season.
“I was at home, and I had the cast on and granddad came [to visit]," Cosby said. "He just turned that handle, walked in, and he looked at me and I was on the sofa. He was talking to my mother and I set my ears back so I could listen to him, because I knew I was waiting on him to tell my mother, ‘I told junior not to play football.’”
But the senior Cosby didn’t say anything like that.
Instead, Bill Cosby said, “he bent over and he kissed me on the forehead and said, ‘How you feeling?’ And I said, ‘Fine, granddad. I’m just really sad.’ And he put a quarter in my hand and he said, ‘Go get yourself some ice cream. It’s got calcium in it,’ and he left.”
A touching gesture? Certainly. But also, in Cosby’s memory, “a smooth way of putting me down.”
One can draw a clean line from this early experience to Cosby’s comedy, and to the tough-love advice for which he’s known: When it comes to parenting, to raising young people and keeping them safe, it’s better to be right than liked.