Funny is as funny does

Sep 9, 2002  •  Post A Comment

“So now, slavery is funny?’
-Tavis Smiley, host of the now-defunct “BET Tonight” on the issue of the short-lived and now-defunct “The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer,” a 1998 network sitcom set in the Lincoln White House
This month CBS is celebrating its 75th anniversary-more than 50 of those years on broadcast television. Newsstands will bloom with publications commemorating this milestone with reminiscences and salutations. Doubtless there will be tales of the Golden Age of television and columns decrying the dearth of such quality programming today.
And this event will prove to be the latest occasion for the periodic lamentation of the demise, shelving and shunning of the onetime CBS series “The Amos ‘n’ Andy Show” and calls for its resurrection. In its issue recognizing CBS’s anniversary, Electronic Media includes an article bemoaning “Amos ‘n’ Andy’s” absence (“Wrestling with an albatross,” Sept. 2).
“It was funny,” is the frequent reason given to explain why “Amos ‘n’ Andy” is so sorely missed. But before a movement to return “Amos ‘n’ Andy” to the airwaves gains a groundswell and the show perhaps finds a new home on the often suggested TV Land cable channel or, scary thought, on a Big 3 network, another and less complimentary opinion must be heard, advocating that the canisters of “Amos ‘n’ Andy” episodes be left in the graveyard where they now rest.
“Amos ‘n’ Andy” ran on CBS from 1951 to 1953 and is considered by many to be a landmark show because it starred an all-black cast-a rarity then and now. The program began on radio back in 1927 and was originally performed by white actors, sometimes, unfortunately, in blackface. On radio the characters affected an exaggerated “black dialect” in their speech, an effect toned down in the TV show, but not by much.
Its debut on TV was greeted by controversy and a protest by the NAACP, which objected to the negative stereotypes and comic situations that depicted the characters as hapless at best and buffoons at worst. “Amos ‘n’ Andy’s” popularity ran roughshod over these complaints, however, and the show endured for 15 years (two in first-run, 13 in syndication) before being canceled and forever hence banished to the dusty confines of the CBS archives.
“It was funny” is a woefully inadequate premise for reviving “Amos ‘n’ Andy.” Because something is allegedly funny are we to ignore that it is also offensive? Some may say that its characters were a credit to African Americans because they weren’t maids or chauffeurs or elevator operators, but were lawyers and businessmen. But what kind of lawyers and businessmen were they? Shifty, venal and tricky or gullible, asinine and just plain ignorant.
What’s offensive about “Amos ‘n’ Andy” is the overriding message that should black people, who for centuries had been reassuring and entertaining as mammies and minstrels, have the gall to aspire to more than menial, subservient roles, they only make themselves ridiculous in the attempt. How could a people so mired in denigrating images of laziness and ignorance ever hope to run a business forthrightly or to practice a profession with honesty and skill? “Amos ‘n’ Andy” was funny in the same way it would be funny to watch circus animals in three-piece suits conduct a business meeting.
Certainly, one could argue that the strutting banty cock George Jefferson or the shiftless Fred Sanford or the enterprising intergalactic duo of “Homeboys in Outer Space,” all businessmen in their way, were scarcely better. But that assertion simply highlights how limited opportunities for and images of black Americans remain 51 years after the NAACP raised objections to “Amos ‘n’ Andy” and makes one wish that protest had met with more success.
In a time when the networks are rightly under attack for the lack of multiculturalism and diversity in their programming, it is a particular shame that instead of exploring and developing all the yet untold and varied stories about African Americans, television prefers to dish up warmed-up servings of the tired “Dragnet” and “The Twilight Zone” and, if some people have their way, leftovers of “Amos ‘n’ Andy.”
Lillian A. Jackson is a copy editor with Electronic Media.