In its most recent season premiere, The Simpsons bid farewell to Rabbi Hyman Krustofski, Krusty The Clown’s father, after the show’s producers spent the summer teasing a character death many fans assumed would befall a more prominent character in Springfield’s sprawling ecosystem. But 2014 could also mark another tragic loss for The Simpsons: the demise of a character far more beloved than Krusty’s dad, and in this case, not of the writers’ volition.
There’s a very real chance The Simpsons has seen the last of Dr. Julius Hibbert. With Bill Cosby currently facing two dozen rape allegations, the same decay plaguing The Cosby Show could just as easily make anathema of Dr. Hibbert, who was wrought in the image of Cosby’s Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable. Although Dr. Hibbert has in many ways evolved into his own character, if Cliff Huxtable’s presence rubs salt in reopened wounds, his cartoon counterpart could have the same effect. So exiling Dr. Hibbert would be just as reasonable as Archer eliminating references to ISIS in light of real-world terrorism. The potential loss of Dr. Hibbert probably shouldn’t matter much, especially with scores of other characters inhabiting Springfield. But Dr. Hibbert’s demise would resonate not only within the show, but in the real world, because it symbolizes why many are loath to let go of Cosby’s legacy, no matter how tarnished it becomes.
Dr. Hibbert debuted in December 1990 in the season-two episode “Bart The Daredevil.” The Simpsons’ second season marked the first time the show was pitted against The Cosby Show in the crucial Thursdays-at-8 time slot, which had been essentially ceded to the massively successful Cosby for six years. According to multiple interviews, the fledgling show’s producers were livid when Rupert Murdoch of Fox sent them to battle with Cosby. It had been years since a network was foolhardy enough to program a comedy opposite Cosby, and the most recent attempt didn’t pan out well for two members of The Simpsons’ brain trust. ABC’s cult comedy Sledge Hammer!, for which Simpsons executive producers Al Jean and Mike Reiss served as story editors, never made it to a third season primarily because it couldn’t subsist on the ratings crumbs the Huxtables left behind.
The Simpsons’ time slot change commanded wide attention in the media, which couldn’t resist the old-guard-versus-new-wave narrative of America’s most beloved live-action sitcom facing off against a prime-time cartoon, a genre still in its infancy. Dr. Hibbert was born out of the anxiety taking hold behind the scenes, even as both Cosby and Matt Groening maintained gentlemanly facades for the press. Simpsons co-developer Sam Simon drew the Dr. Hibbert character, just as he drew Springfield’s other black characters like Bleeding Gums Murphy, but recollections vary on the motivation behind Simon’s concept. To this day, it isn’t entirely clear whether Simon was making a mockery of Cosby, The Cosby Show, or the Cosby showdown.
But it hardly matters, given how innocuous a Cliff Huxtable riff Dr. Hibbert turned out to be. The character is more of an homage than a parody, a black doctor with a frame-perfect family, a fondness for jazz and Cubist sweaters, and a mischievous giggle triggered at inopportune moments. It’s easy to forget the parallels entirely since The Simpsons has outlived The Cosby Show by decades, finally eking out ratings supremacy prior to Cosby’s departure from the air in 1992. Since then, Dr. Hibbert has become more of his own character. He’s been outed as a diehard Republican and a bloodthirsty capitalist, suggesting occasional malice behind his goofy guffaw. The Hibberts’ home life isn’t nearly as stable as that of the Huxtables, judging from the handful of appearances from Dr. Hibbert’s wife, Bernice, nearly all of which flick at her raging drinking habit.
Dr. Hibbert could conceivably pop up in Springfield again, given how much time has passed since Cosby was on the air and the current moratorium on nostalgic marathons. Besides, comedians have driven the controversy since it coalesced. It was a Hannibal Buress routine, after all, that catalyzed the current Cosby backlash.
The allegations against Cosby have since become grist for the monologue mill, including recent stingers from Bill Maher on Real Time and Tina Fey and Amy Poehler on the recent Golden Globes. Even South Park took a shot at Cosby in “#HappyHolograms,” with an animated Cosby joining Taylor Swift in a riff on “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” It’s only a matter of time until Family Guy makes a crass Cosby joke; the show is so fond of randomly invoking the word “rape” in its punchlines, its average script reads like a book of Mad Libs retrieved from a frat party.
Besides the fact that it’s beneath The Simpsons’ taste level to wink at widespread rape accusations, there’s an another set of considerations involved in joking about the Cosby controversy within a fictional universe that already houses a Cosby-inspired character. Not only does Dr. Hibbert exist, he’s among Springfield’s most intelligent, successful, and grounded residents. More than that, Dr. Hibbert represents Springfield’s blackness. There are other black characters in The Simpsons, like Carl, but the color of Carl’s skin is immaterial to the character, just as it was immaterial when Waylon Smithers was black in “Homer’s Odyssey” (which Groening chalked up to a production error). For Dr. Hibbert, his hue is not just a square on the Pantone wheel. When he appears in flashbacks coiffed and styled in a manner befitting black style trends—from the afro, to the high-top fade, to beaded locks—he’s essentially embodying the very notion of blackness.
Blackness is integral to Dr. Hibbert because it was integral to Dr. Huxtable. But while The Cosby Show was certainly conscious of race, it rarely acknowledged race overtly, and almost never drifted into very-special-episode territory. The Simpsons has approached the diversity of its characters in much the same way. The show is not oblivious, but it never makes difference a focus, which is why a Greg Daniels season-seven pitch, in which he suggested using Dr. Hibbert as a vessel to explore the idea of race in Springfield, never moved past the brainstorming phase. In Dr. Hibbert, The Simpsons wasn’t only borrowing the silhouette of a character, it was borrowing the notion that a black man could identify with his race without that becoming the primary lens through which he views the world and the world views him.
The Cosby Show represented the idea of unencumbered black achievement, and that’s part of why the show is so difficult to part with, even as it becomes impossible to see the show as it once was. Dr. Hibbert inherited Cosby’s ideas and maintained them for the better part of 26 years, but now that the rest of Cosby’s legacy is spiraling downward, Dr. Hibbert could easily circle the drain with it. According to John Ortved’s The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History, Cosby was sanguine about The Simpsons’ dramatic rise as it happened, but confessed 20 years later a suspicion Bart Simpson was “sent to destroy The Cosby Show.” Not only is The Simpsons not to blame for wrecking Cosby, it’s arguably just the opposite.