AMOS 'N' ANDY
Read G. Burgan
On January 12, 1926, radio history was made. Two white
men, Charles Correll and Freeman Gosden, stepped before
a WGN microphone in Chicago and slipped into character
as two black men. The series was called Sam 'N' Henry.
What makes this program important to radio history? And
who were Charles Correll and Freeman Gosden?
In 1926, radio was an infant. While many sensed its
potential, few knew what to do with it. Sam 'N' Henry
pioneered a whole knew genre -- character comedy. The
program was a comedy serial based on the day-to-day
situations that evolved in the lives of two black men.
The program showed that radio could sustain an audience
using a story that was continued from one show to the
Correll and Gosden not only created the characters on
the Sam 'N' Henry program, but they personally wrote all
of the dialogue and acted all of the parts in an ethnic
dialogue that was so convincing many thought black
people were actually playing the parts.
The Amos 'N' Andy radio series had three distinct
periods. The first period began in 1928 on the Chicago
Daily News station WMAQ where Correll and Gosden moved
after two successful years and 586 episodes on WGN.
But there they faced a problem. They wanted to continue
doing the same kind of program they had done on WGN. But
WGN owned the rights to the Sam 'N' Henry program.
Undaunted, the two men set out to develop a new program
that would build on the experience they had gained in
the old program.
After considerable study, they settled on the names of
Amos Jones and Andrew Brown as their key characters. The
Amos 'N' Andy show debuted on March 19, 1928 on WMAQ.
Like their earlier program, this one was also a comedy
whose humor was based on black characters and the
situations they faced in depression America. The
program's basic premise was simple. Two black men move
from Atlanta to Chicago to make their fortune. They
found the Fresh-Air Taxicab Company of America,
Incorpulated on one asset -- a broken down car with no
top or windshield. Each episode revolves around their
attempts to stay solvent, Andy's philandering, the
activities of the lodge the Mystic Knights of the Sea,
and a host of characters that eventually exceeded 500. A
typical episode included nine or more characters.
During this first period, Correll and Gosden wrote all
the scripts and played all of the characters. This
required skill in character development, an
understanding of microphone techniques and great care in
developing the script. Part of the character
differentiation was through the pitch of their voices.
Correll, who played Andy, used a low pitched voice to
portray his character as boastful and domineering.
Gosden played Amos with a thin, excitable high pitched
voice. But in addition, Correll added depth to his
character by working the microphone only an inch a way
from his lips. Gosden on the other hand played his
character from nearly two feet away from the microphone.
When they played the other characters on the show, they
would alter the pitch of their voices, the distance from
the microphone and the dialect in which they spoke. To
enable them to make the necessary position changes
required, the scripts had to be carefully constructed.
During these early years, they did not rehearse their
program. In listening to recordings of this period, one
is impressed with how skillfully Correll and Gosden slip
from one character to another, matching pitch of voice,
dialect and distance from the microphone flawlessly and
At the same time, these episodes are fairly dull by
contemporary standards. Much of the comedy is based on
word play. "The weather was abdominal." "She was
enstrangled from her husband." "'You tell him that 'n'
you're gonna antagah the man, make him mad.' 'Aunt Tagah?
I've had a lot of aunts, but never one named Aunt Tagah!'"
Since Correll and Gosden played all the parts during
this period, no female voice was ever heard, even though
the plots often involved women. The women are discussed
but never heard. If they communicate, it's over the
telephone or by letter.
Correll and Gosden were meticulous in their attempts to
develop credible black characters. They spent a
considerable amount of time among black people and were
respected by black leaders at that time for their
sensitive treatment of blacks. Each time they developed
a new character, they carefully honed a personality and
dialect that would be distinct and faithful to people
While the caricatures they developed dripped with flaws,
the program was never mean spirited or demeaning in its
portrayal. While Amos was gullible, he was a hard worker
whose ideas often got Andy out of his many scrapes. Andy
was full of hot air and lazy, but he always protected
Amos from anyone else who might dare to take advantage
The comic flaws that characterized Amos 'N' Andy were
not based on race. No one would ever have concluded that
Amos, Andy, Kingfish, The Widow Parker or any of the
other myriad of characters on the show were typical of
black people, anymore than one would have characterized
the dimwitted Chester Riley (The Life of Riley) or the
loudmouth Fibber McGee as typical of white people. They
were funny characters who happened to be black.
At WMAQ, Correll and Gosden pioneered in another way.
They wanted to expand the program to other stations. To
do this, they developed what they called, the "chainless
chain." Until the late 1970's, radio networks fed their
programming to affiliated stations on dedicated
telephone lines. A network web of stations was called a
"chain", since they were tied together by the
interconnecting telephone line.
But many stations, WMAQ included at this time, did not
belong to a network. Correll and Gosden decided to
record the program on phonograph records and distribute
the program to affiliated stations by that means. This
put added pressure on them since the scripts had to be
written at least six weeks in advance to allow for the
recording, pressing and distribution of the
transcriptions to the affiliated stations. Eventually
forty five stations carried Amos 'N' Andy in this
manner. In addition, the Chicago Daily News introduced
an Amos 'N' Andy comic strip which was written but not
drawn by Correll and Gosden.
In 1929, NBC offered Correll and Gosden one hundred
thousand dollars a year to bring the program to their
radio network. The first fifteen minute network episode
of Amos 'N' Andy was aired on August 19, 1929 on NBC
under the sponsorship of the Pepsodent Company. The
program was heard Monday through Fridays at 7:00 pm
until 1943. When Amos 'N' Andy moved to NBC, the
Fresh-Air Taxicab Company moved to Harlem and Correll
and Gosden moved to Hollywood.
How popular was Amos 'N' Andy? Many movie theatres
postponed the start of their evening movies until
7:30pm. Others advertised that the evening episodes of
Amos 'N' Andy would be piped into the theatre. Without
these concessions, their patronage dropped dramatically.
In some cities, you could walk down the street on a warm
summer's night and never miss a word of the popular
comedy, because everyone in the neighborhood was
listening and the dialogue wafted to the streets below
from the open windows.
But nothing lasts forever. By 1943, the program's
ratings had slipped to sixtieth place. The program was
in trouble and Correll and Gosden knew it. In February
of 1943, the final fifteen minute program of Amos 'N'
Andy was aired. Multitudes of listeners were shocked
when the program disappeared from the airwaves for
nearly eight months and never returned in its daily
fifteen minute format. Gosden was 43 and Correll 52.
What would come next? After nearly twenty years of the
same format could they change?
The second period for the Amos 'N' Andy program began on
October 8, 1943 and continued until 1954. In this new
phase, the basic story and characters remained the same.
But instead of a daily fifteen minute series, the
program was aired one evening a week for half an hour.
No longer did Correll and Gosden do all of the parts.
Oh, they still did up to ninety percent of them, but now
they had a whole cast of actors. Women were actually
heard on the program. Staid announcer Bill Hay was
replaced by exuberant Harlow Wilcox. Sam Pierce became
one of the show's producers. Professional writers Bob
Connolly and Bill Moser did the writing. The program
included a live orchestra and sound effects personnel.
Perhaps the most important change was the status of
Amos. As the half hour program developed, the Kingfish
became the regular foil of Andy, and Amos all but
disappeared. The program might well have been called
Andy 'N' Kingfish. But of course it wasn't. Amos was
just too subtle for this 1940's version and had to make
way for someone with more substance.
These were dramatic changes but they did the trick. Once
again the program returned to the top ten radio programs
and remained there for several years.
But radio itself was changing in the 1950's, and in 1954
the Amos 'N' Andy program entered its third and final
era. It returned to a daily Monday through Friday
format, as a fifteen minute show called the Amos 'N'
Andy Music Hall on CBS, where it had moved in 1948.
Many of their fans were disappointed with this format,
in which they played current popular records, engaged in
short dialogue and interviewed a guest entertainer. But
if some fans were disappointed, this program is
noteworthy because it pioneered some new techniques.
Correll and Freeman had reached the point where they
wanted to have more time for personal pursuits. Sam
Pierce who produced this series for them recalled the
"They asked me if there was any way we could do a show
without laughter and still have it play. I said I didn't
think so. We pre-taped five shows with the cast and
played the first one on the air at CBS.
"We received a call from the head of CBS, Bill Paley,
who said 'That's a terrible show!' It really wasn't a
terrible show. He just missed the audience. So I said,
'I'll tell you what I'll do. If I can put laughter in
the show that you will buy, will you go for it?' And he
said, 'No! I don't believe in any of that trick stuff.'
Now this was before there had been any laughter added to
any shows. I said, 'Let's just see what we can do. Maybe
we can get an audience and we'll see how the show
"I took the next show and got a marvelous editor, Jack
Laddie, who deserves all the credit for that show as far
as putting laughs in. We spent the whole night adding
laugh tracks that we took from old Jack Benny shows. We
developed a whole new technique of rolling laughter in
an editing room with three tape machines. We played that
on the air the next night and Mr. Paley called and said,
'Well you got an audience and the show is now right!'
From then on, the Amos 'N' Andy Music Hall never had an
That sometimes created a problem for Pierce. "A client
would call and say, 'Listen, we've got some people
coming out who want to see a show. Can you get us
tickets?' I'd have to say, 'I'm sorry. The tickets are
all gone for this whole week. We can't get any."
Listening now to those broadcasts, it's easy to detect
the canned laughter. But for better or worse, it ushered
in a whole new approach to broadcast comedy. But Pierce
and his crew took the art of tape recording even further
in an attempt to minimize the time necessary for Correll
and Gosden to do the program.
"Freeman and Charlie would work one day a week on five
shows. They would come in the studio, read the lines
with the cast and tape it. When it came to the guest
part, I would read the guest to Freeman and Charlie, and
they would react as Amos and Andy to the guest. Then I
would take portable equipment and an engineer and go to
wherever the guest was -- at a studio shooting a
picture, at his home, wherever they were. We had guests
like Jimmy Stewart and Jack Benny, so we were not
fooling around. They were top people.
"Then I would play Amos and Andy to them, and they would
read back against my Amos and Andy. Then I would go back
and take my voice out of the original tape track and put
the boys' voices in against the star. We developed a
system where it took about one full day's work to do one
fifteen minute show, just to get that inner cut and the
The Amos 'N' Andy Music Hall survived until 1960. In the
interim, an attempt was made to move the program to
television. Since Correll and Gosden were white men
playing black roles, the very stars of the program had
to be replaced. By this time, some of the radio actors
on the program were blacks and they were integrated into
the new series.
The program was not a success. The entire southern loop
of the television network refused to carry it. In
addition, the rising self consciousness of black America
caused many to resent the stereotypes represented by
Amos 'N' Andy. While the program was run in syndication
for several years, it was not popular and subject to
What were Correll and Gosden like when out of character?
Sam Pierce describes them this way: "You had one very,
very stern serious man who was the brains of the whole
thing, and that was Freeman Gosden. He used to scare me
to death. When I first went to work for Freeman Gosden,
I was one of the most upset guys you'll ever know. We
finally had it out one time and from then on Freeman and
I became close friends and good friends.
"Freeman was serious, Charlie was a heavier,
lighthearted sort of guy who knew he had it made -- he
had all the great parts. Charlie wasn't as concerned
with life and government or anything else. Freeman was a
serious man in terms of everything. He took his place in
the world seriously. He was a great friend of President
Eisenhower's and worked very hard on the campaign to get
In retrospect, Amos 'N' Andy was a period piece. One had
to be a part of that period to really appreciate how two
white men playing two black men could hold a nation
entranced. Its creators were gifted men who pioneered
many techniques now taken for granted. Broadcasting owes
a great debt to the role they played in maturing radio
into a true entertainment medium.
-- The End --
Author's Note: The quotations from Sam Pierce are from a
one hour recorded interview made by the author at the
Voice Of America studios on March 24, 1975.
Read Burgan is a free lance writer and a former public
radio station manager who can be reached at (906)