Sunday, December 7, 2014

In retrospect, 'Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids' was kind of a messed-up show

The cast of Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids. Note Mushmouth in the lower left hand corner.

Bill Cosby on Picture Pages.
Bill Cosby, serial rapist. Try as I might, I cannot get my mind to connect those first two words with the second two words. It would be like "Bob Newhart, secret Klansman" or "Steve Martin, puppy killer." It just doesn't seem possible.

Not that I'm saying Bill Cosby is innocent, mind you. False accusations of rape are extremely rare, statistically speaking. They happen, sure, just not very often. For twenty or more separate accusations against the same man to be false would be a mathematical near-impossibility. The law of averages suggests that the unthinkable is true.

And yet... Bill Cosby!

For people my age (and I was born in the mid-1970s), this man has been an integral component of American life. Long before The Cosby Show simultaneously revitalized both the sitcom form and the NBC network in the 1980s, I was already a fan of the Cos thanks to his long-running CBS animated series, Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, and his educational Picture Pages segments on Captain Kangaroo. He was as much a part of my childhood as Kermit the Frog or Popeye the Sailor Man. How could this man be a serial rapist, a monster who drugged and sexually assaulted women for decades without facing any consequences? That's something I'll never understand.

In the wake of renewed interest in the nightmarish allegations against Mr. Cosby, numerous commentators have pointed out that many, many other celebrities -- almost exclusively male -- have been accused of similarly horrendous things without receiving any real punishment. They've essentially been given a so-called "free pass" from the public. Respected figures like Sean Penn, Bill Murray, and John Lennon have all done things that would get average nobodies thrown in prison.

Some celebrities actually have been thrown in prison for things they've done, and still the public doesn't seem to care. I may never comprehend why it was okay for Mike Tyson to appear in The Hangover, but it was not okay for Mel Gibson to be in The Hangover Part II. Now, Mike's on the Cartoon Network, and Mel's in showbiz Siberia. Go figure.

So many of the actors, athletes, politicians, and musicians we admire have terrible deeds in their pasts. Cosby is hardly alone in that respect. What's going on here? Are these guys all Jekyll/Hyde types with dual personalities? I don't think so. Regrettably, I think that the same basic drive that makes certain men want to achieve greatness (in sports or politics or music or whatever) also makes them act out in violent, aggressive ways. I wish that weren't true, but I think there's too much evidence to deny it.

In any case, I've been scouring YouTube in the last few weeks, looking at clips of Bill Cosby's past work -- interviews, stand-up, sitcoms, cartoons, etc. I don't know why, exactly. Maybe I was hunting for any hint of his latent deviancy and cruelty. At first, I was watching this footage in numb silence, with Bill's warm, relatable humor just bouncing off me like rocks hitting aluminum siding.

Eventually, I returned to episodes of Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, which was my "gateway drug" to Cosby, so to speak. Now, please understand that I was a major Fat Albert fan as a kid. I even had the show's 1981 spinoff album, Creativity. To this day, I can recite all the words to the theme song without effort.

So what's the show like to watch in 2014? Well, it's odd. Fat Albert already stood out from the other Saturday morning cartoon shows of the 1970s and 1980s, most of which were rooted firmly in fantasy. In contrast, not only were many of the characters on Fat Albert based on real, live people (including Bill himself and his brother, Russell), but the setting for the show was a realistically-depicted, lower middle-class urban neighborhood in Philadelphia with its own share of real-world problems, including crime and racism.

With the possible exception of Hanna Barbera's Super Globetrotters, Fat Albert was the only prominent kids' cartoon show from that era with an all-black cast. But Fat Albert wasn't about a group of professional basketball players with super powers; it centered instead on the lives of a group of decidedly non-super-powered adolescents whose athletic skills are questionable at best. With the exception of some physics-defying slapstick, the events depicted on Fat Albert could actually happen. Very early episodes of the series have an animal mascot, a non-speaking but still distinctly humanized duck named Cluck, but this fantasy character soon vanished from the show.

Most Saturday morning shows get broader and wackier as they go along; Fat Albert started small and stayed small. The only supernatural element of the show occurs when Fat Albert and his friends gather in their junkyard clubhouse to watch the TV adventures of a superhero called the Brown Hornet, but this is firmly established as a show-within-a-show. In other words, pure fantasy. The Brown Hornet never interacts with the gang. To do so would be a major violation of the show's internal rules.

For all this structural, plot-and-setting-based commitment to reality, Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids is noticeably cartoon-y and unrealistically exaggerated in the depiction of several of its core characters. Albert's massive girth and boisterous "Hey hey hey!" catchphrase help make him instantly appealing to kids, sort of like a black, teenage Fred Flintstone.

When latter-day comedians attempt to parody Fat Albert, they generally zero in on the main character's weight and the real-world health problems his tonnage would cause. See MADtv and Family Guy, both of which renamed the title character "Morbidly Obese Albert." In its "Fat Abbot" parody, meanwhile, South Park gave the familiar cartoon character a foul mouth and a violent temper, while also working in a joke about the character's weight. But Albert is actually the most nuanced, complex character on the original show, regardless of his absurdly round belly and much-imitated gravelly voice. It's the other characters in his gang who are potentially problematic for modern viewers.

After revisiting a number of episodes of this series, I'm now convinced that one of the reasons Fat Albert eats so much is to deal with the stress of being, quite possibly, the only sane, intelligent, and responsible member of his circle of friends. The other members of "the gang" are always in danger of giving into temptation and might seemingly lapse into a life of crime or at least juvenile delinquency were it not for Fat Albert's guidance, which they inevitably ignore at the beginning of each episode. It's a wonder he doesn't give up on these "jive turkeys." In both appearance and demeanor, they are often quite unflattering, verging on stereotypes.

Within the junkyard gang, Fat Albert's most frequent foil is Rudy, an arrogant, vain, insensitive liar. (And, yes, it's disconcerting that the character shares his name with that of the youngest Huxtable on The Cosby Show.) I'm not sure why Rudy wasn't banished from the gang years ago, since the other boys seem to be constantly annoyed at his boasting, his lame jokes, and his general buffoonery and dishonesty. At least Rudy seems to possess some shred of intelligence.

At least three of Fat Albert's other friends -- Weird Harold, Mushmouth, and the tellingly-named Dumb Donald -- are defined by their lack of common sense. Harold, who seems no weirder than anyone else in the gang, is simply a garden variety klutz with no outstanding personality traits. Donald, who has the word "dumb" right in his name and seems to be fine with that, is the boy with the iconic pink hat pulled down halfway over his face, giving the unfortunate impression that he is deliberately hiding behind a mask for some shady purpose. This character also has a high, screechy voice provided by show's white producer, Lou Scheimer.

And then there is Mushmouth. Slow-witted and almost unintelligible, this young man looks like a Civil War-era racist caricature of an African-American with his drooping, oversized lips, heavy-lidded eyes, and buck teeth. His clothes are equally ridiculous. Although Bill Cosby has often chastised other African Americans for wearing their pants too loose, the characters on Fat Albert often wear ill-fitting clothes, and Mushmouth is the most egregious such offender. His shirt does not actually reach his waist, leaving his belly exposed. His pants are held up with what looks like a rope or an extension cord, as if he were a country bumpkin who knew no better.

In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, Chris Rock cited Cosby as an influence, particularly the Bill Cosby Himself concert film, and understandably expressed sadness and regret over the numerous rape allegations now facing the 77-year-old legend. However, a different picture emerges from the fascinating 1989 mini-documentary Who is Chris Rock?, which includes footage of the comedian when he was still a young up-and-comer. Back then, Rock's act included a combative bit about Cosby and Fat Albert:
"I'm not the biggest fan of Bill Cosby, 'cause Bill Cosby created Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, the most degrading, most racist cartoon I've ever seen in my life. Actually had a guy walking around with a damned hat pulled over his head. Okay? Another guy going, 'Wee-buh goo-buh dee-buh muh-buh duh-buh!' 'Hey hey hey! I'm illiterate!'"
In an interview from that same documentary, a still-seething Rock clarifies his on-stage comments:
"I hated that, man, 'cause, like I said, I went to a white school, and kids would tease me about that. Everybody expects a black guy to talk so ignorant, man. Little white kids going, 'Gee-buh doe-buh dee-buh dee-buh!' Get out of my face, man!"
A model sheet for Mushmouth
So there is at least anecdotal evidence that the depiction of characters like Mushmouth and Dumb Donald helped perpetuate racial stereotypes in the minds of young, impressionable white viewers, which in turned caused shame and resentment for young African-Americans. There is very little which is positive or inspiring about these characters.

In one of Fat Albert's best-known episodes, "Take Two, They're Small," which focuses on the evils of shoplifting, there is an attempt to wring laughter from the fact that Mushmouth's uncle is in prison for theft. (The joke is that he stole something small: a diamond ring.) The situation gets worse when one views the model sheet for the character, which is incredibly insulting and degrading. Here is how the creators of Fat Albert described the character of Mushmouth in their own promotional materials:
"His clothing matches his habits. Both defy understanding. Slow...deliberate... He and Dumb Donald run a dead heat - last! He aims to please, but he's a bad shot. He never volunteers to help anyone and goes to great lengths to avoid physical exertion, and yet, despite all this, he enjoys living and good fortune smiles on him. His suggestions are usually dumb but the gang gives them much consideration - before ignoring them! If Mushmouth is used, it must be used with great discretion lest it result in offending or making fun of those with speech defects..."
Yikes. How interesting that Cosby and Scheimer sensed that the character was potentially offensive but felt that the most controversial aspect of Mushmouth would be his speech impediment, rather than the fact that he "never volunteers to help anyone and goes to great lengths of avoid physical exertion." This image of a shiftless, lazy young African-American fits right in with the worst, most hateful stereotypes of previous centuries.

"But," you might be saying, "Mushmouth is just a cartoon character! He's supposed to be silly! Hey, Donald Duck and Yosemite Sam aren't such great role models either!" And it's true. They aren't. But neither do Donald Duck or Yosemite Sam live in a realistically-depicted world, nor do they routinely deal with pertinent, real-life issues like, say, shoplifting.

Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids remains an interesting time capsule of the clothing, slang, and music of the 1970s, but some of the show's supporting characters seem better suited to the 1870s.