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.