More than a decade before The Cosby Show became a TV phenomenon, Bill Cosby co-created and starred in The Bill Cosby Show, a critically acclaimed, middling-rated sitcom in which he played the basketball and football coach at a middle-class L.A. high school. The series was praised at the time for its vivid location shooting, funky Quincy Jones soundtrack, and lack of a laugh track—which, frankly, reflected its lack of laughs. Taking "low-key" to a new low, The Bill Cosby Show offered gentle stories about Cosby's frustrated attempts to go jogging, or meet a date, or procure some new sports equipment. The series relied almost exclusively on Cosby's relaxed charisma.
The 26 episodes on the Bill Cosby Show: Season One DVD set work best when Cosby and his creative team—including future Mary Tyler Moore Show and Taxi writer-producer Ed Weinberger—introduce just a little "situation" into the comedy. As in the episode "The Elevator Doesn't Stop Here Anymore," where Cosby and an English teacher (played by Henry Fonda) get stuck in an elevator overnight and pass the time playing games and talking about their lives. It's a joy just to watch Cosby and Fonda interact in their sweet, natural way. In other episodes, like "Rules Is Rules" and "The Gumball Incident," Cosby introduces race without making a big deal of it, by including scenes where he asks fellow black men for a favor, "brother to brother," or deals with the subtle skepticism of authority figures.
But really, The Bill Cosby Show's racial politics were more pragmatic. In the first season's best episode, "A Christmas Ballad," Cosby helps a grumpy old black man rediscover his soul by asking him to play Santa for some underprivileged kids. What's great about the episode isn't its maudlin sentiment—though it's still effective today—but the fact that the reluctant Santa is played by Rex Ingram, an actor who survived decades of Hollywood stereotyping in order to get the chance to play a human being.
Key features: A brief, laid-back interview with Cosby.