Synopsis by Hal Erickson
Created and produced by Bill Cosby, the long-running animated series Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids was based on Cosby's classic monologues about his boyhood in North Philadelphia. Corpulent pre-teener Fat Albert and his buddies first appeared in cartoon form in the 1969 in the half-hour NBC special Hey, Hey, Hey, It's Fat Albert, produced by Cosby in association with Filmation studios. It was Filmation who was given the assignment of converting the property into a weekly, half-hour Saturday morning series, which made its first appearance September 9, 1972 on CBS. Described as "lovable and jovial" in the studio's publicity packet, Fat Albert was "the undisputed leader" of a gang of rambunctious black kids living in a seedy but respectable inner-city Philadelphia neighborhood. His buddies included Bill (based on guess who) pint-sized, sarcastic Russell (based on Cosby's real-life kid brother), blustery braggart Rudy, laid-back Bucky stringy Old Weird Harold, affable oaf Dumb Donald, and of course Mushmouth, whose bizarre speech patterns were the source of humor for many a youthful amateur impressionist. Basically a good bunch of kids, Fat Albert's gang did tend to get into trouble from time to time, but always emerged fortified with a valuable life lesson that would serve them well as they grew older. The kids were also remarkably inventive and resourceful, as witness the series' weekly musical numbers, performed on a variety of instruments constructed from discarded pipes, radiators, bed frames, funnels and the like. Bill Cosby himself appeared in the live-action wraparounds, inviting the viewers to have some fun--"and if you're not careful, you might learn something." Cosby also popped up during the action of each episode to underline the lesson that Fat Albert and company had learned or were about to learn. Though light-hearted in nature, the series was not afraid to tackle such issues as peer pressure, lying, betrayal, street crime, substance abuse, the death of a loved one, racial and/or religious intolerance, learning disabilities, and even obsessing about television and overindulging in junk food. Commendably, there were a few dilemmas left unresolved, with Cosby sagely observing that some problems take more than a half hour to solve. To uphold the quality, integrity and educational content of the scripts, the producers solicited the advice of ten prominent psychologists and philosophers from UCLA. In 1979, the series was briefly retitled The New Fat Albert Show. At that time, the kids began sharing air space with their favorite comic-book superhero The Brown Hornet, another carryover from Cosby's standup act. Though universally applauded by TV critics and the recipient of scores of industry awards, Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids did not always get the high ratings it deserved. Too, the network was averse to bankrolling new episodes each season, reasoning that they'd accrue as much profit from reruns as from first-runs. As a result, although Fat Albert remained on CBS Saturday-AM schedule for eight seasons, only 60 episodes were produced. After its network cancellation on August 29, 1984, the series was packaged for daily, off-net syndication, with 50 new episodes added to the manifest. This arrangement permitted Bill Cosby and the other producers to tackle subject matter that had been deemed too "rough" by the CBS censors, including teen pregnancy, alcoholism, and child abduction. The most memorable of the new episodes was "Busted", inspired by the "Scared Straight" program whereby youthful lawbreakers were literally terrified into reformation by a loud and obscene group of hardened prison inmates. The 50 additional episode also introduced a new character, the Southern-accented "Legal Eagle", a farcical attorney. Unfortunately, ratings for the syndicated Fat Albert were disappointing, despite earning two Emmy nominations. The entire 110-episode Fat Albert package was picked up for rerun play by both NBC and the USA cable network in 1989, while the 50 made-for-syndication installments were briefly seen in 2000 on cable's Odyssey Channel, the precursor to the Hallmark Channel. And in 2004, a live-action theatrical feature version of the property was released, with Kenan Thompson of Kenan and Kel fame as Fat Albert.