Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

T'Ain't Funny When Race Is the Joke

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

T'Ain't Funny When Race Is the Joke

Article excerpt

THE underlying question in a discussion of "Amos Andy," the phenomenonally popular situation comedy that ran 30 years and for which, according to my mother, the rides at Coney Island used to stop, is whether or not it was racist.

All the characters were black, but the show was written and produced by whites. Its roots were in the minstrel-show tradition, a stereotype of blacks as an underclass and happy about it.

But the show had perhaps the widest and deepest audience in electronic media - first in radio, where it was acted by whites, then in TV. If that large a percentage of the American population, black and white, were devotees, could they all be racist?

Or was it a cleverly elemental comedy whose appeal was universal, arranged in a theater of familiar types?

Or as Melvin Patrick Ely documents with careful precision in "The Adventures of Amos and Andy," was there a time when the audience went from laughing with to laughing at the show? Was that why the NAACP was right in forcing the program off the air? The efforts of the NAACP's Roy Wilkins, among others, parallel the civil-rights movement in the '50s, since in the '30s Wilkins discounted black criticism of the early television version.

Ely teaches Afro-American and Southern History at Yale University, and is white. It must be hard to keep classes from laughing. "Amos Andy" is replete with characters who are conniving (Kingfish), thick-headed (Andy), naive (Amos), overbearing (Mama), and shiftless (Lightning). But at the same time, they are exceedingly funny and warm-hearted.

But what blacks in the '50s objected to was CBS - who by then owned the show - ladling out a stereotype. Ely notes that with the revelations of the Nazi holocaust, America graphically saw the vileness of racial hatred.

Other situation comedies that dealt with immigrant life also had difficulty. "Life with Luigi," which lampooned an Italian neighborhood, and "The Goldbergs," which limned an urban Jewish family, were sidelined, despite loyal audiences. …

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