Best Episode Ever # 42: ‘The Cosby Show’
I wasn’t a big fan of “The Cosby Show” when it was the most popular show on television. I was watching “Sledge Hammer” instead, but I might have to rewatch both seasons of “Sledge Hammer” again to remember which was the best episode at this point. The Best Episode Ever of “The Cosby Show” has to be the one that even I remember, and the one so good that they actually did it twice. I wasn’t even watching and I remember it being the best.
The Best Episode Ever of “The Cosby Show” is “The Slumber Party” from the first season. This is the one where Cliff Huxtable (Bill Cosby) entertains Rudy (Keshia Knight Pulliam) and her friends at a slumber party. It’s pretty much Cosby at his purest, just performing in front of his best audience ever, and we get to watch.
It starts simply enough. I forgot this was even before the legendary “Cosby Show” dance credits. This was the old school still photo credits. Rudy is bored and no one wants to play with her, though it’s sweet when Vanessa (Tempest Bledsoe) promises to take her sledding tomorrow. Rudy calls Ireland. Remember when long distance was expensive?
You can see the magic happening as soon as Cliff sits down with Rudy. They banter and he makes faces and does voices. He decides to host a slumber party for her, but Clair (Phylicia Rashad, then Ayers-Allen) is working late so Cliff will have to take care of all the kids on his own. So begins the Best Episode Ever.
From the moment a processional of children enters the Huxtable house, the child actors can’t keep a straight face. They know they’re witnessing a legendary comedy show, and it’s all they can do to remember their lines. They don’t even know what the jokes mean, but they are having fun watching Cosby pull out all his stops for them. The laughter of children is contagious throughout “The Slumber Party.”
Cliff holds court before all the children. First he takes each one aside and learns their name and their unique trait. Desiree (Desiree Scott) has dimples and it seems like Cosby improvised a brilliant running gag of collecting her dimples each time she sat on his lap. If that was scripted, then bravo Carmen Finestra. Naoka (Naoka Nakagawa) has a milk allergy and Peter (Peter Costa) just followed them in from across the street. Luckily Cliff is responsible enough to let his parents know he’s staying.
Dana and Kyle (Dana and Kyle Bryant) play a clapping game which Cliff keeps interrupting to point out the logical questions their rhyme raises. Cliff’s jokes are innocent and absurd. He keeps it totally wholesome, but he’s entertaining the grown-ups too. You can tell in particular the Bryant girls are looking around waiting for cues and can’t wait to get their lines out. That sort of energy can’t be scripted. Cosby is feeding off of their natural rhythms.
Cliff plays Horsey with all the kids taking a turn on his knee. There are some close calls with kids falling off, but it’s pure childish joy. Even when Peter proves too much for Cliff’s knee, it’s all in good fun. Then Cliff chases them around the living room playing Monster Time.
I suppose needing to add a little bit more plot after a commercial break, Grandpa Russell Huxtable (Earle Hyman) comes over and relishes the trouble Cliff is having keeping the kids busy. I’m sure any parent who’s been fortunate enough to see their children become parents can appreciate this. They make a bet that Russell can quiet all the kids down within 60 seconds, and he does.
Okay, that last gag is a bit of a letdown. We find out at the end that Russell just bribed the kids, but this episode wasn’t about the plot anyway. It was just a setup to get Cosby in a room full of kids and let him go. Theo (Malcolm-Jamal Warner) is in a good amount of the episode too, wrangling the kids’ winter jackets and in his own subplot about selling tickets to his football team’s booster dinner. The subplot has a nice payoff with Russell buying them, invalidating Cliff’s earlier advice to go out and sell them. Oh well, kids are unpredictable.
“The Cosby Show” must have realized they struck gold with Cosby and children, and figured by season six we’d all be ready for another one. So “The Birthday Party” is essentially the sequel, in which Cliff entertains the guests at Olivia (Raven-Symone)’s party. “The Birthday Party” adds some complications with Denise (Lisa Bonet)’s organic cooking and a hunt for a tricycle, but they call back a number of the same gags: the long distance phone call, a new clapping game in which the kids are onto Cliff’s interrupting game, and instead of Horsey he plays Robot.
In some ways “The Birthday Party” took Cosby and kids to the next level, but the original remains the purest expression of family entertainment. “The Slumber Party” is the Best Episode Ever.