Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Most Problematic Program of Old-Time Radio

When I first became interested in Old-Time Radio, the comedy genre was one of the most difficult for me to appreciate. Initially, I found OTR comedy to be dated, stodgy and not especially funny. Gradually, I found a number of comedians whose work was timeless but there are still certain programs I have little interest in. Perhaps the most difficult program for a modern-day listener to appreciate is Freeman Gosden & Charles Correll's Amos 'N' Andy.

In my early days online I found an OTR fan page where the author summed up how I felt about Amos 'N' Andy, which is likely how many OTR fans feel: grave discomfort. He recalled how he went to purchase a collection of episodes from a bookstore but was so ashamed of it that he tried to conceal it on his way to the till and was afraid the clerk would call him a Klansman for buying it.

If you aren't familiar with Amos 'N' Andy, then you may wonder why we OTR fans are so guarded about the show, often afraid to admit if we like it or not. Amos 'N' Andy depicted for most of its 30+ year run a cast of characters who were predominantly African-American, but the majority of the characters - particularly in the series' original incarnation as a serial - were voiced by Gosden and Correll, a pair of white men. (There was also a lot of furor over the Amos 'N' Andy tv series in 1951, but that has little to do with the radio program.)

My favorite OTR comedian Jack Benny waxed late in life about the depictions of race on his own show, where Eddie Anderson portrayed his valet Rochester:

"But remember, you who look back with perhaps contempt or patronizing pity on the old radio programs, that like most entertainers of that period I was brought up in another time and another place. I developed and learned my trade in Vaudeville. In the golden days of Vaudeville, there were blackface comics and there were black comics - like Bert Williams. There were also Swedish comics, Jewish comics, Dutch comics, Italian comics and Scotch comics.

Bad as you may think this kind of humor was, I think it was a way that America heated up the national groups and the ethnic groups in a melting pot and made one people of us - or tried to do so. Everybody loved ethnic humor during Vaudeville and often the people who were being ridiculed most enjoyed the kind of ethnic humor aimed at their own group. During World War II, attitudes changed. Hitler's ideology of Aryan supremacy put all ethnic humor in a bad light. It became bad taste to have Jewish jokes, Italian jokes and Negro jokes."

I've had an inexplicable fascination with the story behind Amos 'N' Andy, a magnetism stronger than my interest in the programs themselves. What were Gosden and Correll's intentions? How did Amos 'N' Andy become the most popular radio program?

The first place I went to for answers was Melvin Patrick Ely's The Adventures of Amos 'N' Andy: a Social History. Although there were some interesting pieces of history recounted in this book, it wasn't particularly concerned with Gosden and Correll themselves, nor with the content of the radio program. It had more to do with the television program and was somewhat dismissive of the radio series, likening it to a minstrel show. This, it seems, is fairly typical of modern analysis of Amos 'N' Andy.

However, the sort of book I had been looking for does exist; Elizabeth McLeod recently authored The Original Amos 'N' Andy: Freeman Gosden, Charles Correll and the 1928-1943 Radio Serial. McLeod points out many of the flaws in modern analysis of the series and goes into a terrific exploration of the program's earliest years. Amos 'N' Andy was at its most popular in it's first few years, particularly around 1930-1931. Unfortunately, scarcely any recordings exist from 1928-1943 and the bulk of what we have now is from the era where the show was reworked into a situation comedy, the same format used in the ill-fated television series.

Fortunately, McLeod delved into the original scripts which have survived but have been mostly neglected by scholars. As it turns out, Amos 'N' Andy was originally a nightly serial program similar to the old soap operas. The series offered long-running storyarcs about Amos and Andy trying to make ends meet first in Chicago, then in Harlem. The humor which developed in these early years was a gentle sort, like that of OTR shows Vic and Sade or Easy Aces, not the latter-day sitcom variety. Amos in particular tries to improve his standing in life, eventually becoming a successful businessman, marrying a refined woman and becoming a perfect father; Andy remains shiftless and often unable to learn from his mistakes, but his braggadocio conceals his own insecurities.

McLeod deftly summarizes the continuing problem of Amos 'N' Andy:

"Today, Amos 'N' Andy is a complex relic of an often-confusing past, and modern commentators tend to see in the program what they have been conditioned to see - conditioning that may involve racial issues and political ideologies that have nothing to do with the content of a radio program. It is far simpler, far more comfortable, and far less challenging to their own assumptions for these modern analysts to criticize Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll for what they were not than to attempt to understand what they actually were to the three generations of radio listeners of all races and backgrounds who embraced their creation."

Before I read McLeod's book, I had no idea that Gosden & Correll had brought about the advent of radio syndication, nor the influence the series had in spawning not just imitators but in bringing talent to radio who realized through Gosden & Correll that it was a medium which was vibrant and rewarding. Gosden and Correll were pioneers of radio broadcasting and for this alone, they deserve their place in history. I strongly recommend McLeod's book to anyone with an interest in the history of radio broadcasting, particularly that of radio drama.

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