The Cosby Show, the sitcom that singlehandedly revived the fortunes of the genre and its network, NBC, turns 30 today, having debuted back in 1984. The show was, in many ways, revolutionary; its humor leaned less on story and more on hanging out with a warm, funny family, breaking with years of sitcoms that were heavy on the "sit" and not so heavy on the "com."
But one of the things most worth celebrating about Cosby is its opening credits sequence, which might be the best in television history.
This is not an opinion I issue lightly, nor one that you would hear all that often. The low-key premise of the Cosby credits — everybody dances! — doesn't make for something as instantly memorable as the opening sequences for, say, Gilligan's Island or All in the Family. But where those shows worked overtime to establish premise or character, Cosby's minimalist credits are telling you everything you need to watch the show, purely through visuals.
The Cosby credits act as a kind of visual family album. In every one of the seven basic iterations of them, we first meet Cliff Huxtable, then his wife Clair. They dance together long enough to establish their partnership, before we go through the couple's five children, one at a time, from oldest to youngest. This quickly establishes Cliff's relationships with Sondra, Denise, Theo, Vanessa, and Rudy, before returning to Cliff on his own. (He is the star, after all.)
The subtle shifts in the sequence drove home the series' evolution, too. As the kids got older, they were no longer extensions of their father, dancing while paired with him, and, instead, got solos of their own. When the two oldest daughters got married, their husbands (and Denise's new step-daughter) were incorporated in the proper places, the better to quickly establish who these new characters were.
In the season four sequence — the first in which Sondra's husband Elvin is a series regular — Cliff actually mimics a father giving away his daughter at a wedding by, instead, giving away Elvin to Sondra, a neat encapsulation of the series' sneakily progressive gender politics.
Of course, as the show got older and more popular, those credits sequences got more and more elaborate (and doubled nicely as a history of American pop music that, perhaps, overrated Bobby McFerrin's influence), but they always returned to that core idea of the family album. Here are the Huxtables. Here is how they relate to each other. Now you know how to watch the show. That might seem silly, now that the family is so engrained in our popular culture, but it's almost certainly part of why the show got so big, so quickly. It told you everything.
Here is a quick run through the Cosby Show's opening credits, ranked in terms of music, dance, and Cosby mugging.
So after all of that description, the season one credits actually feature absolutely no dancing, and little Cosby mugging. The original credits sequence involved the Huxtables in the park, sans Sondra (she was a later addition), hanging out around a giant van (presumably their ride?) and dressing in baseball paraphernalia. It's a pretty standard family sitcom opening — cute, but non-essential. Still, here's Stu Gardner and Cosby's theme in its most basic form, and it's immediately charming. And dig that sax solo!
Cosby mugging: n/a
This is where the sequence takes its most famous form for the first time. Cliff and the various family members cavort in front of a blank grey backdrop, and it all starts with a close-up of Cosby's face as he mugs. Already, though, the series is filling you in on Sondra's maturity, Denise's sometimes fractious relationship with her parents, and even Theo's irrepressible good nature. The show would top itself, but it would never quite match the impact of this simple sequence.
Cosby mugging: 7/10
For several years, the Cosby credits opened with a close-up on Bill Cosby's face, followed by him leaving the frame off right, so the words "BILL COSBY in THE COSBY SHOW" could appear, which was itself followed by Cosby returning from the right with Phylicia Rashad in tow, both now in close-up, subtly nodding toward the show's gender politics again. These two were equals, and they did everything together. The season three credit sequence is likely the height of the show's work, the place where everything came together. The salsa-inspired theme song is perfect, the dancing is loose and funny (almost symbolizing how plotless the show had become), and the Cosby mugging is out of control. But always it comes back to that opening shot: one man, suddenly becomes two.
Cosby mugging: Unmeasurable by any scale developed by humanity
These would be among the top selections, but for two things. The first is the performance by Bobby McFerrin, which is fine and all but also marks this as very much coming from the late '80s. The second is the bit at the end when Cosby holds a photo of Lisa Bonet in front of his face. In the show, Denise had gone off to college (and her own show, A Different World), but this moment plays as slightly surreal and marks how difficult it was for Bonet to break free from the show that made her famous. (She would later leave behind her own spinoff to return to Cosby, then leave both programs altogether for the final season.) But this also marks when the kids started to get dance solos, and Elvin pulled into the main credits and setting up the advanced family album motif of later seasons. Plus all that high fashion!
Cosby mugging: 7/10
This one proved a bit controversial. An elaborate, vaguely Caribbean-themed Busby Berkeley number paid tribute to Broadway musicals but also abandoned everybody dancing in favor of highly choreographed movement and a weird nesting doll effect. It doesn't really work, but it's certainly interesting. Can you imagine The Big Bang Theory trying something like this out of nowhere? Not really, huh? Yet The Cosby Show did this at the height of its reign. Bonus points for the striking use of silhouettes at the beginning and the final close-up of Cosby's face, which makes up for a sequence largely devoid of funny faces (since Cosby is held in a wide shot throughout).
Cosby mugging: 5/10
Season six (and often seven)
The show marked its sixth season, its final one atop the Nielsens (in a tie with Roseanne), with a sequence that went halfway between a return to basics and the conceptual oddness of season five. Structured around the idea of a night at the famed Apollo Theater, the sequence boasted Motown horns and probably the best all-around dancing of any of these sequences. It does no single thing amazingly well, but it does all of them pretty well, which makes it one of the show's better attempts. And added points for Cosby's walk-out line: "This is the best elevator music I ever heard."
Cosby mugging: 8/10
Season eight (and sometimes seven)
The show's final title sequence was shot for the beginning of season seven, but a legal dispute with a bunch of homeless children (seriously) led to the producers dropping it and returning to the season six opening for the bulk of that season. (You can see the original — with Lisa Bonet! — here, but it's in German.) The show finally made consistent use of it in the eighth and final season, and it reeked of trying too hard to drag the quintessential '80s show into the '90s. The hip-hop-influenced sounds are kind of cool, but the jittery editing doesn't befit the show's overall aesthetic, and it leads to something that's largely a dud. Weirdly, this might have the best dancing from Cosby himself, who often seemed to be using his funny faces to mask his less proficient abilities.
Cosby mugging: 5/10
The definitive rankings
1) Season three
2) Season six (and much of seven)
3) Season two
4) Season four
5) Season one
6) Season five
7) Season eight (and sometimes seven)