Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Orality and the Cosby Show

Much of the Cosby Show revolves around moments of oral expression, drawing on the black folk tradition. The Cosby show celebrates this tradition through the long monologues and stories told by the characters namely Cliff. For example, one of the clearest examples on the Cosby show is seen Season 1 episode 17, in the episode entitled “Theo and the Joint.” During a fairly serious moment in which a marijuana joint has been discovered in Theo’s (Malcolm Jamal Warner) book, Claire (Phylicia Rashad) expresses her concern over the crowd Theo hangs out with:

Claire: I bet it’s those kids he hangs out with.
Cliff: Well, the kids seem to be alright honey.
Claire: Alright?
Cliff: Yeah.
Claire: Cockroach. Buzzard. The Mouth.
Claire: Don’t you find it a little suspicious that all of these people are running around and nobody is using their real name?
Cliff: Now, come on honey you know that when children are born parents just look at the child and say Lillian, Roy, you know, Richie. But after the child develops whatever comes out, the neighborhood looks at it and says…
Claire: Cockroach!
Cliff: Cockroach looks exactly like a cockroach.

Demonstrated in this scene is what Henry Louis Gates Jr. defines in the Signifying Monkey is signifiying, a rhetorical device which includes the tropes of marking, loud-talking, testifying, calling out (of one’s own name), sounding, rapping playing the dozens. Cosby in drawing on this tradition, also also legitimates the practice as he indirectly explains to viewers how the process of signification works.

Then again, on the episode "Breaking with Tradition" we see that orality becomes a means by which family history and values are preserved as well as passed down.

To view a clip from breaking with tradition Click here: "Breaking with Tradition"

As illustrated in both of these examples, Orality is present on the show serving as the major means by which the narrative and plot of the show develop and progress. As discussed by Janet Staiger in the chapter on the Cosby show from her book Blockbuster TV: Must See Sitcoms in the Network Arena, one of the major forms of narrative resolution is talking about the problems among family members (158), as illustrated in the scene above. In addition, orality also becomes a major way in which the Cosby show signifies on the orality of the black experience, indirectly marking itself as "black."

Although the most widely recognized incidences of signifying which occur on the show surround oral modes of communication, the act of signifying also serves as the framework by which to examine those other modes of signification and cultural representation present on the show—namely music and dance.

I would now like to turn to these examples and discuss their role in the reading of the Cosby show as black.


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