Summer sitcom rewind: ‘The Cosby Show’ – ‘Theo’s Holiday’

We're continuing this periodic summer project where we revisit classic sitcom episode. Last week, we did a “NewsRadio” double feature, and today we're going to talk about one of my favorite episodes of “The Cosby Show,” called “Theo's Holiday,” coming up just as soon as my corporate headquarters has 49 floors but no phone…

Periodically throughout the latter half of the 20th century, various TV genres would be declared dead and buried. Some of them actually stayed dead, more or less, like the Western, while others lay fallow, waiting for the right show to bring the public mood back to it. In the early '80s, the sitcom was the genre being put out to pasture, falling behind dramas of various stripes, from the lofty ambitions of “Hill Street Blues” and “St. Elsewhere” to the soapy environs of “Dallas” and “Dynasty” to the comedy/drama/action mix of “Magnum, P.I.” and “The A-Team.” Then along came “The Cosby Show,” which was an enormous hit – it single-handedly created the tradition of NBC dominating Thursday nights, which would continue for the next 20-odd years – and created new interest in the sitcom field among both audiences and network executives.

It was socially significant, too, in that it was the first sitcom with a predominantly (or, in this case, entirely) African-American cast where the conflicts weren't defined by race, or class. The Jeffersons, for instance, were well-to-do, but much of the comedy came from George butting heads with his honky neighbors, or from his blue-collar roots getting tangled up in his white-collar lifestyle. The Huxtables, on the other hand, were wealthy, functional, happy and admirable – the kind of family that not only other black families could aspire to (just as white audiences had once dreamed of being more like the Cleavers or the Nelsons), but that families of any race could want to be more like. This may sound insignificant now, or corny, but in 1984, this was a very big deal. “The Cosby Show” was a hit because it was funny, but also because people just loved that family, and the show played just as big a role in changing American attitudes about race as “Will & Grace” and “Ellen” would start changing attitudes about gay people in the late '90s.

The Short Version For Newbies: Bill Cosby is Heathcliff “Cliff” Huxtable, obstetrician, husband to attorney Clair (Phylicia Rashad) and father to kids Sondra (Sabrina Le Beauf), Denise (Lisa Bonet), Theo (Malcolm-Jamal Warner), Vanessa (Tempestt Bledsoe) and Rudy (Keshia Knight Pulliam). Sandra is off at college and appears sporadically in the early seasons (she's not in this episode, for instance), but the other kids are still living in the palatial Huxtable family brownstone in Brooklyn.

I've been watching “The Cosby Show” on Hulu with my kids as a way of weaning them off of the various Disney and Nick sitcoms they favor. It's from a period when most sitcoms were still designed as family-friendly viewing, and though the kids tend to favor episodes with a lot of Rudy in them (the slumber party episode with Peter and a young Alicia Keys is their favorite), they've come to love the antics of Cliff, Denise, Theo and the rest as well.

And as I've been watching it with them, I've gotten something of a crash course in classic sitcom storytelling values: not just the idea of the action centering around the living room couch, or the raucous (and, back then, mostly genuine) laughter from the studio audience, but the way that the show mostly told a single story per episode, favored very long scenes that allowed the Cos to be the Cos (or allowed the audience to simply bask in the warm glow of Huxtable land). Many other sitcoms of the era(*) tended to feature at least one subplot, if not more, which gave the whole ensemble something to do, kept the pace quick and kept the audience from growing tired of any one story. “The Cosby Show” writers didn't do that in the early days. They stuck with one plot, developed it as best as they could to fill a half-hour, and if the story didn't have much room for Denise or Vanessa or Theo one week, so be it. It's a harder discipline, but a potentially more rewarding one; “Everybody Loves Raymond” followed the same No Subplots credo, and Phil Rosenthal would talk about the challenges that created for the writers, but also noted that the payoff would be much bigger when they got it right.

(*) This includes the show's Thursday night NBC companions in its first season: “Family Ties,” “Cheers,” and “Night Court.” When you cap the evening off with “Hill Street Blues,” that's one of the best, most consistent three-hour blocks in television history.

The plot of “Theo's Holiday” gives everyone in the main cast something to do, but in a way that allows the show to keep bouncing from scene to scene and character to character, even as it's following Theo through this funhouse mirror version of his family. The notion of Cliff, Clair and the kids turning the house upside down and playing dress-up just to teach Theo a lesson about adult responsibility is the kind of story that seems artificial and sitcom-y in a way that probably wouldn't play now, but it's a fantasy rooted in just enough truth to work. Would the real-life version of the Huxtables do this? Probably not. Would they get a big kick out of doing it, and would the real-life Theo learn something from the experience? Absolutely.

Each time I watch this one, I can't  decide which is the more impressive part of the experiment: that Theo's parents and sisters throw themselves wholeheartedly into the game, or that Theo chooses to play along. The former speaks to the closeness of the Huxtable family, but so does the latter: Theo was raised well by Cliff and Clair, but he's also determined to prove a point to them. He may bend the rules of the game by going to get his buddy Cockroach to pose as his boss, but he doesn't mock the idea or quit when it gets too difficult.

Mainly, though, “Theo's Holiday” is an excuse for Cosby and his  co-stars (plus Carl Anthony Payne II as Cockroach) to wear funny costumes and adopt ridiculous accents, with all the actors throwing themselves into the game with such enthusiasm that it works. My kids love Rudy as the head of the bank, but nothing tops Clair as the proprietor of Furniture City, with the long riff she gives about the store's policies and the many ways in which Theo can attempt to buy back the contents of his bedroom. More often than not, Rashad was there to play straight woman while the Cos mugged, but when the occasion called for Clair to be silly herself, she was always up for it. And the fakeout in the kitchen, where Theo nearly eats a very expensive meal because Denise is playing a waitress who's also named Denise, is a simple joke perfectly executed.

Like the other best episodes of the series, “Theo's Holiday” evokes the most famous line from the theme song of another Bill Cosby show: “Fat Albert,” which explained that it had “Bill Cosby coming at you with music and fun, and if you're not careful, you may learn something before it's done.” The idea that adults have to make money, keep budgets, etc. isn't a particularly deep or novel one, but presented this way, it had a big impact. (Based on anecdotal experience, I'm expecting some stories in the comments from people who were kids in the '80s and first truly understood basic adult responsibility from watching this episode.)

If you liked this episode: It's really hard to go wrong with anything from the first few seasons, when the stories and characters were still fresh, and when the four main kids were all at useful narrative ages. Just a few to start with from seasons 1 & 2: “Goodbye Mr. Fish,” “A Shirt Story,” “The Slumber Party,” “Happy Anniversary” (the first episode to feature a Huxtable family lip sync performance) and “A Touch of Wonder” (the Stevie Wonder episode).

Coming up next: I can't promise when the next entry in the series will be because I have a bunch of more pressing work responsibilities coming up, but whenever we meet next on this project, it'll be to go seriously old school and discuss “Job Switching” from “I Love Lucy.”  Get your chocolates ready!

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at