Wrestling with an albatross: ‘Amos ‘n’ Andy’

Sep 2, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Ever since Milton Berle first donned a dress, TV series have been reviled, blamed for everything from lapses in civilization to mysterious itches, mercilessly scalded by critics and terminated with extreme prejudice by their networks. And, occasionally, loved.
But jailed? That’s special. Only one show has ever been sentenced to life in prison, and it’s a decent bet that Charles Manson will be paroled before CBS frees “The Amos ‘n’ Andy Show” from sealed canisters at Television City in Los Angeles.
“Amos ‘n’ Andy” premiered on CBS in June 1951 with some genuine promise. Based on the decades-old radio hit performed by two white men, Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll, it boasted network TV’s first all-black cast.
It had taken two years to settle on three leads-stage actor Alvin Childress as Amos, the sensible Harlem cab driver and the show’s narrator; veteran director and actor Spencer Williams Jr. as the portly cigar-chomping and eternally gullible Andy; and vaudeville star Tim Moore as the conniving George Stevens, exalted Kingfish of the Mystic Knights of the Sea, the show’s fictional fraternal lodge. Mr. Moore had been lured out of retirement in Rock Island, Ill., to play the Kingfish.
Laced heavily with exaggerated black dialect, “Amos ‘n’ Andy” found its comedic groove with the Kingfish’s forever using to insurance schemes, real estate schemes or whatever to dupe the slowwitted Andy out of his meager savings. But the Kingfish’s connivings usually backfired, often resulting in tongue-lashings from his wife Sapphire (Ernestine Wade).
New York Times reviewer Val Adams, assessing the show a few days after its TV premiere, clucked about “injudicious directing and overplaying,” but he praised the new comedy for “several good sight gags” and apparently was convulsed by Mr. Moore’s “robust and flamboyant” performance. It was, he wrote, “remindful of Negro actors in the old medicine shows so common in the Midwest and South many years ago.”
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was less amused. Within two weeks of the program’s television debut, it called the show “a gross libel on the Negro and distortion of the truth” and asked the Blatz Brewing Co. to renounce its sponsorship.
In its August 1951 bulletin, the NAACP issued a bill of particulars. It accused “Amos ‘n’ Andy” of portraying blacks as lazy, dumb and dishonest, of presenting every cast member as a clown or a crook, of depicting black doctors as quacks, of suggesting that black lawyers were ignorant and dishonest and of painting black women as “cackling, screaming shrews.”
Despite the protest, “Amos ‘n’ Andy” lasted on the network for two seasons until Blatz pulled out. CBS shot an additional 13 episodes for syndication purposes, and “Amos ‘n’ Andy” aired successfully on local stations for another 13 years. Then in 1966 CBS Films proclaimed that “Amos ‘n’ Andy” was “outdated”-along with “Mama,” “Life with Father” and several other rerun series-and withdrew it from the syndication circuit.
Groundbreaking, funny
The show was a racial albatross in the civil rights era; its broadcast on a Chicago station had sparked protests, and to the embarrassment of CBS, a government official in Kenya had banned it in that African nation.
So it was off to the slammer for “Amos ‘n’ Andy,” and there it has languished for 36 years. “Amos ‘n’ Andy” tapes are commonplace in home video stores, but a CBS spokesman said those are all bootleg copies and that the network has occasionally reinforced its legal proprietorship with court actions against distributors.
Over time the groundbreaking show became television’s oldest and most reliable controversy. Not surprising, because “Amos ‘n’ Andy” inflames America’s most enduring blister, racial prejudice, and provides ample ammunition to both its defenders and its enemies.
The defense is that whatever its faults, “Amos ‘n’ Andy” was funny. It still is. If the TV industry can truthfully claim to produce art, “Amos ‘n’ Andy” is art. And who can be comfortable calling for the suppression of art? All the more so when by any honest evaluation “Amos ‘n’ Andy” was no more offensive than dozens of black comedies that followed it without lifetime banishment.
Some of the staunchest defenders are black viewers who remember “Amos ‘n’ Andy” fondly, and black performers who acknowledge a debt to the show’s talented and pioneering cast.
On this issue, the NAACP never spoke for all black Americans, and perhaps not for a majority. It’s worth pointing out, too, that several of the NAACP’s original objections, in 1951, weren’t even true. It wasn’t true that all the characters were clowns and crooks. It wasn’t true that black doctors were routinely depicted as quacks. Nor were black women uniformly depicted as “screaming shrews.”
But it was true that some characters were lazy, dumb and shall we say, ethically challenged. It was true that in the Kingfish and Andy, the show orbited around two broadly drawn characters easily traceable to stock figures in minstrel shows. And it was true that in the early 1950s, television provided no effective counterbalance to the outlandish “Amos ‘n’ Andy” model of black American life. That’s one of the most persistent burrs in the “Amos ‘n’ Andy” debate-that in its time, there was no “Cosby Show” to offset it. And that was, of course, the fault of CBS and NBC and ABC, not “Amos ‘n’ Andy.”
For now, the controversy may be as moot as it is invigorating. No broadcast network and no rational station owner is about to plop old “Amos ‘n’ Andy” tapes onto the airwaves. Nor is CBS about to unlock the cellblock doors.
TV Land possibility
“Amos ‘n’ Andy” has one chance at redemption in today’s television environment, and that is the TV Land cable network. Just this past February, TV Land skimmed over the “Amos ‘n’ Andy” imbroglio in an “Inside TV Land” special about African Americans and television. There on screen was Julian Bond, chairman of the NAACP, repeating the organization’s old and unchanged complaints about the show.
I had to chuckle. Back in 1983 at the suggestion of CBS Broadcast Group President Gene Jankowski, I’d written a column in the Atlanta Constitution suggesting that viewers were sufficiently sophisticated to watch “Amos ‘n’ Andy” and place it in context. That column led to a gentlemanly debate with Mr. Bond on Atlanta’s public TV station.
There was a live audience that night in the station studio. I remember a black man in the front row, clutching a copy of “Gone With the Wind” and asking Mr. Bond if he’d next like to start banning books, starting with the Margaret Mitchell classic. Mr. Bond, as I recall, had no answer.
This year’s TV Land special got Larry Jones, the executive VP and general manager of TV Land, thinking. Clearly “Amos ‘n’ Andy” was a funny show with an undeniable niche in TV history. Maybe, under the right circumstances and with some sort of contextual boost “Amos ‘n’ Andy” could be revived on TV Land.
“It was the first time I thought maybe it could be,” Mr. Jones said. “I still don’t know if it should be.”
Mr. Jones surely has a CBS number in his Rolodex. After all, TV Land and CBS are corporate cousins in the Viacom family.

But don’t count on it. If “Amos ‘n’ Andy” ever again sees daylight legally, it’ll be an occasion for one big national “Holy mackerel, Andy.”
John Carman is the former TV columnist for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, the Atlanta Constitution and the San Francisco Chronicle.