The conscience of `The Cosby Show'
Boston — LIKE millions of other people around the country, when Thursday evening rolls around Alvin F. Poussaint enjoys tuning in to America's No. 1 television program, ``The Cosby Show.'' But unlike millions of viewers, Dr. Poussaint already knows the outcome of each show. That's because he has read the script. In fact, he has jotted down his ideas about the plot and shared them with Bill Cosby and the show's team of seven writers before the episode is shot.
Obviously Poussaint is not your average fan of the Huxtable family. He is a professor of psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School, who - at Mr. Cosby's invitation - acts as a paid consultant to the show. Along with Cosby and his writers, Poussaint keeps a sharp eye out for the realism that has become a hallmark of the show's comedy, and also for the subtler nuances of the nonsexist, nonracist humor that sets ``The Cosby Show'' against the tide of mainstream prime-time television comedy.
``For instance, we don't want to do any demeaning or stereotypic humor about anybody,'' says Poussaint, who first got to know Cosby through the civil rights movement. ``There are no jokes about people being fat, people being skinny, or handicapped or mentally retarded. There's no humor putting down any ethnic groups, any religious groups.
``We just stay away from that,'' he says, ``because we feel it's destructive, and particularly destructive to the group being demeaned.''
Poussaint, who wrote the introduction and afterword to Cosby's best-selling book, ``Fatherhood,'' spends four or five hours with a 50- to 55-page script, which has already been subjected to hours and hours of discussion and fine-tuning by the show's writers and Cosby himself.
Sometimes Poussaint's suggestions are incorporated into a revision; sometimes they become a springboard for other discussions. On particularly tricky plots - such as the show that involved the discovery of a marijuana cigarette in the schoolbooks of Theo, the Huxtable son - Poussaint may be consulted before the script is written.
John Markus, the head writer and co-executive producer, who wrote the script about the marijuana cigarette, says he contacted Poussaint beforehand to explore some of the behavioral possibilities of the plot. For example, what would be a likely first reaction for parents or children who found themselves in this situation in real life? Part of the discussion revolved around whether Dr. Huxtable (Cosby) would search his son's room; the ultimate decision was that he would not.
``When we're doing a show of great social sensitivity, I'll give Alvin a call to help probe the character's thoughts further, and come up with additional behavior possibilities,'' Mr. Markus says. ``Combined with his knowledge, we're able to come to some truths about a situation.''
Markus says that although Poussaint reviews every script, ``there is no picking apart of the characters psychologically.'' Poussaint's expertise is used to help the show maintain what Markus calls ``the continuing theme of reality - reality of character, reality of attitudes, reality of story, so that nothing is contrived.''
Like Cosby and the show's writers, Poussaint is well aware of the show's special impact on the black community. From time to time, he raises questions that relate directly to real-life black issues.
For example, he says, he encouraged the development early on of Theo's character as someone who enjoys school. The stereotype he and the show's staff sought to avoid was that of the young black male as an academic nonachiever.
``That is a stereotype, but it's also a problem right now in the black community,'' Poussaint says. ``That's happening to too many black male youths. ... So the scripts began showing Theo with a strong interest in school and a responsible attitude.
``The scripts didn't cut out his other side, his streetwise side, completely,'' he adds, ``but they were making sure we didn't portray him as anti-intellectual and anti-education.''
Poussaint concedes that ``The Cosby Show'' holds up a fairly idealized view of the family - a two-parent, upper-middle-class household, in which most family problems, which are rarely serious, are worked out in the course of a 22-minute episode. He argues, however, that a sitcom format does not lend itself easily, or responsibly, to such serious and complex issues as racism or drug abuse. And he says that despite the near-perfect world of the happy Huxtable family, ``The Cosby Show'' still carries powerful meaning for all economic levels of the black community.
``Everywhere I go, people in the black community feel proud that the show is doing so well and that it has positive role models,'' Poussaint says. ``They also feel very proud that whites use the show as a role model - and that it's black people performing it. ... Before `The Cosby Show,' the main black children on TV, Emmanuel Lewis of `Webster' and Gary Coleman of `Diff'rent Strokes' were adopted by white families.
``It gives black people a sense of racial pride about the show,'' he continues, ``as well as holding up positive images that their children can effectively tie into.''
But blacks are not the only ones getting something out of ``The Cosby Show.'' An opinion poll of American teen-agers released late last year ranked Bill Cosby as the teens' ``top hero,'' outranking President Reagan, comedian Eddie Murphy, and actor Sylvester Stallone.
``That to me is phenomenal,'' Poussaint says, ``because teen-agers generally don't adopt a 49-year-old father-figure as their hero. I think what comes through on the show is that Cosby treats his kids with dignity and with respect.
``Just think about our stereotypes about teen-agers and what they're interested in,'' he insists, ``the Princes, the Madonnas, all the hip kinds of things, or rebellious images like Rambo. For them to pick a family-type man and say, `Yes, he's our hero, too,' that's a good sign.''
Poussaint still raps the television industry for being too narrow and too stereotypical in its use and portrayal of minorities on sitcoms and dramas. In fact, he wryly notes that before its debut, ``The Cosby Show'' was turned down by one network, which he says didn't believe that a black family sitcom would appeal to white viewers.
``Television can do a lot better in more truly mirroring, or being a mirror of society in its diversity,'' Poussaint contends. ``There are far too few Latinos on TV. ... There're limited opportunities for blacks, and there's still a tendency to cast blacks in roles they've traditionally played - pimps, muggers, comics, butlers, whatever.
``I think something will have been permanently changed in some way in TV'' as a result of the show, Poussaint says. ``I think `The Cosby Show' taught the networks a lesson about their own narrow vision.
``The white American public is not laughing at Cosby because he's some kind of stereotypic clown,'' he says. ``They're laughing with Cosby. They're with him, and that, I think, is a very different phenomenon.''