Thursday, December 23, 2004

Melvin Patrick Ely’s Adventures of Amos ‘n’ Andy

Blame it on the excess of the holidays: I never thought of ideas in the popular culture as tastes of fruit before today. But when I was trying to place the phenomenon of Amos ‘n’ Andy in American popular culture for myself, it began to seem to me like a kind of fruit that I’ve been tasting for much of my life, but I just now learned the name and detailed information about its nutrition.

I say this because I recognized jokes from A&A: In fact, I thought my grandfather had made up the line, “Well, I guess it’s time for my weekly bath, whether I need it or not.” No indeed. The line (or one like it) comes from the radio show. In the same way, I’d heard my mom’s friend, Helen say “That’s re-gusting,” my whole life, thinking that was her own euphemism. Who knew these came from A&A?

Really, it is this very sense—of tasting the fruit and finding out later about the name—that makes studying popular culture so interesting to me. That’s how we know that A&A was an important cultural influence—well, maybe that’s not the important measure. Ely, in fact, offers many other more compelling reasons.

The show sprang from the roots of minstrel shows, which followed a specific pattern or form:

The first act offered a minstrel chorus, whose comic endmen bounced much of their humor off the interlocutor. Jokes, eccentric dances, and songs sung by one or more soloists. Then came the second part of the production, an “olio” or mini-variety show consisting of non-blackface novelty acts and a “stump speech” on some topic of current interest; a blackface comedian delivered the speech, using abundant malapropisms and exaggerated gestures. The show concluded with a one-act blackface farce relying heavily on slapstick humor. (29)

Bill Kersands was one of the first minstrels. He used the burnt cork to make what now has become the familiar, exaggerated black-face with exaggerated lips (34).

Correll and Gorsden started much like Kersands. They created an act as Sam and Henry but had to change the names to syndicate it; choosing new names for the characters was a studied effort. They told several different stories about how the did it, but most importantly, “Amos” and “Andy” were carefully chosen to represent realistic names for the kinds of people they would have been.

The show was immensely popular on the fledgling medium of radio; it was impossible to know how popular the show was, since no mechanism was in place to count listeners so early in the history of the medium. However, Correll and Gorsden found out their popularity when they began to make personal appearances as A&A. One show they did was interesting as an effort towards humor: they performed their act on stage in character, but without makeup, stunning audiences with “the incongruity between the men’s Caucasian appearance and their ‘Negro’ speech” (62). That was an interesting comedy experiment.

A&A was interesting for a number of reasons. For one, the show depicted Black characters in professional roles. There were Black doctors and lawyers for example. Also, for the longest time, Correll and Gosden did all the voices, but since they didn’t like to do women’s voices, they just did men’s. So in order to create female characters, they had to do scenes where existing male characters talked to their wives on the telephone or just rely on reported speech.

Later on, Correll and Gosden did hire actors to play supporting roles in the show; in this case, it was primarily Black actors. The show thus became a very large employer of Blacks in Hollywood. Finally, it became a show that was televised and for which an all black cast was hired—except white supporting actors (for the first time).

Ultimately, it was a much protested show, and for good reason. If you believe its opponents, the kind of humor involved was that which made the audience think of Black people as fools, not as capable, smart human beings. Though black professional people were depicted, they were shown as subordinate to white people—an unfortunate message to audiences who are decisionmakers of the future.

Ely does a great job with this book—he manages to show the brilliance of the humor somehow without disrespecting a whole culture; he has a great sense of the metaphor I started with—the savoring of a certain kind of fruit, which, perhaps if we tasted much of it these days, would be a trifle sour.

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