By the time The Bill Cosby Show debuted in 1969, the Philadelphia comedian had already made a name for himself both as a comic and as the co-star of television's I Spy. In both of those roles, Cosby had already broken down many barriers, serving as a pioneer in the entertainment industry and establishing himself as a force to be reckoned with. But it was during this sadly short-lived series that Cosby broke out of his co-star status and established himself as a leading man, as well as changing the face of comedy on television.
Arriving this week in a four-disc collection that features all 26 episodes of the first season, The Bill Cosby Show is a glowing example of the performer's brilliance. Long before he would become America's favorite dad Dr. Cliff Huxtable on The Cosby Show, the comedian starred as high school gym teacher extraordinaire, Chet Kincaid. The basic premise of the series was simple: Chet would start out to do something simple, and something else would interrupt his plans. The formula was established in the first episode, "The Fatal Phone Call," when Chet goes jogging, stops to answer a ringing pay phone, gets caught in a domestic squabble and ends up getting taken in by the police for robbery.
This simple formula was the framework for nearly every episode, but somehow it never grew stale or tired. Part of the reason the premise worked so well was because of the well-written scripts and the supporting cast which included guest stars like Henry Fonda and Elsa Lanchester, who become trapped in an elevator with Chet in "The Elevator Doesn't Stop Here Anymore." The other reason for the consistent quality of the episodes was that each show was treated as a mini-movie. Unlike most other sitcoms, The Bill Cosby Show was shot on film, in multiple locations, with plot-driven ideas as opposed to extended jokes. It was also one of the first sitcoms to be produced without a laugh track, which television producers have long used as a gimmick to let audiences know when they are being entertained. Cosby's adamant refusal to use a laugh track also forced the show to engage the audience on a more cerebral level.
The Bill Cosby Show: Season One is a must-have for all of the comedian's fans, and goes a long way toward preserving Cosby's brilliant legacy. The collection also features a too-brief interview with Cosby, as he talks about how the show came to be.
ALSO ON DVD
Despite the fact the distributor dissed us by not send us a copy of the film, WW has nothing but love for local filmmaker James Westby. Melik Malkasian stars in Westby's Film Geek—featuring yours truly in a cameo—which recently arrived on DVD after a succesful arthouse theatrical run. Not only is Film Geek a fun, entertaining movie with a dark comedic bent, the DVD bonus features also includes Westby's brilliant—and I mean brilliant—short film The Auteur, also starring Malkasian. Both the director and the actor are currently working on a feature film based on the character in The Auteur, a burned-out porn director looking for another shot at glory.