TC THE ADVENTURES OF AMOS 'N' ANDY: A Social History of an American Phenomenon. By Melvin Patrick Ely. The Free Press. 350 pages. $22.95.
IN February 1930, a reporter for the Baltimore Afro-American described how several dozen black women participating in a bridge tournament wrapped up the event quickly one evening in order to rush home to tune in the nightly 15-minute episode of "Amos 'n' Andy" on the radio. The reporter, herself a fan of the comedy series, did not manager to catch the show. "I'se regusted!" she wrote, mimicking a catch-phrase of the program's malaprop-prone Andy. "I missed 'em."
She would have been one of the few Americans, black or white, to do so during that long-ago winter. Back then, this nation seemed to come to a halt every night when "Amos 'n' Andy" came on the air, entranced by the ongoing adventures of two rustic but city-dwelling black men who in actuality were portrayed by two white performers, Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll, using dialect humor reminiscent of 19th-century minstrel shows.
Incredibly, the national craze for "Amos 'n' Andy" captured "admirers ranging from ultra-racists to outspoken racial egalitarians," according to Melvin Patrick Ely of Yale, even though the program's portrayal of the black world, for the most part, "was no compliment to the race."
Yet while the devotion of the black Baltimore bridge players to "Amos 'n' Andy" was hardly unique, neither was it universal among blacks, according to Ely's superb study. Virtually from the show's 1929 debut, plenty of blacks despised "Amos 'n' Andy," believing that it demeaned them.
"When blacks praised or attacked 'Amos 'n' Andy,' they were arguing over their identity, their condition and their future in a society dominated by whites," Ely writes. But the considerable "dissension among Afro-Americans themselves" over the show hobbled black protests against it.
"Amos 'n' Andy" remained on the radio, becoming a weekly half-hour situation comedy in 1943, and hung on, in much-diluted form, until November 1960. Simultaneously, it was briefly transferred to television in 1951 and 1952, starring an all-black cast of wonderfully talented performers. A forceful protest from the NAACP and some prominent blacks led to its cancellation -- but not its demise. It remained on the air, in syndicated re-runs, until the mid-1960s. And now, Ely tells us, bootlegged episodes of the old TV show (on which CBS still owns a copyright) have appeared in video stores -- and "found a market among both blacks and whites."
What is the secret of the show's extraordinary staying power? It would be easy -- and incorrect -- to attribute it solely to its appeal to the racism, active or latent, in American society. Ely, a scrupulous scholar, does not take that easy way out in this meticulously researched book.
It is Ely's subtle theory that "Amos 'n' Andy" was a show seductive in its simplicity and humor, corrupting in its unspoken presumptions and enduring in its universal humanity.
He observes that Gosden and Correll, while both veterans of racially crude minstrel shows, "managed to present characters who aroused empathy among whites without ceasing to be black," thereby appealing to many blacks. What is more, by the unprecedented inclusion of black characters who were well-spoken professionals -- doctors, lawyers, merchants -- Gosden and Correll "sometimes countered the stereotypes of black ignorance and hedonism" and "at least nibbled at the edges of society's racist assumptions."
Although Ely concedes that a comedy show "is not the place to look for gritty, realistic depictions of racism and poverty," he nevertheless contends that at its best, "Amos 'n' Andy" "did not challenge the status quo in a basic way; at its worst, it gave Jim Crow . . . a new lease on life."
Ely could be accused of what William Manchester once called " 'generational chauvinism' -- judging past eras by the standards of the present." While acknowledging that "ideal types are simply not funny," Ely seems to find fault not just with "Amos 'n' Andy but with every comedic characterization of the 1920s through the 1950s, from comic strips to TV shows: the "battle-ax" as either wife or mother-in-law; "childish husbands" and other white males who are "inept or juvenile;" the black man who appeared in comics as a "monkey-like 'coon.' "
Ely, a 39-year-old native of Richmond, Va. (Gosden's hometown), writes that he "grew up" on the "Amos 'n' Andy" TV show, finding it "the funniest show on television -- and the most interesting." From it he "learned," correctly, that "there was something unique and compellingly attractive about the black world." He also gleaned the tragic misconception that for blacks, "being funny was one of their chief functions in life."
Ultimately, however, the show "began to open up a new world" for Ely, a world he continues to study as a professor of African-American history, and for that he remains grateful, he writes.
Perhaps what Ely and many others clearly remember most about "Amos 'n' Andy" is what made it really shine and accounts for its longevity; something that can be hurtful but also, of course, splendidly healing: laughter.
Neil A. Grauer is a Baltimore author whose latest book, "Baltimore: Jewel of the Chesapeake," was published in June.