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Saturday, February 02, 2013

Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids

When I made the decision to make February Black History Month, I knew that there would be some instances in which depending on the day of the week, I would find the choice of topics quite limiting.

Some of the theme days are easy to pick topics for. The Sunday Jukebox has millions of songs and artists to choose from. Monday Matinees are just as easy. And, though I had to do a bit of research, I even managed to get all my choices for the Tuesday Timeline to look back on an event within black history (even if the most recent example happens to be from a quarter-century ago).

But, Saturdays...boy, oh boy, let's talk about Saturdays.

For some reason, I had a huge amount of difficulty finding four different topics to discuss for this special month. As far back as I could remember, I couldn't really think of many examples of cartoon or educational series that had predominately black characters...and those shows that I could name off, I already did a feature on last year. So, I really had a tough time with this particular day.

Of course, this doesn't mean that I don't have anything to talk about. In fact, today's blog topic could easily be considered one of the longest running animated series in the history of Saturday Morning Cartoons.

Although the show took breaks in between filming, it aired on CBS off and on for twelve years, plus one additional year in syndication. It ran for one hundred and ten episodes, plus four special prime-time episodes.

And, that show is “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids”, in which comedian/actor Bill Cosby voiced no less than three of the main characters, including himself!

I'll be the first one to admit that I was not introduced to “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids” until late in life. The show debuted on CBS on September 9, 1972 (nine years before I was born), and ended in syndication on August 10, 1985. Because my family did not have cable when I was toddler-aged (we used rabbit ears well into the early 1980s), I completely missed out on this program during my childhood. I think I was eighteen when I first watched this program for the first time...and to be honest, I feel like I missed out on something because it really was a great show.

The idea for the show was born at least five years prior to the first episode airing on CBS. The character of Fat Albert was incorporated into Bill Cosby's stand-up set in 1967, and appeared on his comedy album “Revenge”. The stories that Cosby joked about in his routine regarding Fat Albert were based off of his own childhood, growing up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Two years later, in 1969, Cosby teamed up with Ken Mundie to bring Fat Albert to life (albeit in an animated format). The one shot prime time special debuted on NBC, and was entitled “Hey, Hey, Hey, It's Fat Albert”. The special was a bit unique at the time as it combined animation with live-action segments.

TRIVIA: The entire musical score for the 1969 Fat Albert special was composed by Herbie Hancock, who some of you might know as the composer of this instrumental.

As far as the character design of all of the main characters from Fat Albert...well, those were courtesy of Amby Paliwoda, who formerly worked for Disney. He designed all eight main characters of the Cosby Kids, and also painted a group portrait of all of the characters, which appeared on the front cover of TV Guide just before the special aired.

And, just who made up the gang known as Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids? Well, I'll tell you. First of all, you can't have a gang named the Cosby Kids without a Cosby. And, Bill Cosby voiced...Bill Cosby.

I know, shocker, isn't it?

I suppose it made sense though. After all, the majority of the Cosby Kids were based off of actual characters that Cosby befriended in his childhood. On the animated series, Bill plays a lot of sports, and is somewhat of a decent athlete. And, he seems to be more or less the voice of reason a lot of the time. But despite the fact that Bill Cosby created the Fat Albert Gang, he was not the main character.

That honour, of course, belongs to Fat Albert (also voiced by Bill Cosby). And, despite the fact that Fat Albert would be classified as morbidly obese and would likely be considered the poster child of bad health in today's society, Fat Albert was surprisingly agile and athletic for his size.

(Let this be a lesson to all of you to NEVER judge a book by its cover.)

Fat Albert has a huge heart underneath his body, and he often uses it to solve problems, listen to people, and come up with ideas that make people twice his age stare at him in awe. Oh, and the one thing that sets apart Fat Albert from the others is his trademark saying.  "Hey, hey, hey!!!"

The other members of the Fat Albert Gang each have their own distinct traits. Mushmouth (voiced by Bill Cosby) has trouble communicating with others because his voice sounds literally like he has a pound of marbles stuffed inside his cheeks. I suppose you could compare him to Kenny McCormick from “South Park”, only Mushmouth doesn't get killed off at the end of each episode.

Dumb” Donald (Lou Scheimer) is not exactly the shiniest penny in the bunch. In fact, one could call him the dimbulb of the whole group. He also has the wildest sense of style, as you can see from the image above.

Russell Cosby (Jan Crawford) is Bill's younger brother, and Bill is often exasperated over the schemes and the trouble that Russell often causes. He may be the youngest member of the gang, but he's also the mouthiest...and sometimes his big mouth gets him into trouble with the other members of the gang...especially with one member in particular.

Rudolph “Rudy” Davis (Eric Suter), is kind of like the Reggie Mantle of the Cosby Kids. He's got style, he's got swagger, and he's got EGO! But he also has a conscience and a kind heart, so any time he ends up getting into a jam because of his attitude, he almost always learns his lesson.

Weird” Harold (Gerald Edwards), is the klutz of the group, always clumsily bumping into things and knocking things over.

And, lastly (but not least), we have Bucky (Jan Crawford), a boy with a large overbite, whose quickness and flexibility have gotten the Cosby Kids out of some tough jams.

The television special was a big hit on NBC in 1969, and in the wake of the success of the special, it was discussed to bring a cartoon series to the airwaves. But would you believe that NBC decided against airing the cartoon on Saturday Mornings because it was...get this...too educational?!?

I mean, heaven forbid a child LEARN something from Saturday Morning cartoons! Boy, how times have changed!

Fortunately, with backing from Filmation, Cosby and Mundie shopped the show around to CBS, who agreed to put the show on the schedule for the 1972/1973 television season. Little did they know that the show would last on and off for the better part of thirteen years!

TRIVIA: The series took hiatuses from making new episodes in 1974, 1977, 1978, 1981, and 1983.

Now, the way that a typical episode was structured was that the kids often faced an issue or problem that children would normally deal with. Most of the time, the issues they faced were hygeine, stage fright, first love, medical issues, and other moments that might be featured on NBC's “One To Grow On”. In some rare occasions, the issues would be more serious in nature. Sometimes they talked about racism, vandalism, stealing, child abuse, sexually transmitted diseases, and there was even an episode where the kids visited a prison where the prisoners could be heard uttering salty language (such as 'damn' or 'bastard'). Though to Cosby's credit, he did warn people of the fact that the words would be said to give kids a more realistic perspective, which I can appreciate).

But the way that the show handled these situations was brilliant. They wanted to offer up solutions in a realistic way, but they didn't go so far out of the box that it scarred kids for life. It was a rather ingenious show that was slightly ahead of its time.

Oh, and at the end of every episode, the group would form a band known as the “Junkyard Kids” and sing a song about what they learned. Each Cosby Kid played their own instruments which were constructed out of garbage lying around (hence the name of the band). So, I thought that I'd end this entry off by listing the instruments that the band played, as well as a couple of songs that they played on the show.


FAT ALBERT – lead vocals, bagpipe-accordion
MUSHMOUTH – homemade bass guitar
DONALD – homemade trombone
BILL – homemade drums
RUSSELL – tin can xylophone
WEIRD HAROLD – bedspring harp
RUDY – homemade banjo (but plays an electric guitar when alone)
BUCKY – stovepipe organ

Oh, one last 2004, a live-action movie starring Kenan Thompson as Fat Albert was released in theatres. The film also starred Kyla Pratt, who ends up holding a main role in next Saturday's topic. But you'll have to wait for that one.

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