It’s Complicated: Trying to Find the Best of THE AMOS ‘N ANDY SHOW

Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday! This week, I planned to cover the television adaptation of the long-running radio hit Amos ‘n’ Andy, which ran for two years (1951-1953) of 52 episodes on CBS-TV, with another 26 added that decade in first-run syndication. You see, many first season scripts for The Amos ‘n Andy Show were written by Leave It To Beaver‘s two creators, Joe Connelly and Bob Mosher, and I thought this connection would inform my looks at both series… However, after examining the 74/78 episodes that circulate (they’re all on YouTube as of this writing), I’m afraid I can’t really give this show my usual critical attention.

I hoped that I would come to agree with the many fans who call Amos ‘n Andy a lost gem: one of the smartest and funniest of TV’s early sitcoms, unfairly treated because of its unavoidable racial connotations, which, depending on who you ask, are either legitimately troublesome or erroneously feared. But I’m afraid that I simply don’t think that’s a valid narrative — not only is the series NOT on that top shelf of its era’s comedies (I Love Lucy, The Honeymooners, The Phil Silvers Show), because its character work is not up to those standards — it’s also impossible to wrest Amos, Andy, the Kingfish, Sapphire, Calhoun, etc., from the minstrel tropes and stereotypes that had defined African Americans in entertainment up to that point, an issue made more glaring when we note that the creative team was all white. Accordingly, the fact that the show keeps its regular roles one-dimensional — surface traits, no capacity for growth — becomes even more imprudent, for this only exacerbates the inherent race-based concerns.

Yet there’s a lot here to celebrate, too: the TV series, unlike its radio predecessor, was the first comedy with an all-black cast, set in a world where being black was totally normal. This must have been a treat for an audience hungering for more of this, and while the sensitive nature of black depictions elsewhere invites extra scrutiny to Amos ‘n Andy, it was providing something of value to their community. Also, because my personal belief is that no work deserves to be hidden because of its content — in the right context, everything has merit — I agree with many of the show’s famous black fans, who say that Amos ‘n Andy didn’t deserve to be banished indefinitely in 1966 (following intense NAACP backlash). So, while I can’t really treat the show as I would most of the ones we cover here, both because of its baggage and because of its character work, I can at least repurpose its memory by praising its wonderful cast — performers Alvin Childress, Spencer Williams Jr., Tim Moore, Ernestine Wade, Johnny Lee, Nick O’Demus, and Amanda Randolph, who elevate their material the best they can, adding humanity to nuance-less parts — and present to you a no-frills list of five episodes that showcase them, and the series, in the most comedic, memorable light possible. (Note: all my picks come from the first season on CBS; the show seemed to run out of good ideas as it progressed.)

  • Episode 04: “Rare Coin” (07/19/51) — Connelly/Mosher script, produced as pilot
  • Episode 09: “The Gun” (08/23/51) — Connelly/Mosher script, funny narrative
  • Episode 17: “Getting Mama Married (I)” (10/18/51) — Amanda Randolph shines
  • Episode 18: “Getting Mama Married (II)” (10/25/51) — continuation of above
  • Episode 19: “The Happy Stevenses” (11/01/51) — best Kingfish/Sapphire entry

 

 

Come back next week for another Wildcard! And stay tuned Tuesday for more Beaver!

2 thoughts on “It’s Complicated: Trying to Find the Best of THE AMOS ‘N ANDY SHOW

  1. Thanks for your fair and serious treatment of this show. Too many columns about “Amos ‘n’ Andy” turn into soapboxes for or against. My husband, who is black and old enough to have seen the show when it aired, loves watching it again on the DVDs we were able to acquire. I’m younger and don’t remember it. Its comedy is not as appealing to me, but I don’t mind watching it, either. We’re aware of the show’s 1950s context and take that into account. Many people who don’t want this show seen have not even seen it themselves (!), which is absurd.

    • Hi, sumogrrl! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      I really appreciate your kind words. This was a series I’d wanted to discuss for a while now. I think there are valid criticisms about the show’s content along with a really strong argument for why it deserves to be more widely seen — and both sides have merit. Thankfully we live in an age where we can find almost every episode on YouTube and make up our own minds!

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