Vulture is holding the ultimate Sitcom Smackdown to determine the greatest TV comedy of the past 30 years. Each day, a different notable writer will be charged with determining the winner of a round of the bracket, until New York Magazine TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz judges the finals on March 18. Today’s battle: Pop-culture writer Keith Phipps judges a rematch between The Cosby Show and The Simpsons, which Fox famously and brazenly pitted against the Huxtables in 1990. Make sure to head over to Facebook to vote in our Readers Bracket. We also invite tweeted opinions with the #sitcomsmackdown hashtag.
There’s an excellent chance the bracket you’re reading now wouldn’t exist if NBC hadn’t debuted The Cosby Show in September 1984 and America hadn’t decided it still had room in its heart for sitcoms. Years before dubbing it Must See TV, the network began turning Thursday nights into a showcase for critically acclaimed comedy with Cheers in 1982 and then in earnest when Family Ties and the brilliant-but-doomed Buffalo Bill joined the lineup in 1983. The only trouble: No one was watching. The sitcom wasn’t dead in the early eighties — see above for examples to the contrary — but it had certainly seen better days, as had NBC. Nothing symbolized the hard times upon which both had fallen quite so well as the 1983 Friday night doubleheader of Mr. Smith and Jennifer Slept Here, the former a show about a superintelligent orangutan who goes into politics, the latter about a family haunted by a dead movie star.
Enter Bill Cosby, to cool jazz accompaniment. A late addition to NBC’s fall schedule, The Cosby Show reversed the fortunes of both the network and the sitcom virtually overnight, paying off the bet that viewers would tune in to watch a comedy about an affluent African American family. In retrospect, it doesn’t seem like that great a gamble. Though he hadn’t had much luck in front of the cameras since I Spy in the sixties, Cosby was a popular stand-up comic, ubiquitous pitchman, and Saturday morning fixture thanks to the long-running animated series Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids. And yet such was the state of television in 1984 — to say nothing of shows with a black cast in a landscape still defined by whiteness — that it felt risky.
Like all great sitcoms, The Cosby Show followed the most basic rule: Create a show around people about whom it was easy to care. (It’s the key to even Seinfeld’s success; as selfish and petty as the characters were, you still loved them.) Cosby’s eight seasons had creative peaks and valleys, but the Huxtables — headed by Cosby and Phylicia Rashad and featuring an expanding (and occasionally contracting) cast of children, grandchildren, a precocious step-grandchild, a teenage cousin introduced in later seasons, and various hangers-on — remained people it was a pleasure to spend time with. The plots were steadfastly simplistic, steering clear of gimmicks and tired formulas, focusing instead on the pleasures and frustrations of domestic life and finding ways to spin whole episodes (and a lesson or two) out of, say, a funeral for Rudy’s fish. It offered a wry, sometimes exasperated take on parenthood, heavily inspired by Cosby’s gentle (and gently barbed) stand-up act. The Huxtable house was a home where conflicts simmered but rarely boiled over. But it was also a home that didn’t always run smoothly, where parental pride did constant battle with the threat of disappointment, and no one got what they wanted — be it a designer shirt, an unhealthy snack, or just a little peace and quiet — as often as they would like.
It was the sort of home in which a lot of Americans could see reflections of their own lives, regardless of its residents’ race — a fact that brought the show understandable plaudits, but also some criticism. Previous sitcoms featuring African Americans — Good Times, The Jeffersons, and Gimme a Break! (which occupied The Cosby Show’s time slot the year before it debuted) — often made race the source of their comedy, sometimes pointedly, sometimes awkwardly. Cosby largely left it in the background, which is not the same as ignoring it. From the funky score to the home décor to the fashion-forward clothing choices (Cosby’s trademark sweaters aside), the show dealt with race without shouting it. And when the writers did bring the subject to the forefront, they made sure it counted. The second-season episode “Vanessa’s Bad Grade,” which aired shortly before the first national observance of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, ends with the family silently watching the “I Have a Dream” speech on television. As a white, suburban teenager, I knew enough about history to understand the speech’s importance, but watching that episode brought me closer to understanding what it meant.
This bracket isn’t the first time The Cosby Show competed against The Simpsons. In the fall of 1990, emboldened by the success of The Simpsons’ first season and the mania-level enthusiasm it inspired, Fox pitted the series against The Cosby Show. As network strategy, it made sense. Cosby was still popular in 1990, but was clearly closer to the end of its run than its beginning. Taking it on both ensured publicity for Fox and helped establish the still-fledgling network as an edgy alternative to ABC, NBC, and CBS. But the shows weren’t as antithetical as they seemed. Sure, The Simpsons made a joke of fathers strangling sons, but Cliff Huxtable beat Homer to it by joking about killing his oldest, Theo, in the show’s very first episode. (“I brought you into this world,” he warns. “I’ll take you out.”) Both sitcoms, initially at least, were about the fractious process of keeping a family together. The Simpsons just took a more animated approach to the subject, in every sense of the word.
Created by Matt Groening to fill time between sketches on The Tracey Ullman Show, The Simpsons became a half-hour prime-time show following a Christmas special. (A few years later, South Park would get a series on Comedy Central when their decidedly more blasphemous take on Christmas went viral.) A direct descendent of Groening’s weekly comic strip “Life in Hell,” The Simpsons offered a purposefully ugly but fond take on family life — well-meaning, mistake-prone parents and perpetually misbehaving, anxiety-prone children. Executive producer and veteran creator James L. Brooks (The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Taxi) imbued the early episodes with the recognizable warmth of classic sitcoms, but the show quickly evolved thanks to a murderers’ row of comedy writing talent (including George Meyer, John Swartzwelder, and Jon Vitti), who expanded the show’s scope to the town of Springfield and the world. Before long, the patented blend of sentiment and parody had been perfected; The Simpsons was Fox’s first top 30 show in its first season.
To watch the opening moments of a prime-era Simpsons episode is to cash in on a lifetime of pop-culture obsession. Take season four’s Conan O’Brien–scripted “Marge vs. the Monorail,” with references that include The Flintstones, crooked southern politicians, Harold Faltemeyer’s Beverly Hills Cop score, Silence of the Lambs, Andy Capp, virtual reality, and the fifties sci-fi classic Them. That all happens within the first four minutes(!), counting the opening credits, and before the episode turns into an homage to The Music Man, complete with a show-stopping musical number worthy of its inspiration. There was more than cleverness at work. The Simpsons understood before anyone else that pop culture provided a lens through which Baby Boomers and their Gen-X kids interpreted the world. In another O’Brien episode, “Homer Goes to College,” Homer returns to school and attempts to square his idea of what the college experience ought to be — as suggested to him by eighties T&A comedies — with the realities of modern campus life, complete with a dean who used to play bass in the Pretenders.
If The Simpsons were built only on references, we wouldn’t be talking about it as one of the all-time greats. As later seasons, and shows inspired by The Simpsons (much of Seth MacFarlane’s output, 30 Rock on an off night), have proven, references alone only get you so far. It’s the endearing, instantly recognizable, and oddly three-dimensional Simpson family — Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and the eternally pacifier-sucking Maggie — that sticks to your ribs. “Watch this, Lisa: You can actually pinpoint the second when his heart rips in half,” Bart says to his sister as he shows her a video of her disillusioned would-be suitor Ralph Wiggum in “I Love Lisa.” Bart might as well be talking about The Simpsons: hilarity for sure, with the occasional injection of poignancy that can rip your heart in half.
And, no, America’s longest-running sitcom, animated program, and prime-time scripted series is not as good as it used to be. We’re now deep into what Planet Simpson author Chris Turner has dubbed “The Long Plateau,” a stretch of seasons that are rarely awful but just as rarely inspired in the way it was in its best years. I’ve come to think of The Simpsons in much the same way that I think of Paul McCartney. In his latter years, he’s been capable of the snoozer (Kisses on the Bottom), the not-bad-at-all (Memory Almost Full), and even the occasional rousing surprise, like, say, jamming with the surviving members of Nirvana. But the guy wrote “Hey Jude,” “Yesterday,” and “Maybe I’m Amazed,” and there’s no taking that away from him. Sub in “Mr. Plow,” “How I Spent My Summer Vacation,” and “Homer’s Phobia,” and you see what I mean.
So, even though I can’t imagine the modern sitcom without The Cosby Show, I can’t even contemplate an It’s a Wonderful Life–style exercise that would erase The Simpsons. I doubt you can either. It’s crept into our collective consciousness, changed the way we watch TV, rewired our brains. What sitcom has been poured over as obsessively — and by that I mean freezing every frame so you don’t miss a single gag? “Dental plan!” “An evening with Phillip Glass.” “Me fail English?” If you were within a mile of a TV in the last two decades, you probably just provided the words that follow each of those phrases. A world without The Simpsons? Unpossible.
Winner: The Simpsons
Keith Phipps is a Chicago-based writer and editor who focuses on film and pop culture. Follow him on Twitter at @kphipps3000.