Off North Road
"I-Man Steps Over the Line"
Some of my friends will be disappointed this week that Don Imus has disappeared from morning news and comment. He said comedy was his business several times during this past week of TV upheaval in the wake of his dismissal from major radio and TV outlets. His racist remarks and others over the years finally caught up with him; the advertisers sponsoring his show drew back their bucks and the networks, facing big losses, said, "Enough. Go." I've watched a few of his morning shows as I tried to shake off sleep and get to the business of the day. One person's comment was apt; "I don't need to keep company with anybody else who has a bad morning disposition." I can't say I didn't laugh at some of Imus' remarks but felt pangs of guilt when they were offensive to large groups of people, at times to individuals of high public profile, the most glaring of which to me was the disclosure in the vernacular of an elderly woman's propensity to relieve flatus in public. Most of the time I turned off the box because I was uncomfortable and not amused by the continued Tomfoolery. Other times I'd shut down right away because I was offended. However, I never focused on the particulars of my distress with the show; it seemed simply uncivil and derisive of people not present which Imus would probably not think of doing were they present.
I got to thinking when the Imus story in the media began outpacing the war in Iraq: what the background and lead-ins to the present story were? What did I have to do with this large picture? A few innocent laughs at a contrived joke which couldn't be taken seriously? I asked myself. Well, it turns out that the Rev. Sharpton took them seriously. That's no surprise; he seems to look for situations to make hay for himself. That may be unfair but it is a widely shared opinion. Then, Gwen Ifil took it plenty seriously and so did Barack Obama and so, finally, did the big moneyed sponsors of the TV and radio shows. Had the times changed so much since I'd grown up with radio and movies and 1950's TV? I go back a way.
Edgar Bergen with Charlie McCarthy, a wooden "talking doll" in black tuxedo and monocle, were must-sees on Sunday evenings every week when I was in junior high school. We exploded with laughter at Charlie's quick take-up of cues by Bergen lips. (We could see them move a little!). The dummy eyed the pretty girls on the show with fresh quips which seemed very funny to the audience and us at home. These scenes may have been the early forbearers of the sexist turn on which so much humor was to travel in years to come.
Fred Allen's rasping nasal voice settled us down every week in the old living room on Tremont Street, New Bedford, for a half hour of domesticity in the Allen household. The inevitable opening of Gracie Allen's Fibber Magee closet with the cascade-crashing down of a hoard of mops, buckets, tin cans and an ironing board brought a huge laugh week after week. The show was not unlike the fabulously popular TV sit-com "Everybody Loves Raymond," now in re-runs. Modern comedy has many stereotypes, perhaps, more sharply drawn than back in the 1930s and 40s. Listen to Raymond's beautiful but screeching wife, Ray's mother Marie and her unending passive-aggressive interference with her married children's daily lives, Frank the father's insensitivity and coarseness and Ray himself a man from Mars. Have we become too accustomed to a harridan-wife, a mother-in-law from hell? The reasons they entertain us are the excitement they generate and a common experience we may identify with, albeit hardly to the elevation of the sitcom hour. Most of us have inhibitions about confronting a situation that makes us uncomfortable and so the play goes on and moves to a sense that these stereotypes may be reality.
Jack Benny made us laugh for a decade or more. Together with wife Mary and Rochester, manservant, they were ever ready to do their master's biding. We howled when he stood at the microphone and spoke in an unmistakably Negro dialect and fawning posture to the boss. Benny at least made most fun of himself, his stinginess near to larceny, the picture-perfect crabby old tight-wad, his excruciating violin playing and his refusal to grow older beyond 39, the first public airing of ageism, perhaps, as he fought off the inevitable with a wry smile.
"Amos 'N Andy" was one of the most popular radio shows of all time until its originators, Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll, both actors, brought it to TV in 1951. We were astonished to learn the cast of two was white until they recruited an all-Negro cast except for two brought over from radio. The cast portrayed a mixed group of disreputable but very funny characters and we all thought it was the greatest show on radio as we grew up toward high school. What a wonderful development bringing them into our own living room TVs. The NAACP had a remarkably different attitude. In August 1951, the "NAACP Bulletin" published, "Why the Amos 'N Andy Show Should Be Taken Off the Air." They said in part: "It tends to strengthen the conclusion ...that Negroes are inferior, lazy, dumb and dishonest.... Every character either a clown or a crook ... doctors shown as quacks and thieves ... lawyers slippery cowards ... women cackling, screaming shrews ... just short of vulgarity ... Millions of white Americans see this picture of Negroes and think the entire race is the same."
By 1966, after CBS scheduled re-runs, demonstrations and criticism dropped the market demand and CBS quietly withdrew from sale, in many peoples' minds a sad FINIS for a popular but fatally flawed show.
We should not be surprised how deeply rooted our prejudices and ignorance have become. There is no solution except to become exquisitely aware of our own feelings and to see if we can measure them against true reality and adopt new thinking and understanding of "the other." America has been a country of prejudice (fear and hate of people different from us) from its beginning. Good will and civility flowing from Americans will do more to protect our freedoms, particularly our First Amendment rights of freedom of speech than all the regulations a bureaucratic government may devise. Will we ever be able to confront a friend who begins a joke: "Luigi gets a little drunk and weaves his way to a bar to pick up a broad...."?
Historical Information about "amos'n andy" is from http://www.amosandy.com/REVIEW.