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By Phil Hall | February 18, 2005

The most controversial program in the history of American television was broadcast more than a half-century ago and continues to generate endless debate for its content: “Amos ‘n’ Andy,” the all-black sitcom which divided audiences between those who saw it as an entertaining comedy and those who viewed it as a blatantly racist travesty. Even at this late date, “Amos ‘n’ Andy” is still banned from the airwaves.

“Amos ‘n’ Andy” originated on radio in the late 1920s. It was the creation of Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll, two white actor-writers who invented a series depicting the misadventures of two black cabdrivers and their wacky friends. To bring life to their African-American characters, Gosden and Correll used exaggerated black speech patterns which fractured the language with improper grammar and syntax (later generations would dub this “ebonics”). Despite the racial impersonation, Gosden and Correll never cheapened their material with overt racist humor. In fact, Gosden and Correll hired African-American actors to round out their cast, making “Amos ‘n’ Andy” one of the very few integrated shows in the golden age of American radio.

During the 1930s, two attempts were made to take “Amos ‘n’ Andy” from the aural medium of radio to the visual medium of motion pictures. Gosden and Correll played their characters in blackface in a film called “Check and Double Check,” while a cartoon series based on the show was also produced. The resulting productions were completely unlike the radio show: crude, unfunny and (tragically) blatantly racist.

When television began to upstage radio as the primary entertainment medium, nearly all of the major radio programs were adapted for the small screen. Gosden and Correll clearly could not pull another minstrel show routine for television, so after a heavily publicized talent search they premiered a new version of “Amos ‘n’ Andy” with an all-black cast (a TV first). The show debuted with great publicity on CBS in June of 1951.

Although the show was called “Amos ‘n’ Andy,” the TV version actually focused heavily on a third character: George “Kingfish” Stevens (played by Tim Moore), the leader of the Harlem fraternal group the Mystic Knights of the Sea. Kingfish was endless source of get-rich-quick schemes which inevitably went badly awry, and his calamities inevitably raised the ire of his short-tempered wife Sapphire and her shrewish Mama, who lived with the pair (and paid most of their rent). Andy (Spencer Williams) was the good-natured but gullible patsy who inevitably got suckered into Kingfish’s schemes, usually losing his cash and his pride in the process. Amos (Alvin Childress) had relatively little to do with the proceedings except to set up each episode’s opening narration and to appear midway through the show to comment on the predicaments swirling around him.

From its beginning, “Amos ‘n’ Andy” earned the wrath of the NAACP, which charged the program with serving miserable racial stereotypes in the guise of humor. Despite the NAACP’s complaints, “Amos ‘n’ Andy” was a highly-rated show and even received an Emmy Award nomination for Best Comedy Series. Yet the program only ran for two seasons–no company would sponsor the show, owing to its all-black cast, and the program’s lack of financial viability forced CBS to take it from prime-time. However, “Amos ‘n’ Andy” was successfully syndicated to local stations around America (which did not rely on corporate sponsorship for its advertising revenue) and was sold overseas (it was the first American TV show to play on the BBC). Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, “Amos ‘n’ Andy” reruns were a television staple.

In 1963, however, “Amos ‘n’ Andy” weathered new accusations of racist content from an unexpected source. CBS sold the series to state-run television in the newly-independent Kenya, but the Kenyan government banned the show for being a disreputable depiction of black people. The following year, a Chicago television station which was scheduled to air the old reruns abruptly changed its mind following viewer protests and boycott threats. Other local stations found themselves besieged with demands (orchestrated in large part by the NAACP) that “Amos ‘n’ Andy” be removed from the air. In 1966, CBS announced it was permanently withdrawing “Amos ‘n’ Andy” from syndication. To date, it has never been seen again on American television.

But was “Amos ‘n’ Andy” a racist show? The answer is…yes and no. Yes, the program focused on the buffoonish antics of lazy, foolish black people with terrible grammar. This was clearly not a flattering depiction of the African-American community–and in its day, it seemed wildly at odds with the brave and often dangerous struggle by African-Americans for racial equality and societal dignity.

Yet on the other hand, “Amos ‘n’ Andy” offered a subversive challenge to America’s racist attitudes of the early 1950s. In that distant period, African-Americans were virtually invisible on television, and those who found their way on the air were either cast as domestic servants (such as Eddie “Rochester” Anderson on Jack Benny’s program) or made fleeting guest star appearances on variety shows as singers and dancers. On “Amos ‘n’ Andy,” however, the all-black cast filled out roles which African-Americans did not enjoy on other programs: for the first time, the TV screen offered images of black doctors, nurses, judges, lawyers, police officers, business owners, teachers, honor students, military officers, farmers and beauty queens.

As for the comedy itself, it was fairly standard sitcom issue–plenty of knockabout slapstick, battle-of-sexes insults, and intricate situations where bad situations grow comically worse. Even when the episodes were badly contrived in their plotlines, “Amos ‘n’ Andy” was still very funny thanks to a richly talented ensemble cast. Tim Moore’s Kingfish was especially hilarious with his rubbery face, grandiloquent manners, and broad physical humor. Sammy Davis Jr. (himself no stranger to racism) lavishly praised Moore as a comic genius and happily incorporated impersonation’s of Moore’s Kingfish into his concert act.

While CBS won’t allow “Amos ‘n’ Andy” to be shown on TV, the network has failed to prevent bootleg videos from circulating. “Amos ‘n’ Andy” has been a staple of bootleg fans since the 1970s, when Betamax versions taken from 16mm collector prints began to turn up. Today, a casual flick around eBay can locate plenty of home-made bootleg DVDs, and all of the episodes can be located.

Whether one considers “Amos ‘n’ Andy” to be an important landmark or a shameful minstrel show, the program deserves to be seen, if only for historic perspective. Bootleg video has kept “Amos ‘n’ Andy” alive, and through these bootlegs future generations can judge the program’s merits for themselves. And perhaps they might even get a few good laughs, too.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.

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  1. Phil Hall says:

    Check out the original radio version of “Amos ‘n’ Andy” – it is much funnier than the TV episodes.

  2. sixdegreesofstoogeration says:

    I was surprised by “Amos ‘n’ Andy” not because of its views (real or imagined), but the fact that it just wasn’t that funny to me. My parents stated that it did seem funny…then…but upon watching the (most likely) bootleg videos we rented, realized it wasn’t that great.

    So, in my mind, it isn’t racism that mars “Amos ‘n’ Andy,” it’s the fact that it was slow; there was not much Andy; and oh, it was slow.

  3. Martin Pal says:

    When I watched most all of the episodes in the 80’s and 90’s I was surprised that the show had become a symbol of something it surely isn’t. When African Americans were rarely seen on television one might have a certain point, but within the context of modern audiences, Kingfish is seen more like an Archie Bunker type and easily recognizable to any audience as someone they might know. And the situations in the show are typical fifties fare, with situations anyone might relate to, like mother-in-law troubles or getting the wife mad at you. While watching Everybody Loves Raymond I often thought that Raymond could use some of the exact same scripts as Amos ‘n Andy. As for unflattering, how could anyone watch the Christmas episode with taxi cab driver Andy working in a department store for extra money and not be moved?

    Truly, the talents of these performers and the show itself need to be welcomed back into the arms of the viewing public. After all, people see what they want to see. I watch Amos ‘n Andy and I don’t see the negative stereotypes and such I was told I should see. I just see human characters going about their lives the best they know how. If the NAACP was instrumental in the hiding of Amos ‘n Andy, I’d have to say that still hiding it does nothing for the “Advancement” of anyone. Thanks for listening.

  4. Jim M. says:

    “Bustah,” you are correct. And I see virtually no difference between “Amos ‘N’ Andy” and the broad physical humor, get-rich-quick schemes, inter-gender battles, and ghetto jargon of later African-American television characters, such as Redd Fox and crew on “Sanford & Son,” Sherman Hemsley’s “George Jefferson” and his maid “Florence (Marla Gibbs) on “The Jeffersons,” nor of Jimmy Walker’s “J.J. Evans” on “Good Times,” except all those TV series’ were produced under the auspices of avowed left-winger (so he can’t possibly be racist) Norman Lear.

    White buffoonery (such as the comedy employed by Caucasian characters on the “The Honeymooners” and “Life Of Riley”) was really no different than TV sitcoms with African-Americans.

    And “The Beulah Show,” another sitcom with many African-American actors (and, like “Amos ‘N’ Andy,” the main character originally played on radio by a Caucasian actress, Marlin Hurt), about the black maid of the title who works in the home of a Caucasian family (who also, clearly, love her), and also interacts with her black friends, is also virtually no different than “Hazel,” except Shirley Booth was Caucasian, while Hattie McDaniel, Lillian & Amanda Randolph, Ethel Waters, and Louise Beavers (who all played “Beulah” at various times, on radio & TV) were African-Americans. But, as with “Amos ‘N’ Andy,” “The Beulah Show” also came under scrutiny from the political left, and was cancelled, even less episodes of the TV version of that series surviving than of “Amos ‘N’ Andy.”

    Was “Beulah,” an African-American woman, a maid? Sure. But “Hazel” was a also a maid, and a Caucasian woman. There were maids of all ethnicities back then, and there still are today. That is just an economic reality. And, guess what, African-Americans also employ African-Americans as domestics, as well as Caucasians. But as Hattie McDaniel once said, she saw no shame in merely portraying a maid in films, because the salary she earned from these acting jobs meant she would never have to “be a maid” in real life.

    As regards the cancellation of “Beulah,” and the dropping of “Amos ‘N’ Andy” from TV syndication, sadly, this is what happens when arts & entertainment are sabotaged by politics. But there were plenty of African-Americans, as well Caucasian-Americans, who got a kick out of listening to and watching the weekly exploits of “Amos ‘N Andy” (and “The Kingfish”), and “Beulah,” at least before the NAACP and others with non-entertainment agendas became involved.

    FYI, just look up who were the founders of the NAACP, and you will find the majority were not even African-Americans (then the “C” of that organization). This will tell you that a broader political agenda was at play in these situations, of which so-called “civil rights” and “social justice” (the code words these folks always use) was just a convenient tool for exploitation by the Marxists.

    In fact, I have read one of the largest demographics who have been customers of “Amos ‘N’ Andy” bootleg videos have been African-Americans themselves, obviously people such as yourself who are able to disregard politics and just enjoy a good laugh.

    If these shows were colorized (pun intended) and new copyright dates inserted into the closing credits at the end of episodes, there is no reason why “Amos ‘N Andy” (and “Beulah”) couldn’t air on Black Entertainment Television or even on retro TV networks such as Antenna, MeTV, and RTV, today.

  5. Herb Finn says:

    Actually not all the episodes are circulating – at last count there are 8 or so that have never surfaced.

    also, several complete, uncut network prints have turned up, including the original Blatz beer commercials and opening credits. (Which were different than the syndicated “Honeymooners” type opening)

  6. bustah says:

    I’ve been listening to alot of the radioshow lately… It’s two white guys impersonating black characters. I am African American.

    It’s not what I expected at all… it’s clever, very funny, the characters are very likable, and in general it’s really not offensive to me. The ugliest thing about it is that times were so bad that blacks couldn’t dream of getting radio jobs, yet there was much money to be made impersonating us, but these men deserve credit for making some very funny comedy.

    That being said, the most surprising thing to me is how black the humor actually is; the word play, attitudes, the back and forth jibs and jabs, and broad yet clever irony is no different from what you’d see in stand up, BET, or “black” movies today. Sometimes it’s even better.

    I’ve yet to see the TV show, but looking forward to it.

  7. Amy R. Handler says:

    Thanks Phil- I had a feeling you’d say that about the quality of the A & A copies available!

  8. Phil Hall says:

    @Amy: Griffin & Co. swat WASPs with stories involving Lois’ family, the Pewterschmidts. As for a flawless A&A copy, good luck – everything on the market is a bootleg, since CBS has not allowed the release of the show on DVD.

  9. Amy R. Handler says:

    I agree that all’s fair in love and comedy, but it’s questionable whether FG is funny. Still, I am guilty of watching the show whenever possible and every so often, hear myself laugh. Just once, however, I’d love to see Griffin et al take a jab at a healthy WASP or two. Then the playing field would truly be even.
    As for A n A, where can I find a near flawless copy? I’m hearing that many of the Amazon DVDs have poor audio.

  10. Amy R. Handler says:

    Phil-You should consider it an honor that your review become a classic! I agree that FG is not funny. In regard to all the racial slurs, you’re obviously not one of the targeted ethnicities! Still, I don’t believe in censorship, as one can choose not to watch the show.
    I agree with your remark about Amos and Andy, which couldn’t be easier to buy.

  11. Mark Bell says:

    I also don’t think “Family Guy” is racist. With comedy, everything has to be fair game, or nothing is. It’s only when the comic decides that this group or that group is okay to make fun of, but this group is off-limits, that it can become racism, sexism, etc. “South Park” is a perfect example of comedy where nothing is off-limits, and while I do agree that what we personally find funny is subjective, I don’t think either show can be called racist.

  12. Phil Hall says:

    @Amy: I wrote this article in February 2005 – I am surprised that it is getting comments now! I don’t think “Family Guy” is racist — I don’t think it is all that funny, truth be told. That being said, keeping “Amos ‘n’ Andy” out of circulation makes no sense, considering that there is absolutely no effort being made to prevent its return to distribution.

  13. Amy R. Handler says:

    Definitely, an interesting article! I’m surprised that the show is not aired on TV considering shows like “Family Guy” are. Clearly FG is every bit if not more, racist, as are a few other animated shows presently on TV. Can you address this issue?

  14. Chris Sobieniak says:

    Still my dad’s fav show!

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