For the next three weeks, Vulture is holding its annual pop-culture bracket. In 2015, we battled it out for the best high-school TV show; this year, we’re determining the greatest couple on television in the past 30 years. Each day, a different writer will be charged with picking the winner of a round of the bracket, until New York Magazine TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz judges the finals, on October 14. Today’s round will decide whether The Cosby Show’s Clair and Cliff or Roseanne’s Dan and Roseanne move on to the next round. After you read, be sure to visit Vulture’s Facebook page to vote on which couple you think should advance.
What do we talk about when we talk about the marital integrity of The Cosby Show’s Heathcliff and Clair Huxtable versus that of Roseanne’s Dan and Roseanne Conner? I’ll concede that this royal “we” comprises me and maybe seven other people who have considered this, but stay close, because this conversation benefits everyone.
We could talk about meet-cutes, but both couples have terrific ones, and most people could have two meet-cutes per month just by lurking near the condiments at a high-traffic Starbucks. One could argue that the Huxtable and Conner children should also be included in the equation, but parenthood and couplehood are independent experiences, even when it seems otherwise. Besides, there is considerable precedent for good parents winding up with asshole children and vice versa. Longitudinal contentment doesn’t work either, because the Huxtables’ relative wealth makes it easier to keep a smile, and it’s not a fair fight if you factor in Roseanne’s darkest-timeline ending.
The couples’ respective senses of humor provide the best means to compare them. Because isn’t that what a marriage is, after all? Two people making a lifelong commitment to convince each other to laugh when everything inside them wants to do the opposite? And a strong couple never loses the ability to laugh with each other, and sometimes at each other. Therefore, a matchup between the pairs ultimately comes down to adorable pranks and each couple’s dedication thereto.
The Huxtables and the Conners were equally eager to razz each other in hilariously elaborate ways. And that’s as it should be, because practical jokes are one of the building blocks of the contemporary sitcom. A prank provides the perfect structure for a three-act sitcom story between the buildup, the execution, and the aftermath. It’s difficult to think of a sitcom that ran as long as Cosby (eight seasons) and Roseanne (nine seasons that probably should have been eight) that doesn’t have episodes involving dastardly high jinks. But prank episodes are at their best when they pit a romantic couple against each other. It’s one thing to pull a fast one on a co-worker or casual acquaintance, but pranking someone who knows you more intimately than anyone is the height of comic guile.
Pranks were always a component of life in the Huxtable household, thanks mostly to the mischievous Huxtable men. Cliff (Bill Cosby) prided himself on pulling tricks — “gotchas,” in Huxtable parlance — on his family, and his only son Theo (Malcolm-Jamal Warner) carried on the great tradition. Of all the pranks Cliff pulled, the most elaborate came in season three’s “I Know That You Know,” which found Cliff trying to defend his prankster crown from a direct assault by a united Huxtable front.
When Elvin (Geoffrey Owens), the goofy, male chauvinist boyfriend of eldest Huxtable child Sandra (Sabrina LeBeauf), decides to become Sandra’s slightly less goofy, slightly more feminist husband, the soon-to-be betrothed couple drops by the house to announce Elvin’s intentions. Cliff is at work, so the entire family finds out except him. Finally, says Theo, they know something Cliff doesn’t, which gives them the ammunition to disprove Cliff’s claim that he’s impregnable to their tomfoolery.
Though Clair (Phylicia Rashad) doesn’t come up with the plan, she certainly takes the lead on it. She sanctions the plan after first tut-tutting it, then takes on a critical role. The family conspires to trick Cliff into thinking Clair has never forgiven Elvin for his prehistoric attitudes about gender roles and will thwart the proposal at all costs. Elvin pretends to ask for Cliff’s permission separately, and pleads with him to help bring Clair around, and every time Cliff tries to speak on Elvin’s behalf, she eviscerates him as only a seasoned trial lawyer could. Clair is challenging Cliff, but she’s also paying tribute to one of her beloved husband’s juvenile foibles. Clair throws herself into the prank because she wants to better relate to Cliff by doing the stuff he likes to do.
The plan is flawless save for a classic Downton Abbey–style twist: Cliff arrives home just in time to overhear the family gloating about their progress and planning the next phase. Naturally, he hatches a scheme of his own. That night at a formal family dinner, Elvin starts his proposal speech, expecting Clair to feign opposition per the plan. Instead, Cliff is the one who tears into Elvin while the rest of the Huxtables look on in shock and horror. Cliff’s reveal and subsequent victory lap is one of the funniest moments in the show’s history, and a prime example of a grand-scale Huxtable ruse.
For the Conners, every ruse was on a grand scale. The Conners weren’t a Halloween family, they were the Halloween family, frequently clashing with neighbors over their gaudy, gory decorations and their passion for pranks. Roseanne Conner (Roseanne Barr) went so far as to crown herself the Queen of Halloween, essentially challenging her husband, Dan (John Goodman), and their children to repeatedly come for her title. By season two, the Halloween rivalry had taken hold, with Dan and Roseanne determined to outprank each other. Time and time again, Dan came up short.
That’s until season seven’s “Skeleton in the Closet,” when Roseanne finally got her spooky comeuppance. This time, Roseanne’s gay co-worker Leon (Martin Mull) was determined to come for Roseanne’s Halloween crown, leading to the shocking revelation that her brother-in-law Fred (Michael O’Keefe) was both a husband of Jackie (Laurie Metcalf) and a “friend of Dorothy.” When Roseanne goes to confront Fred and reveal his secret, she finds Fred in bed with Dan, then has to find where her jaw rolled to after it fell off her face. In a perfect fictional world, that would be the most extreme example of weirdly malicious pranks the Conners pull on each other. Alas, there was also the time when Dan arranged to have a co-conspirator “rob” Roseanne at her small business. Their extreme tomfoolery was confined to Halloween, which is probably best for reasons of public safety, but meant that their pranking was a hostile tradition rather than a sustainable extension of a healthy relationship.
The couples’ different approaches to shenanigans communicate the differences in their marriages. When Cliff and Clair pranked each other, it was always light-hearted, even when they were in direct competition with each other. Roseanne’s acidic tone prescribed that Roseanne and Dan’s pranks on each other were all in good fun, but they were also usually mean-spirited, a natural extension of the Conners’ atypical family dynamic. Their pranks against each other were invariably funny, but they were also the kind of pranks that leave a bad taste in your mouth long after the joke is revealed. The Huxtables, meanwhile, were always looking for adorable ways to fake each other out.
The prank that tips the balance toward Cliff and Clair comes in season four’s “Bookworm,” which like “Skeleton in the Closet,” works so well because the audience doesn’t find out about the prank until it’s revealed. But Cliff’s trick is much more subtle and shrewd than any Dan or Roseanne came up with. Clair invites Cliff to a meeting of her women’s book club, warning him that this is the first time the group is inviting husbands to participate, and she doesn’t want to be embarrassed if he blows off the book. When Cliff appears to drag his feet on the reading, Clair grows more anxious, fearing Cliff will show up ill-prepared for the in-depth literary discussion. He tells Clair he’ll muddle through the meeting without reading the book, only to gradually reveal that he’s given it a close enough read to school the group on the thematic nuances. It’s not a huge “gotcha,” it’s just the kind of lovely, silly moment couples cherish and relive for years.
Even when Cliff and Clair were competing, they were cooperating, and their mutual pranks never escalated to a potentially destructive level. Meanwhile, Dan and Roseanne pulled the kind of pranks on each other that you pretend to remember fondly while secretly harboring resentment. The eventual decline of the Conners’ relationship had nothing to do with pranks, but the tone of their pranks was evidence of the palpable power struggle between them. While Cliff and Clair were trying to jolt each other with hand buzzers, Dan and Roseanne were trying to figure out how to get a razor blade into a candy apple.
What we talk about when we talk about the Huxtables versus the Conners is levity, and the couples’ respective ability to inject it into their relationships without adding to a pile of marital resentment. Both couples’ managed to do it for a while, but eventually the Conners’ pranks became symbols of the deeper schisms between them. The couple that plays together stays together, but not when the game is Russian roulette.
Roseanne ended with a prank on the audience, the controversial reveal that Dan had actually died of a heart attack at the end of the show’s eighth season, and his appearances in the surreal final season — wherein the Conners win a nine-figure lottery jackpot — was all a fictionalization of Roseanne’s life as a widow. Meanwhile, Cosby ended with a classically cute Huxtable prank. After a season-long gag about Cliff’s failure to fix the doorbell, Cliff rings the doorbell one last time to prove that it works, and instead of ringing, it plays a hard-bop arrangement of Guys and Dolls’ “If I Were a Bell.” Cliff and Clair dance off the stage and into the audience. Game, set, match.
WINNER: CLAIR AND CLIFF HUXTABLE