The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

20 February 2006

Holy mackerel, dere

CBS-TV canceled Amos 'n' Andy, the television spinoff of the successful radio series, in 1953 after a two-year, 78-episode run. Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll, two white guys who had played the roles in the radio version, produced the TV edition. It was the first network series with an all-black cast, and it was a substantial hit: in its first year on the air, it ranked 13th among network shows, drawing nearly 39 percent of the audience in its time slot (Thursday, 8:30 Eastern). CBS's syndication arm kept the show in circulation into the 1960s.

But the NAACP was never happy with Amos 'n' Andy, or, perhaps more precisely, they were never happy with the character of George "Kingfish" Stevens, a conniving character always out to make a fast buck. Stereotyping, they said. In 1963, CBS had somehow sold the show in Kenya; shortly thereafter, the Kenyan government announced a ban on it. By 1966, with Bill Cosby lined up against the series alongside the NAACP, CBS pulled it from syndication, and it's not been aired since. (Gosden and Correll got the next-to-last laugh: they redid the show as an animated cartoon called Calvin and the Colonel, which debuted on ABC in 1961 and lasted one season, with Gosden and Correll doing the same old voices with new names and species — Calvin was a slightly slow bear, the Colonel a sly fox — with Paul Frees doing the Kingfish a weasel.)

Correll died in 1972, Gosden in 1982, so they won't see the last laugh: a revival of the series on stage under the title Kingfish, Amos and Andy, now playing in Jamaica, New York. Carl Clay, director of Black Spectrum Theatre, explains why he brought these characters back to life:

In the '60s, there was nothing else to compare Amos 'n' Andy to. Today, we've had so many black sitcoms that play up black stereotypes that Amos 'n' Andy seems tame. It was a groundbreaking show that had a universal appeal.

It just so happened that it was the first TV show with an all-black cast, and because of that, well-intentioned people like Roy Wilkins of the NAACP, who loved the show on radio, and later black stars like Bill Cosby, maybe put too much weight on the shoulders of the show, asking it to be representative of an entire race.

And Amos 'n' Andy was unabashedly working-class, which might have embarrassed a few people who fancied themselves highbrow, who thought that in the best of all possible worlds, people like Amos and Andy and especially the Kingfish would no longer exist. But actor Gil T. says:

It wasn't about welfare families, dope pushers or gangbangers. It was about working- and middle-class black people in New York. One character was a lawyer, another owned a cab company, a teacher, a cop. Everybody worked, and everybody struggled.

Real life, in other words. No wonder it had to be suppressed.

Posted at 5:57 AM to Almost Yogurt

Remember them well! It was certainly a well done and realistic show that delivered a laugh a minute. I was always surprised that the NAACP and others did not object more to white guys made up with black-face playing the lead roles.

Posted by: Winston at 6:38 AM on 20 February 2006

Well, they went with real black actors in the TV series, and there wasn't much need for blackface on the radio. The thing was, pretty much everything on the tube in those days evoked broad stereotypes of one sort or another; that's what had worked on radio, and that's what they continued to do on television until the rise of the Professional Objectors.

Posted by: CGHill at 7:24 AM on 20 February 2006

I only remember A&A from old radio plays. I'm too young to have solid memories of the TV show. However, I'd love to see them on dvd or in syndication. I think I'll do a google search.
Good site, man.

Posted by: nodakjack at 9:13 AM on 20 February 2006

Remember when they whinned so mich about the SAMBOS restruants they drove them out of buisness the NAACP itself is a bunch of tyrants

Posted by: spurwing plover at 10:49 AM on 20 February 2006