Can Bill Cosby save NBC comedy?

Senior Television Writer
01.22.14 33 Comments


On “30 Rock,” fake NBC executive Jack Donaghy once declared that the network’s number two priority was to “Make it 1997 again through science or magic.” Based on the news that the real NBC has cut a deal with Bill Cosby to star in a new sitcom – on the heels of an expensive and unsuccessful deal this season with Michael J. Fox, along with failures from other past NBC stars like Sean Hayes and Matthew Perry – it appears that the current administration has its eyes set on making it 1987 again, if not earlier.

According to several reports, including this one in the Hollywood Reporter, Cosby and former “Cosby Show” producer Tom Werner will team up to develop a show in which the Cos would play the patriarch of a multi-generational family, and the show would be an outlet for Cosby’s distinct comic “take on marriage and parenting.”

On the one hand, Cosby is one of the biggest TV stars of all time, making an impact across multiple generations, from his trailblazing Emmy wins in the ’60s for “I Spy,” adapting his early standup routines into the “Fat Albert” Saturday morning cartoon in the ’70s, and then as the star of the beloved, wildly popular ’80s family comedy “The Cosby Show.” (I’ve been watching repeats of the last with my kids on Hulu, and it holds up incredibly well.)

On the other hand, that kind of enduring popularity is rare. “The Michael J. Fox Show” – which NBC committed to an entire season of before a pilot episode had even been filmed – has gone from a ratings disappointment to an outright disaster, and is likely only on the air at this point because NBC ordered so many episodes in advance. And the last time a network in dire comedy circumstances looked to Cosby as a savior, the results were mixed. Back in 1996, CBS ordered “Cosby,” adapted from a British sitcom, but essentially the story of an older, crabbier Cliff Huxtable, in the hopes Cosby could pull them out of a huge hole. That “Cosby” wasn’t a disaster, but it was only a modest success, providing some stability for CBS until a genuine hit – “Everybody Loves Raymond,” which debuted with much less hype in the same season – could emerge.

As well as NBC did this fall with football, “The Voice” and “The Blacklist,” the network’s comedy brand is such a disaster that it wouldn’t be a surprise if, once again, “Parks and Recreation” and “Community” were the only ones renewed (NBC’s Robert Greenblatt all but committed to “Parks” season 7 already). Given that, they’d leap at a “Cosby”-level success. But almost 20 years after the start of “Cosby,” will the Cos do any better than Fox?

At this rate, though, who gets the call from NBC comedy development next: Harry Anderson or Shelley Long?

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