Amos and Andy - Radio Icon or Racial Stereotype
Amos and Andy: Divided views
Garnering more than forty million listeners nightly in its peak, Amos’s and Andy -the longest running show in broadcast history- was more than just a comedy program but rather a national obsession. However, despite the program’s apparent popularity with both black and white audiences, its place in American popular culture continues to be hotly contested by the many who deem the show a shameful throw back to the days of blackface and minstrel entertainment.
In the early 1920s, Tribune owned station WGN approached two former minstrel performers, Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll, to write a serialized radio comedy based on their popular comic The Grumps . The pair responded to the station’s offer with a counterproposal. Instead of adapting the show from existing material, Correll and Gosden wanted to introduce a completely original radio show, one they believed to have the potential to be infinitely funnier than The Grumps . WGN agreed and thus Sam ‘n’ Henry-Amos ‘n’ Andy in its earliest incarnation-was born. Although the program, dubbed by the creators as a “colored comedy,” chronicled the adventures of two blacks, both Correll and Gosden- who doubled as the stars of the series- were white. To assume the roles of their black alter egos, the men would employ a so-called “verbal blackface” or “negro” affectation which was characterized largely by poor grammar, malapropisms and mispronunciations . This would later be debated as the subject of much controversy. However, at the time, neither white nor black audiences posed any serious objection. In fact, their reaction was quite opposite. From the time it first premiered January 12, 1926, Sam ‘n’ Henry was met with immediate success . In fact, the show soon proved to be so well-liked that WGN found it difficult to satisfy the nation’s seemingly insatiable demand for Sam ‘n’ Henry . With tens of millions of listeners tuning in nightly, it was rapidly becoming one of the most listened to shows in radio history. The characters became so popular nationwide through personal appearances, recordings, books, toys and other ancillary products such as the Sam ‘n’ Henry candy bar that the demand for the program soon exceeded the reach of the radio station.
In March of 1928, the show moved the network’s competitor WMAQ, a local news station intent upon nationally syndicating the program . Because WGN owned the right to the title Sam ‘n’ Henry , WMAQ was forced to devise a new name for the show. After a short period of indecisiveness during which Tom ‘n’ Henry and Jim ‘n’ Charlie was considered the comedy duo were rechristened Amos ‘n’ Andy . Despite minor changes in the storyline and character development as per the station’s request, the show remained much the same and in that way continued to be hugely popular. “Telephone companies claimed that the number of calls made during the fifteen minutes Amos ‘n’ Andy was on air severely declined and movie theaters were even forced to stop their features each night to pipe in the show for their audience .” Clearly, Amos ‘n’ Andy was rapidly becoming the nation’s favorite pastime.
In 1951, the show was faced with yet another change of venue. Like many other radio popular programs, Amos ‘n’ Andy -the rights to which were purchased by CBS-was adapted for television. The station replaced the original voices of Amos ‘n’ Andy and with a pair of black actors in hopes of capitalizing on the former radio show’s apparent popularity . However, the television program’s commercial success was short-lived. While Amos ‘n’ Andy did extremely well with its target demographic-white audiences-its racist content elicited contempt from a large segment of the black community . Although, it was the first prime time show ever to feature an entirely black cast, African Americans of the time viewed the television spin-off as anything but progressive. In fact, many viewers were altogether outraged by the stereotypic, offensive portrayals of African Americans and African American culture. Media historians attribute the radical change in opinion to an awakening in social consciousness brought about by the Second World War. In essence, blacks were beginning to embrace newer, more positive representations of their culture at the expense of the perpetuation of older, racially-charged ones.
Shortly after Amos ‘n’ Andy began broadcasting on CBS, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People assumed its role as a key player in the controversy, calling for an official protest of the program . The organization outlined a number of characteristics of the show which they found particularly offensive not the least of which being their belief it reinforced the perception of blacks as “inferior, last, dumb and dishonest.” Additional points of objection for the NAACP included archetypical depictions of black women “as cackling, screaming shrews,” and black working professionals as “quacks and thieves .” According to statements made by the NAACP, every character on the Amos ‘n’ Andy program was depicted
either as “clown or a crook,” and they feared these unflattering representations of blacks would color people’s opinions of the entire race.
The same month as the show’s premier, the NAACP appeared before the federal court in an effort to secure an injunction against the series, but to no avail. The show was commercially popular ranking thirteenth in the country according to Nielsen ratings and was seen by the court as no different from any of the other racially-charged programs of the time. The NAACP’s protests went largely unacknowledged, and for the time being, Amos ‘n’ Andy continued to broadcast unabated. In 1952, the show was honored with an Emmy award.
The NAACP unwilling to concede, retaliated by launching a boycott of one of CBS’s major sponsors . Not wanting to become involved in the controversy, other large companies soon became reluctant to advertise.
Defeated, the networked declared they “had bowed to a changed in national thinking. In 1953, after just two years and a total of 78 thirty minute long episodes CBS ceased production.
However, the program remained in syndication another 13 years after CBS made the announcement claiming it would end the series. In this time, reruns of the highly controversial show could be seen on 50 U.S. networks in addition to networks in 218 other markets. Finally, in 1966 the show was totally removed from the air.
However, the starring voice actors remains forever immortalized in the Radio hall of Fame.
Clearly, Amos ‘n’ Andy played a significant role in American popular culture as it was not only the longest running show in broadcast history, but the most popular. What is more, it remains one of the most fondly remembered. “There are three things I will never forget about America,” reminisced playwright George Bernard Shaw, “the Rocky Mountains, Niagara Falls, and Amos ‘n’ Andy .” Obviously, the program in all of its incarnations left a lasting impression on the American people. However, it is much disputed as to whether the impact it had on the culture was to a positive or negative end. As illuminated by the NAACP, the so called “colored comedy” played heavily into offensive stereotypes of African American culture making it as overtly racist as it was beloved.