- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 28, 2005

With their antics on Bravo’s “Being Bobby Brown,” have the bad boy singer and his wife, Whitney Houston, replaced the notorious 1950s sitcom “The Amos ‘n Andy Show” as TV’s most outlandish example of buffoonery and negative stereotypes for blacks?

They’re definitely within striking distance.

Since its June 30 debut, viewers of the reality show (seen Thursday evenings at 10) have witnessed Mr. Brown — better known for his marriage to a fading superstar and his frequent trips to jail than for his slender string of ‘80s dance hits — through an unfiltered lens. We’ve seen him leaving the pokey, attending a court hearing for reportedly striking his wife in 2003 (Miss Houston refused to press charges) and breaking into a hotel minibar during a rendezvous with his missis at a posh hotel. The former member of the ‘80s boy band New Edition smokes, swears and drinks nonstop and once graphically described his hands-on involvement in assisting Miss Houston with a bowel movement.

The potty-mouthed Miss Houston — now a pathetic shell of her former self — is even more lewd, frequently discussing the couple’s libido. A recent show saw Mr. Brown’s all-male camping trip interrupted when the diva rolled up in her sleek black Porsche convertible and demanded that he leave his friends to “take me in the woods, put me against a tree and work me over.”

The Browns appear to have no interest in employment. But there are frequent shopping sprees (including one in London); most likely paid for by residuals from Miss Houston’s earlier earnings, since neither performer has had a hit record in years.

In its time, “Amos ‘n Andy” was the target of a well-orchestrated protest by the NAACP. But with few if any positive TV images of blacks in the 1950s, there was no blueprint for the show to follow. By contrast, Miss Houston, once idolized for her talent and class, should know better.

“Where’s the NAACP now? And what’s more offensive — watching ‘Amos ‘n Andy’ or ‘Being Bobby Brown?’” asks Nancy Giles, an actress, essayist and contributing commentator on “CBS News Sunday Morning.”

“‘Being Bobby Brown’ is a train wreck, but TV has changed and audiences have changed — they want to watch train wrecks,” says Ms. Giles, who co-starred on the ABC drama “China Beach” and wrote and starred in “Black Comedy: The Wacky Side of Racism,” a one-woman play about the often confusing portrayal of blacks and other minorities by the media.

However bad the train wreck, Bravo is feeling no pain. “Being Bobby Brown” is a bona fide hit, giving the NBC-owned cable network its highest ratings for a debut series since late 2003 (the heyday of “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy”) and its best Thursday premiere in its 25-year history.

No one is crying foul. At least not yet — and certainly not to the degree they did over “Amos ‘n Andy,” which, for all its shortcomings, was never vulgar.

For nearly 30 years, up to 40 million radio listeners, black and white, had roared with laughter at the doings of George “the Kingfish” Stevens and his oft-duped pal, Andy Brown, voiced by the program’s white creators, Charles J. Correll and Freeman F. Gosden.

The TV program, which featured black actors in the title roles, debuted in the summer of 1951. Legal segregation still reigned undisturbed throughout the South. Racial discrimination was rife in the North. Opening arguments were beginning in the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education lawsuit that would end school segregation.

In this racial climate, many weren’t in a laughing mood. The NAACP certainly wasn’t.

After failing to win a court injunction to prevent CBS from airing the show, the venerable civil rights organization issued a scathing seven-point broadside titled “Why Amos ‘n Andy’ Should Be Taken Off the Air.”

The criticism was not without merit.

Most of the characters, with the exception of Amos (actor Alvin Childress), the calm and steady family man who owned the Fresh Air Cab Company, routinely spoke in dialect and butchered standard English. The character Lightnin’ (Nick Stewart) was particularly offensive, a lazy, dim-whitted shuffling janitor who despite his moniker, moved at a snail’s pace.

Even more troubling, though, to the NAACP was the depiction of black professionals. “Negro doctors are shown as quacks and thieves,” the NAACP said in its statement. “Negro lawyers [the character Algonquin J. Calhoun, played by Johnny Lee] are shown as slippery cowards, ignorant of their profession.” And the show overall, the group argued, “tends to strengthen the conclusion among uninformed and prejudiced people that Negroes are inferior, lazy, dumb and dishonest.”

The protest didn’t stop viewers from tuning in. For many blacks (even those who, in theory, agreed with the NAACP) “Amos ‘n Andy” — funny but embarrassing — became a somewhat furtive guilty pleasure.

The NAACP eventually prevailed. Despite Emmy nominations and consistently high ratings, CBS cancelled the show (featuring former vaudevillian Tim Moore as the Kingfish and actor/director Spencer Williams as Andy) after 78 episodes in 1953, though its reruns continued for another decade.

Other shows with predominately black casts would come and go in later years. But none would generate the same level of criticism.

And then came the Browns.

Sadly, they aren’t alone. Earlier this year, VH1’s “Strange Love” focused on the unlikely love match between B-movie actress Brigitte Nielsen (the former Mrs. Sylvester Stallone) and rapper Flava Flav.

A spinoff from another network hit, “The Surreal Life,” “Strange Love” documented the couple’s nonstop lust, Miss Nielsen’s frequent boozing and provided baby mama drama when Flav attempted to dodge the mother of two of his children, who was seeking child support. (For the record, Public Enemy’s Chuck D has publicly voiced contempt for Flav’s shenanigans, and the Rev. Paul Scott, a North Carolina minister, denounced “Strange Love” as a “modern day minstrel show.”)

Perhaps the lack of outrage over “Being Bobby Brown” is a sign of the times. Maybe in our seen-it-all pop cultural environment, we are incapable of being shocked anymore. Maybe we’re just too busy to be mad about the vulgar, televised self-display of a couple of has-beens clinging for dear life to celebrity — and each other.

Maybe it’s because today, unlike in “Amos ‘n Andy’s” day, there are other, more positive images of blacks available around the dial, so that no individual show has to bear the full weight of responsibility for racial images broadcast over the airwaves. Maybe, as a result, we can afford to ration our outrage at negative role models today.

Maybe that’s progress of a sort. After all, only a community very secure in its self-image could afford to be indifferent to the tedious and clownish spectacle of “Being Bobby Brown.”

Controversy still lingers

More than 50 years after its demise, “The Amos ‘n Andy Show” remains controversial. There are dozens of Web sites, several books have been written, and the furor sparked a 1986 documentary, “Amos ‘n Andy: Anatomy of a Controversy.”

Also in the aftermath:

• Creators Charles J. Correll and Freeman S. Gosden attempted one last revival of “Amos ‘n Andy,” this time as an animated series titled “Calvin and the Colonel,” in 1962. Although the two claimed to be confused and hurt by the controversy, both retired wealthy.

• Joe Connelly and Bob Mosher, writers on the television sitcom, went on to script two other hit series — “Leave It to Beaver” and “The Munsters” — and also wrote the story for the 1995 film “Major Payne,” which starred Damon Wayans. Writer Hal Kanter went on to direct episodes for another black series, NBC’s “Julia,” and was executive producer for the landmark CBS series “All In the Family.”

• While most of the talented cast rarely performed on TV, Tim Moore (George “Kingfish” Stevens) made three appearances on “The Jack Parr Show.” He also made headlines after firing a gun during an argument with his new in-laws over a roast beef. There were reportedly talks about a new series starring Mr. Moore and comedian George Jessel, writes author and University of Pennsylvania professor Donald Bogle in his book “Prime Time Blues: African Americans on Network Television,” but Mr. Moore died penniless in 1958.

• Amanda Randolph (Sapphire’s Mama) went on to another sitcom, the long-running “Make Room for Daddy” (later titled “The Danny Thomas Show”), on which she played the maid, Louise, from 1955 to 1964. Her sister, Lillian — who had a small role in the classic film “It’s a Wonderful Life” — was also a member of both the TV and radio casts in the recurring role of Madam Queen, Andy’s on-and-off-again girlfriend.

• Jester Hairston (socialite Henry Van Porter), a Tufts University graduate and noted choral director, had perhaps the most success. In 1963, he wrote the song “Amen” and also supplied the singing voice for Sidney Poitier’s Oscar-winning role in “Lillies of the Field.” Mr. Hairston returned to episodic television in 1986 as Deacon Rolly Forbes in the NBC sitcom “Amen!” and also appeared in uncredited roles in the films “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Being John Malkovich.” The last living member of the “Amos ‘n Andy” TV cast, he died in 2000 at age 98.

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