“Hi, I’m Rudy, tonight’s show stars Mr. Danny Kaye. It’s for all us kids, but you grown ups should watch too!”
— Rudith Lillian Huxtable, Epigraph to “The Dentist,” (2.14)
A dear, dear friend of mine recently noted that the Cosby Codex appears, with each installment, to be becoming increasingly more self-reflexive and confessional on my part. I couldn’t deny or refute this decidedly perceptive allegation, nor, really, did I wish to. After all, a good critic, as Samuel Taylor Coleridge—as well as Jacques Derrida, Stanley Fish, Donald Ault, Fred Jameson and an assortment of others—shows us, is, indeed, a deeply personal and subjective critic, a reader who comes in to utter (if not complete, for the good critic knows the act of reading is never completed) communion with a text (and, ideally, undergoes a process akin to Jungian individuation with the text), a reader who reads and considers a text equally with both mind and soul, a reader who actively participates, in essence, in the creation of textual meaning—the author is, indeed, dead, after all, as Roland Barthes so keenly remind us—and serves, above all else, as the overt dreamer of the text’s reality, perhaps more so, even, than the author(s) of the text per se. To know a text—to master a text—is a deeply intimate and, to be frank, rather sexual process. One chooses his or her texts, his or her mastertexts let’s say, through an act which draws from both the heart and the mind—perhaps not always equally so—and is filtered through reason, taste and desire. That’s not to say, though, that the critic must limit him or herself to communing with just one mastertext; anything but, in fact. Rather, the good critic joins him or herself with a variety of very singular texts, in turn crafting a vision, a taste, and a measure of understanding of other texts through those relations. For me, those mastertexts include Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Van Morrison’s Philosopher’s Stone, Prince’s Purple Rain, Mann’s first two seasons of Miami Vice, Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, (The other) Mann’s Magic Mountain, The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street, Richard Pryor’s mid-career standup work and, above and beyond all others, the (in)famous “The Dentist” episode of The Cosby Show.
The initial concept for this codex is owed, in fact, to a careful, and perhaps highly intoxicated, re-viewing of this episode early one morning in 1999, an incident which I believe might very well have taken place on Christmas Eve of that year (it seems that the important moments in my life occur on or before major holidays), though I’m not certain (textual study, of course, teaches one to never hold any measure of certainty when it comes to interpretation and remembering). Having been in the midst of reading Foucault’s Birth of the Clinic for the second time, the episode’s focus on power and the forces of medical knowledge seemed especially pertinent. Being a fairly new student to critical theory, I quickly found such to be, seemingly, the key to unraveling the complexities of the episode and, by extension, the larger Huxtable narrative. And from that realization, the Cosby Codex was conceived.
“The Dentist” (2.14) is from the second, supreme season of the show, a season which also fully introduces and develops the characters of Cockroach, “Fat” Peter, Kenny “Bud,” offers a simulacra of the “real world” for Theo directly within the Huxtable home (that episode will be explored, in depth, in an upcoming column) and begins to fully explore the evolving complexities of Sandra, Vanessa and Denise’s respective and collective psychologies as well as the deep structure of the Huxtable marriages.
The rough plot of the episode concerns Rudy’s friend “Fat” Peter Ciera being desperately afraid of visiting Dr. Burns, the family dentist to both the Huxtables and Cieras. Peter takes shelter with the Huxtables—recognizing, of course, their intrinsic warmth and affection—to escape from his appointment. His reason for fearing Dr. Burns is never delivered as a speech act—Peter, after all, is virtually mute and traumatized, irrevocably, from what I earlier proposed to be his father’s extreme Cold War paranoia—but it’s easy to see through Peter’s physical testimony (i.e. his performative hiding and running from his parents and the Huxtables) that such is owed, ultimately, to his subconscious—or perhaps fully conscious—awareness of the ultimate brutality and veritable barbarity of late 20th century medical science.
The Huxtables, though, blindly yet willfully accept the medical authority of Dr. Burns without any doubt or skepticism. While all of the Huxtables readily avoid and seem to dread the notion of being treated by Dr. Burns, they nevertheless speak warmly and highly of Dr. Burns—Theo: “Dr. Burns is a great dentist!” Rudy: “Dr. Burns is nice!”—and insist, without reservation (which is unusual, especially for the ever skeptical Cliff), that Peter visit Dr. Burns and undergo the examination process he so fears.
Interestingly, Dr. Burns is played by song and dance man Danny Kaye—the significance of Kaye playing this role deserves consideration, but that point will be explored in yet another column—in what would prove to be his final performance (actually, that can be said and accepted only if we don’t accept one’s death and veritable resurrection as an effigy of the flesh as a performance in itself, but that’s yet another matter that warrants further consideration). Kaye plays Dr. Burns with a certain measure of manic intensity that is unbecoming from a medical professional, a certain sense of manic carnival that serves to mask his agency as not simply a conformist and moreover practitioner to what amounts to a particular post-Enlightenment, Victorian and pre-Postmodern (and Foucaultian) conception of medical knowledge and truth, but, also, reveals his Postmodernesque awareness of the intrinsically faulty nature of his adherence to and practice of the “science” of dentistry (interestingly, during his initial appearance, he asks a boy named “James” if his examination was as bad as he feared, “James” answers “yes,” only to be shushed by Dr. Burns who points out that he has other patients and bribes him with a free toy to quiet him. Here, Dr. Burns seems to be fully aware that the audience, who are clearly at an ontological remove from the reality in which he is operating un, is observing him and should not be privy to the truth which “James” speaks of.) Through performance, deception, and manipulation, Dr. Burns gains entry to Peter’s mouth and is allowed, then, to deliver his diagnosis and to perform some sort of undefined procedure upon Peter.
By the end of the episode, Dr. Burns is shown to possess supreme agency over the Huxtables. He enters into the house upon a lie—suggesting a measure of veritable Satanic agency on his part—and under the auspice of being a “pregnant woman” who is returning Rudy’s “hat,” kisses Claire (and, for a moment, renders Cliff as something of a helpless cuckold akin to the landlord in Chaucer’s "The Miller’s Tale) and bullies Cliff in to visiting his office for a dental examination. In this scene, the sexual tension and desire between the decidedly Gore Vidalesque Dr. Burns and the particularly heterosexual and conservative Cliff Huxtable “burns,” practically, through the screen. Dr. Burns’s medical, sexual, and intellectual authority is accepted without question or reservation as being proper and valid, as righteous and true, by the Huxtables simply because of his social and professional designation as a licensed authority and practitioner of a certain paradigmatical field of knowledge. Throughout the episode Dr. Burns functions, also, as a sort of Postmodern Renaissance man par excellence, a man capable of operating within different epistemologies at once and adhering to and operating in accordance with opposing belief systems. Being a Postmodernist, Dr. Burns refuses to follow any set or prescribed gender or sexual norms and recognizes and makes ready use of his own intrinsic ability to manipulate and shift his identity (when Cliff points out, cunningly, that Dr. Burns is, indeed, not pregnant, Dr. Burns responds, without any trace of irony ((and a certain logic that Foucault and Judith Butler would adore)), “not now, no” which suggests, indeed, that he might have been pregnant once and, perhaps, will be again).
The episode opens, of course, with Rudy—who, mind you, possesses a form of hetero-ontological superconciousness—addressing the audience directly—in turn breaking the fourth wall—and indicating that this episode is intended, indeed, for “kids.” This is an important point that demands significant critical consideration. Here, Rudy overtly establishes her agency over the Huxtable home (a measure of agency which was first revealed in “Goodbye, Mr. Fish” from the first season) and, indeed, the Huxtable narrative—when she first appears in the episode, within the ontology of the Huxtable narrative, she performs a magic trick (and remember, as Alan Moore reminds us, that a magician is, indeed, one who casts spells, one, that is, who spells, i.e. one who writes or narrates) and demonstrates her willingness and ability to control, manipulate and delude the Huxtables through the performance of over trickery. However, Rudy, with her post-Romantic spirit still in bloom, addresses the “kids” who might be watching the episode and, suggests, indeed, that Rudy feels a certain Romantic reverence for childhood, a belief in the sanctity of childhood, and intrinsic truth and purity which children possess.
I could go on about all of this. In fact, I certainly will go on. However, this is dangerous, weird critical territory I’m digging in to here and I need break in order to catch my breath and clear my mind. This episode deserves further consideration and shall receive such. For now, I will step back and attempt to further reconcile myself, and you, dear reader, to “The Dentist,” as well as the rest of the Huxtable narrative.
For Steven Lepic.