Do You Like Living With 'Curtis'? Time to Defend That 'Toon
On Monday night at the Kennedy Center, as a procession of performers spoke in tribute to Bill Cosby, they enumerated the reasons why "The Cosby Show" was every bit as groundbreaking as Cosby's "I Spy" was two decades earlier. Chris Rock to Jerry Seinfeld to Sinbad -- and of course to Phylicia Ayers Rashad to Malcolm Jamal Warner -- entertainers made reference to the '80s cultural landmark. And then Cosby himself strode onstage and waxed on about some of the challenges he faced trying to get "Cosby" on the air -- decades after working as a "Negro comic" (Dick Gregory's telling term Monday night) in Greenwich Village, after succeeding on Jack Paar's show and impressing Carl Reiner and winning over America as comic storyteller and TV star.
As Cosby accepted the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, the audience was reminded how much "The Cosby Show" helped pave the way for a new generation of standup comics turned TV stars, from Seinfeld to Roseanne to Tim Allen to Ellen DeGeneres, among others. What naturally went unspoken, though, was how much "The Cosby Show" had an impact on some comic strips.
The machinery of mainstream comic syndication was slow to fully embrace comics featuring black main characters. In the '60s, Morrie Turner (one of my personal cartooning heroes), launched the fully integrated "Wee Pals" at about the same time that "I Spy" was breaking barriers. But newspaper editors were reluctant to buy it -- early on, only five newspapers carried it -- until the late '60s, when it began to pick up steam amid a shifting social climate.
The reason I mention the relatively glacial social change in American comics -- the rare Walt Kelly notwithstanding -- is because arguably no current comic strip benefited from "The Cosby Show's" massive success more, and more quickly, than "CURTIS." Syndicated in 1988, during the peak of "Cosby's" powers, the strip marked many newspaper editors' realization that there was a need -- if not a financial incentive (no small impetus, that) -- for a strip featuring an African American nuclear family.
As one artist's take on a slice of African American life, Ray Billingsley's "Curtis" would be followed in mainstream syndication the next year by Robb Armstrong's "Jump Start" -- both a decade and comic "generation" before such strips as "Herb and Jamaal" and "The Boondocks," which was billed as the first comic for a hip-hop generation. Now, some two decades later, Curtis seems to still evoke a certain '80s sensibility and feel -- which at its best could have spawned a retro-set show like "Everybody Hates Chris." (Although the strip did venture to the Obama inauguration this year, ostensibly indicating that Curtis, Barry, Michelle and the rest of the cast live in Washington, D.C.)
"The Cosby Show" went off the air in 1992, and Cosby himself has only grown more outspoken since in his critiques of African American, and sometimes simply American, life. "Curtis," by contrast, remains fairly unvarying strip in tone and approach, relying on many sharp retorts and rebukes between and among the kids and the authority figures.
So what do you think of "Curtis"? If you're not a fan, feel free to Impugn That Toon. Otherwise it's time to Defend. That. Toon.
| October 27, 2009; 3:20 PM ET
Categories: Defend That 'Toon, The Comic Strip
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