Only those who grew up during the 1950s and ‘60s remember the furor that erupted over the half-hour situation comedy Amos ‘n’ Andy. The television program that debuted in 1951 was the first network show to use a multi-camera production format and was a spin-off of the radio comedy written and voiced by Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll.
It started on radio in the ‘20s, initially originating from WMAQ in Chicago, though it soon became the nation’s first syndicated radio show. At one point, more than 78 radio stations aired Amos ‘n’ Andy every weeknight.
Now, Gosden and Correll were white actors whose background included stints in minstrel shows, and they adapted that medium’s elements, particularly exaggerated speech, to their characterizations. Gosden and Correll were talented types who did more than 170 different voices.
But the show featured white men offering their version of black life and culture.
Both the radio show and its television component were instant lightning rods for controversy. The Pittsburgh Courier newspaper led national protests against the radio program in the ‘30s and the NAACP mounted a campaign against the TV show as soon as it began.
Amos ‘n’ Andy only lasted until 1953, but was in syndication from 1954 until 1966, when it was finally pulled due to continuing campaigns against stations running it. But now 72 of the 79 Amos ‘n’ Andy episodes are available on DVD.
The ultimate irony is that one of the places running ads for a company selling it is Jet magazine, America’s longest-running black weekly news and entertainment publication.
A show that was once considered an embarrassment and mockery of black culture has been re-branded in the 21st century as “a piece of history.” It’s being marketed alongside a host of other films that really are classics like The Emperor Jones starring Paul Robeson, The Jackie Robinson Story and other vintage murder mysteries, westerns and romantic sagas with African-American casts.
Amos ‘n’ Andy’s major defect was CBS’ insistence that scripts and actors not deviate far from the blackface routines Gosden and Correll created for the radio show.
The program’s defenders insisted it wasn’t nearly as bad as the NAACP claimed. They argued that many episodes never even referenced whites, while offering audiences a look at a society (‘50s segregated black America) they otherwise never saw. However, the program also reinforced weekly the notion that most African-American males were buffoons and most black women shrill and overbearing.
Perhaps the saddest thing about the reappearance of Amos ‘n’ Andy is the relative lack of progress made in terms of nonwhite portrayals on network television in the 43 years since it vanished from the airwaves.
Last month, the five broadcast networks announced their schedules for the fall season. There was one (that’s one) new show with an African-American lead. It’s Fox’s comedy, Brothers, with inexperienced former pro football star and current sports commentator Michael Strahan in the lead.
While it would certainly be wrong to proclaim nothing has changed on television since Amos ‘n’ Andy, it is accurate to wonder why it remains impossible to present a drama with predominantly African-American, Asian, Native American or Latino casts. Audiences have come a long way, but apparently in the minds of network executives they won’t embrace any dramatic presentation unless its cast consists of youthful whites.
There’s some hope on the cable horizon. TNT’s HawthoRNe, featuring Jada Pinkett Smith as the star of a show about the life and problems of a Chief nursing officer at a busy city hospital, debuts in July.
TNT is wisely billing the program as the latest in its string of shows featuring strong women at the helm, and Smith’s cast includes its share of telegenic types designed to reach the youth demographic. Still, as executive producer she’s determining her character’s image and the program’s content.
Many people don’t deem it a big deal that television doesn’t take seriously the issue of accurately portraying the experiences and stories of anyone except 18-49 year-old whites.
Maybe if they took a closer look at Amos ‘n’ Andy, then contrasted it with what’s now on the air, they might understand why something with television’s worldwide influence must be more representative and responsible in its casting and programming.