Amos ‘n’ Andy Explained (Jun, 1930)
Amos ‘n’ Andy Explained
By A. A. BRILL, M.D. As told to Michel Mok
DR. A. A. BRILL is known as the ablest man in his field in this country. He brought psychoanalysis to America and has written two widely read books on the subject. In this absorbing article, he brings all his vast knowledge and experience to bear in an effort to show you exactly why the Amos ‘n’ Andy craze is now sweeping the country. He goes to the very heart of the matter and makes clear the secret of their great popular appeal.
I DISCOVERED, not long ago, a new phenomenon in American life. Literally millions of persons of all ages and stations are listening daily to Amos ‘n’ Andy, the “comic strip of the air.” But they do more than that. They take an intense personal interest in the two characters, their ups and downs, their adventures. To thousands of men, women, and children Amos ‘n’ Andy are not fictitious figures. They are real, living human beings.
From the psychological point of view, this struck me as so remarkable that I decided to make some further investigation.
In recent months, I found, the Amos ‘n’ Andy popularity has grown into a veritable craze until now it is safe to say that, outside of the President of the United States, they are the best-known men in this country and perhaps the best-liked. As a matter of fact, it is a standing rule at the National Broadcasting Company that nothing is allowed to interfere with their program except the President, other high Government officials commandeering the radio for announcements of national importance, and SOS calls.
So anxious are persons in all walks of life to hear them that telephone conversations in the eastern part of the United States have decreased to an unprecedented minimum between seven and seven-fifteen, the Amos ‘n’ Andy period.
Officials of the Bell Telephone Company in New York told me that, though they were unable to compute figures, the condition actually existed.
AT MOVING picture theaters in the East, attendance at the so-called supper show, the performance between six and seven-thirty, has dropped to a marked degree. Astute managers, realizing the cause of the trouble, in some cases have installed radio sets and interrupt their shows between seven and seven-fifteen to give their patrons the benefit of the Amos ‘n’ Andy broadcast. This, however, is not a lasting solution of the problem, as a question of copyright is involved.
In social life, too, the team has made its influence felt. People refuse point-blank to attend seven-o’clock dinners unless the host assures them that he owns a radio. Between seven and seven-fifteen, radio stores in eastern towns and cities are crowded with persons who drop in from the street to hear their favorite comedians. In brief, the nation, in a manner of speaking, pauses while Amos ‘n’ Andy are on the air.
IN THE business world their effect also has been noted. Leaders in the radio industry report that, in the last few months, the Amos ‘n’ Andy craze has been responsible for a considerable increase in the sale of radio sets.
Not long ago, a traveling man told me that, in a small Massachusetts town in his territory, one of the two hotels captured nearly all of the traveling salesmen’s trade by installing a radio in the dining room.
When the team makes one of its infrequent personal appearances at a vaudeville theater, all box office records are smashed. And the men are mobbed when they are recognized on the street or elsewhere in public.
But this does not happen often, for few of their ardent fans know their faces or real names. Their names are Charles J. Correll and Freeman F. Gosden. Correll is Andy; Gosden, Amos.
Recently, the pair made a personal appearance at West Orange, N. J. At the close of their act, they were rushed by automobile to New York for their usual second broadcast. They were arrested for speeding. The comedians pleaded with the policeman not to delay them. Millions of people, they told him, would be disappointed if they did not reach New York City in time.
“Who are you, anyway?” asked the cop.
“We are Amos ‘n’ Andy.”
The policeman smiled. “You can’t kid me,” he said. “Tell that to the judge.” Correll and Gosden exchanged a significant glance. They began talking in their dialect. At once the cop was convinced and released them with profuse apologies. And that brings me to the question of the Amos ‘n’ Andy “lingo.” Perhaps the most striking evidence of their immense popularity is the fact that they are influencing the language. Persons in all walks of life are using their pet expressions. “I’se regusted” is heard on every hand. Men and women who never employed such phrases before now interlard their conversation with, “ain’t dat sumpin?” and “Check and double check.” Staid business men say and write “propolition,” instead of proposition, in their talk and correspondence.
BRIEFLY, then, we are confronted with a phenomenon the like of which has never been known before anywhere. What is the secret of Amos ‘n’ Andy’s tremendous popularity? How do they work their spell over millions? What makes their appeal so universal? They are not the best comedians ever to appear in this country. They are not the first “black-face” comedians, nor the funniest. Their material is not strikingly original, and neither are their methods of presenting it. What then, is the mystery?
I have asked dozens of people why they liked them. Usually, the answer was a smiling, “I don’t know.” A few replied, “Why, because they are funny.” Others answered, “Because they are so human.” One intelligent man said: “You sit in your chair for fifteen minutes, forget everything, and just laugh.”
Strange as it may seem, that, in a nutshell, was the correct answer, though the man scarcely suspected that his answer was correct. But the matter is a little more complicated than that.
In trying to find the reason for anyone’s popularity, it is necessary first to ask: In what does he excel? What is his specialty? In this case, the answer is: wit. Amos ‘n’ Andy’s specialty is that they seem to have an almost uncanny ability to make people laugh.
Now, from the earliest civilized times, those possessing that particular gift have been the darlings of humanity. They were forgiven anything. The court jester of olden days could be as impudent as he pleased; so long as he amused the king, he was immune from punishment.
WHY are funny men such great favorites? Because wit, or humor, is one of the outlets civilized man has evolved to give vent to pent-up emotions that are otherwise tabooed. Through it, he obtains release from repression and oppression; and escapes, temporarily, from the stress of reality. Laughter is a narcotic.
I said “civilized man” advisedly. For primitive savages and small children have no sense of humor. A little child laughs merely because it sees an older person laugh; it is pure imitation. The emotion is transmitted, but not the idea.
In children, a sense of humor begins to develop at the age of four or a little later. And it is noteworthy that at the same time the quality of the child’s dreams undergoes a change.
Dreams are a function of the mind to keep our sleep from being disturbed. For example, if a man goes to bed hungry, he might wake up in the night needing food. But his mind takes care of him. He dreams that he attends a dinner, where he is given plenty to eat.
The mechanism of dreams and of wit or humor is essentially the same. Humor and wit are nothing but modes of obtaining pleasure from a distortion of words and ideas. Like dreams, wit is one of civilized man’s means of freeing himself from oppression, and of realizing his desires, especially the forbidden ones, in a disguised, concealed way. This is the secret of the appeal of all comedy, including the particular brand dispensed by Amos ‘n’ Andy.
One of the elements of their success, then, is the lure of the forbidden. “But they are as innocent as the day is long!” I can hear you protesting. “Why, one of the beauties of their stuff is that it is absolutely clean.”
Right. But a great many things are forbidden in civilization that are not unclean in the least. One of these is to talk improperly. From the time we are children we are told constantly to speak correctly. If we do not, we are punished.
BUT there was a period in earliest childhood when we were free from this repression of civilized life. When we were very small, we were allowed to pronounce any word as we wished. More than thatâ€”the very speaking of words brought immediate results. All a baby has to do is to say “apple” and mother gives it the desired object. But it does not even need to say “apple.” Suppose the youngster pronounces it “bapple.” Mother understands and gives him what he wants just the same.
As a result, little children believe in what is called “the omnipotence of thought,” meaning that they believe that it is sufficient to think a thing and it occurs. From this belief we suffer a rude awakening when we are three or four years old. But all through our subsequent lives we unconsciously long to return to the happy, carefree days of childish babble.
Every time we have a chance to throw off the shackles of repression, we take advantage of it.
The college yell is a strong case in point.
“Rah-rah-rah!” the students shout. “Siss-boom-bah!”
Meaningless? Of course, but only in a way. By giving the yell, the boys vent their pent-up emotions. It really means: “Away with rhetoric, with logic, with grammar, with composition, with the classics! Down with repression! Down with the faculty! Down with all constituted authority! Back to ‘eenie-meenie-minie-mo!'”
LATER in life, except on rare occasions such as college reunions, we can no longer escape from repression in that way. But now come Amos ‘n’ Andy. And, in effect, they do take us back to the happy days of “eenie-meenie-minie-mo.” They say “regusted” and “propo-lition.” Their taxicab company is “incorpo-lated.” They call a manicure a “manana cure,” and the Interstate Commerce Commission the Interstate Commerce “Remission.” They tell each other not to be “disenrecouraged.” When their memory fails them, they remark: “I disremember.”
Puns and baby talk! No wonder children and grownups alike are extremely fond of them. For the children, “the lid is off.” Improper English is not only permitted, it is funny and admirable. Father and mother are laughing tears, just as they do when they take you to the circus. And the adults are given a quick return trip to the paradise of early childhood. One may be fifty and repeat what Amos ‘n’ Andy say; one may even use their expressions in a business letter without being considered foolish. The comedians have furnished the excuse.
But the necessity for talking properly is by no means the only oppression under which we chafe. We all are oppressed by somebody or something. One man is oppressed by his boss; a second by his competitors; a third by his bank; a fourth by the stock ticker; a fifth by his wife; a sixth by the policeman at the corner; a seventh by Prohibition or any other law. Government oppresses some of us; religion others. Many people are oppressed by poverty; a few by riches. Thousands are oppressed by ill-health and by real or fancied hard luck. Children are oppressed by their parents, their older brothers and sisters, their teachers. Ask a child what it wants to be when it grows up and nine times out of ten the answer either will be “a policeman” or “a teacher.”
ONE quick and easy means of escape from all these forms of stress is wit or humor. Laughter is the universal antidote. But some humor is more “sure-fire,” as they say in the show business, than others. Aside from their garbled words and puns, Amos ‘n’ Andy use few if any jokes or “gags.” They rely mainly for their laughs on situations. Besides, they have a peculiar ability for choosing apt and funny names for the various characters they introduce in their skits.
Their comedy is of the black-face variety. This always is “sure-fire.” From time immemorial, people have made fun of those minorities among them who did not speak the language well. Cultured human beings like to display their superiority over inferior classes and races by criticizing their grammar and pronunciation. The ancient Greek and Roman writers of comedies introduced in their plays characters speaking the dialect of subject races. In European plays, to this day, comic relief often is supplied by peasants talking dialect. In this country, the comedian usually is a “Dutchman” (really a German), an Irishman, a Jew, an Italian and, particularly, a negro. Mclntyre and Heath, with “The Georgia Minstrels,” in basically the same acts that Amos ‘n’ Andy do, were the longest enduring team in American vaudeville. They traveled up and down the country for more than half a century. Conroy and LeMaire, another black-face team, also continued successfully for a very long time. The records made by Moran and Mack were the biggest sellers in the history of the phonograph business. Al Jolson is the highest paid entertainer in musical comedy and in the talkies. Why is dialect comedy so amusing to us? Because we ourselves have got away from our childish way of talking. And why is negro dialect funnier than any other? Because, so far as the English language is concerned, it resembles most closely the talk of children.
BUT the colored people themselves are great Amos ‘n’ Andy fans. This is explained by the fact that all oppressed peoples derive comfort from seeing themselves presented in an amusing light. The Jews are another example of this mental attitude.
As for situation, Amos ‘n’ Andy use the time-honored device of the big fellow bullying the little fellow, who, however, triumphs in the end by dint of greater smartness. Andy is lazy, stupid, conceited, and domineering. Amos is industrious, modest, submissive, but comparatively clever. This, too, is “sure-fire.” It is the idea underlying the Mutt: and Jeff comic strip, the widest read of all newspaper cartoons. It also is the secret of the tremendous success of Charlie Chaplin on the screen. Though there is no definite bully character in the Chaplin comedies, Charlie is the pathetic, oppressed little man faced by almost overwhelming odds. But because he is smart, he nearly always manages to outwit the police or whatever other force threatens to crush him.
Just a word as to the funny names Amos ‘n’ Andy use for their background characters. The head man of their lodge is called “the Kingfish “; the lodge itself, “the Mystic Knights of the Sea.” The colored woman running a beauty parlor is “Madam Queen.” These names strike us as particularly apt and right, because negroes in reality might actually use them. But that does not make them hilarious. For the psychological reason that they impress us as so very comical we again must go back to our childhood, when we established our superiority over others by giving them nicknames.
ANOTHER “sure-fire” quality in the Amos ‘n’ Andy comedy is that their humor is grim. Carefully analyzed, there really is nothing jolly about their material. The characters are in constant difficulty; their financial and love affairs are always in a muddle. But they make the best of a bad bargain. This is known as “the humor of the gallows.” It, too, is borrowed from the comic strips, the Chaplin and other screen comedies, and many earlier sources. It is the kind of humor that makes the spectator or listener feel: “Well, if those fellows with all their troubles can laugh at their hard luck, I am, after all, not so badly off myself.”
The secret of the Amos ‘n’ Andy success then, is that, either by accident or design, knowingly or instinctively, they have taken several “sure-fire” comedy devices and welded them into a wholeâ€”garbled words and puns, black-face dialect, the big-fellow-and-little-fellow situation, funny nicknames, and the humor of the gallows. And they present this mixture in a manner so childish and simple that it can be followed and understood by anyone without the slightest effort.
But even this, though it explains their universal appeal, does not account for their overwhelming popularity. This, of course, is where the radio comes in. One does not have to go to a theater to hear them. All one has to do is to be home at the time they broadcast, turn a dial, and “here they are.” It does not cost anything. In the words of my friend: ” You sit in your chair for fifteen minutes, forget everything, and just laugh.” The obvious result is that they are known to, and liked by millions, instead of thousands as might be the case were they popular stage entertainers. If the radio had been invented when Weber and Fields were at the height of their powers, they, too, might have had millions of admirers.
WHO are the workers of this modern miracle and how do they go about their business of amusing virtually an entire nation?
Gosden, the Amos of the pair, was born in Richmond, Va. Thus, the Southern dialect comes naturally to him. He is thirty-one years old, married, and has a twenty-months-old son. Correll, Andy, is a Northerner, a native of Peoria, Ill. He is forty and married.
The men met in Durham, N. C, in 1919, when both were employed by a Chicago concern that staged plays for amateur dramatic organizations.
They broadcast for the first time in the spring of 1925, from station WEBH, Chicago. On January 12, 1926, they went on the air for the first time as “Sam ‘n’ Henry,” black-face comedians.
Two years later, at the close of their 568th broadcast as Sam ‘n’ Henry, they created Amos ‘n’ Andy for station WMAQ, of the Chicago Daily News. In August, 1929, they began broadcasting over the National Broadcasting Company’s network, sponsored by a toothpaste company.
All of the Amos ‘n’ Andy material is written by Correll and Gosden themselves, usually between nine a.m. and noon. Correll (Andy) operates the typewriter, while Gosden walks up and down, usually jingling a handful of coins, a peculiarity of his. Both contribute ideas. Like composers of music, they mark their manuscript with the “mood” in which the dialogue is written, such as “sad,” “gay,” “lazy,” “peppy.” This is done so that “Bill” Hay, their announcer, can cast his announcement in the same tempo and mood as the rest of the broadcast.
THEY take their work very seriously, and, according to eyewitnesses, “live” their characters before the microphone. Correll projects Andy’s booming bass voice by speaking close to the microphone. Gosden produces his falsetto about a foot and a half away from the “mike.”
The National Broadcasting Company pays Correll and Gosden a salary of $100,000 a year for their Amos ‘n’ Andy broadcasts. A revealing sidelight on the characters of the two men is furnished by the fact that they split this princely sum in three parts, paying one third to “Bill” Hay, their announcer, for no other reason than that “he has been with us from the start.”
As this is written, they are negotiating with a motion picture company for the making of a talkie. It is said they will receive $250,000 for fifteen weeks’ work.
Exorbitant? Not a bit of it. Anyone who has the ability to make millions happy is worth all he can get.