Bill Cosby criticizes TV's vulgar language Television: His new show gets little mention as comedian argues for less reliance on dirty words by script writers.

July 23, 1996|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

PASADENA, Calif. -- Bill Cosby said he came to California yesterday to defend his new CBS sitcom, "Cosby," against reports that it was in trouble. But it was his attack on other television shows -- including one by fellow CBS producer Steven Bochco -- for their use of graphic language that left his audience of television critics buzzing.

Cosby, one of the more outspoken performers in show business, waded straight into what has become one of the more hotly debated issues here on the summer press tour -- an annual gathering at which the network and cable channels preview their new fall shows for newspaper and magazine critics.

CBS, which on the one hand is trying to re-invent itself this season as the "family-friendly" network, also has a new Bochco sitcom about a vice squad on its fall schedule that includes language too graphic to print in this newspaper. The debate has come to center on a two-word term -- a coarse reference to female anatomy -- used by one of the characters in the pilot episode of "Public Morals."

"I've always had a problem with these new shows using that kind of language," Cosby said of Bochco's show. "If you have nine people [writers] sitting around a table and that's all they can come up with. . . . That's a problem.

"We have to understand that there's a point where the producer is using you, the audience, to satisfy some sort of adolescent immaturity. Where is the deeper thought . . . which could make it funnier?" he added.

Cosby went on to criticize other television shows for such language, saying, "Certainly, if you look at "Def Comedy Jam," [you have to ask] is D. W. Griffith really jumping up and down saying, "See, I told you -- I was right'?"

("Def Comedy Jam" is an HBO show that features young African-American comedians, like Martin Lawrence, who regularly use graphic language in their monologues. With Griffith, Cosby is referring to the late filmmaker whose landmark "Birth of a Nation" is filled with racist stereotypes.)

"It's important instead that we try to push the minds of those who study English literature and American literature and try to put that on television," said Cosby, who holds a doctorate of education from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

As for his series, in which Cosby plays a 60-year-old victim of corporate downsizing, it has been at the center of pre-season buzz since it was announced that Cosby has an unprecedented commitment from CBS for 40 episodes at about $1 million per episode.

Last month, Cosby made more headlines when he fired Telma Hopkins, who was scheduled to play his wife, and replaced her with Phylicia Rashad, who co-starred in "The Cosby Show." That sitcom about the Huxtable family became one of the most successful series in the history of television and is credited with lifting NBC from last to first in ratings during the 1980s.

"You asked me why I didn't want to come here, and, well, it should be obvious," Cosby said, shifting into a voice to mock his audience of questioners.

" 'Did you fire Telma Hopkins? Why did you fire Telma Hopkins? What's wrong with Telma Hopkins? What's wrong with you? Did you do this? Did you do that? Are you desperate? Les Moonves [president of CBS Entertainment] is paying a lot of money to you. It's more money than anybody has ever seen.

" 'Why are you getting that kind of money? Why did Les give you that kind of money? Who do you think you are to be charging that kind of money?' "

In a more serious tone, Cosby later admitted that he is feeling some pressure to succeed with his new show, which is being counted on by third-place CBS to lead off Monday nights at 8 -- especially after failing with his syndicated "You Bet Your Life" game show and "The Cosby Mysteries" on NBC.

"Because I'm 59 going on 60, I have demons that I have to fight," Cosby said. "I have to fight [the question] can I make young people 20-years-old laugh without saying . . .?" Can I make young people identify with me being married 32 years? Can I make 20-year-old people laugh along with 65-year-old people? How do I do that? And it's very, very tricky.

"All I can say is that I'm Dan Marino [the Miami Dolphin quarterback known for his last second heroics], and I want to make a touchdown with this show and move ahead."

Pub Date: 7/23/96

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