“You Big Dummy!”: An Essay on Sanford and Son, the iconic black sitcom that Influenced television forever.

Most people that the 70's sitcom Sanford and Son was (and still is) one of the funniest, edgiest, and most memorable sitcoms ever made, and certainly one of the most iconic sitcoms featuring a black cast. Well, what most people don’t know is how truly influential and groundbreaking it really was, and that even today we wouldn’t have made it as far as we have had as a culture with African American based comedy without it. Sanford and Son was the legit first mega sitcom hit starring an all black cast that everyone of every color watched and the first black sitcom to make it to the coveted “100th episode” not to mention go past it. During its six season run on NBC, Fred G. Sanford, his son Lamont and all their friends made television history and I’m here to make sure that history is shared with all of you, so sit tight and enjoy this little history lesson or else I’ll put five of these ‘cross yo lips!

Chapter 1: “Amos ’n’ Andy.”

You can’t really appreciate the significance of Sanford and Son’s success without us first discussing the actual first black sitcom ever made, Amos and Andy. The 1951–1953 CBS sitcom takes the crown as the actual first sitcom starring an all black cast ever.

Premise:

Amos Jones and Andrew “Andy Brown” are best friends and live in Chicago sharing a rooming house on State Street and ran their own business the Fresh Air Taxi Company. They get into wildly comical adventures with their friends: George “Kingfish” Stevens, Sapphire Stevens, Lightnin’, Ruby Jones etc.

Backstory:

Gosden and Correll were white actors familiar with minstrel traditions. They met in Durham, North Carolina in 1920. Both men had some scattered experience in radio, but it was not until 1925 that the two appeared on Chicago’s WQJ. Their appearances soon led to a regular schedule on another Chicago radio station, WEBH, where their only compensation was a free meal.[8] The pair hoped that the radio exposure would lead to stage work; they were able to sell some of their scripts to local bandleader Paul Ash which led to jobs at the Chicago Tribunes station WGN in 1925. This lucrative offer enabled them to become full-time broadcasters. The Victor Talking Machine Company also offered them a recording contract.

Since the Tribune syndicated Sidney Smith’s popular comic strip The Gumps, which had successfully introduced the concept of daily continuity, WGN executive Ben McCanna thought a serialized version would work on radio. He suggested that Gosden and Correll adapt The Gumps for radio. The idea seemed to involve more risk than either Gosden or Correll was willing to take; neither was adept at imitating female voices, which would have been necessary for The Gumps. They were also conscious of having made names for themselves with their previous act. By playing the roles of characters using dialect, they would be able to conceal their identities enough to be able to return to their old pattern of entertaining if the radio show were to be a failure. Instead, they proposed a series about “a couple of colored characters”, which, nevertheless, borrowed certain elements from The Gumps. Their new show, Sam ’n’ Henry, began on January 12, 1926, and fascinated radio listeners throughout the Midwest. It became so popular that in 1927 Gosden and Correll requested that it be distributed to other stations on phonograph records in a “chainless chain” concept that would have been the first radio syndication. When WGN rejected the proposal, Gosden and Correll quit the show and the station; their last musical program for WGN was announced in the Chicago Daily Tribune on January 29, 1928. Episodes of Sam ’n’ Henry continued to air until July 14, 1928. Correll’s and Gosden’s characters contractually belonged to WGN, so the pair was unable to use the characters’ names when performing in personal appearances after leaving the station.

WMAQ, the Chicago Daily News station, hired Gosden and Correll and their former WGN announcer, Bill Hay, to create a series similar to Sam ’n’ Henry. It offered higher salaries than WGN as well as the right to pursue the syndication idea.[14] The creators later said that they named the characters Amos and Andy after hearing two elderly African-Americans greet each other by those names in a Chicago elevator. Amos ’n’ Andy began on March 19, 1928 on WMAQ, and prior to airing each program, Gosden and Correll recorded their show on 78-rpm discs at Marsh Laboratories, operated by electrical recording pioneer Orlando R. Marsh. Early 1930s broadcasts of the show originated from the El Mirador Hotel in Palm Springs, California.

For the program’s entire run as a nightly series in its first decade, Gosden and Correll provided over 170 male voice characterizations. With the episodic drama and suspense heightened by cliffhanger endings, Amos ’n’ Andy reached an ever-expanding radio audience. It was the first radio program to be distributed by syndication in the United States, and by the end of the syndicated run in August 1929, at least 70 other stations carried recorded episodes.

Move to Television:

Hoping to bring the show to television as early as 1946, Gosden and Correll searched for cast members for four years before filming began. CBS hired the duo as producers of the new television show. According to a 1950 newspaper story, Gosden and Correll had initial aspirations to voice the characters Amos, Andy and Kingfish for television while the actors hired for these roles performed and apparently were to lip-sync the story lines. A year later, both spoke about how they realized they were visually unsuited to play the television roles, citing difficulties with making the Check and Double-Check film. No further mention was made about Gosden and Correll continuing to voice the key male roles in the television series. Corell and Gosden did record the lines of the main male characters to serve as a guideline for the television show dialogue at one point. In 1951, the men targeted 1953 for their retirement from broadcasting; there was speculation that their radio roles might be turned over to black actors at that time Adapted to television, The Amos ‘n Andy Show was produced from June 1951 to April 1953 with 52 filmed episodes, sponsored by the Blatz Brewing Company. The television series used black actors in the main roles, although the actors were instructed to keep their voices and speech patterns close to those of Gosden and Correll. Produced at the Hal Roach Studios for CBS, the show was among the first television series to be filmed with a multicamera setup, four months before I Love Lucy used the technique. The series’ theme song was based on radio show’s “The Perfect Song” but became Gaetano Braga’s “Angel’s Serenade”, performed by The Jeff Alexander Chorus. The program debuted on June 28, 1951.

Downfall:

This time, the NAACP mounted a formal protest almost as soon as the television version began, describing the show as “a gross libel of the Negro and distortion of the truth”, and that pressure was considered a primary factor in the show’s cancellation, even though it finished at #13 in the 1951–1952 Nielsen ratings and at #25 in 1952–1953 Blatz was targeted as well, finally discontinuing its advertising support in June 1953. It has been suggested that CBS erred in premiering the show at the same time as the 1951 NAACP national convention, perhaps increasing the objections to it. The show was widely repeated in syndicated reruns until 1966 when, in an unprecedented action for network television at that time, CBS finally gave in to pressure from the NAACP and the growing civil rights movement and withdrew the program. It was pulled from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s television network, which had been broadcasting it for almost a decade. The series was not be seen on American television regularly for 46 more years. The television show has been available in bootleg VHS and DVD sets, which generally include up to 71 of the 78 known TV episodes.

When the show was cancelled, 65 episodes had been produced. The last 13 of these episodes were intended to be shown on CBS during the 1953–54 season but were released with the syndicated reruns instead. An additional 13 episodes were produced for 1954–55 to be added to the syndicated rerun package. These episodes were focused on Kingfish, with little participation from Amos or Andy, because these episodes were to be titled The Adventures of Kingfish (though they ultimately premiered under the Amos ’n’ Andy title.) The additional episodes first aired on January 4, 1955. Plans were made for a vaudeville act based on the television program in August 1953, with Tim Moore, Alvin Childress and Spencer Williams playing the same roles. It is not known whether there were any performances. Still eager for television success, Gosden, Correll and CBS made initial efforts to give the series another try. The plan was to begin televising Amos ’n’ Andy in the fall of 1956, with both of its creators appearing on television in a split screen with the proposed black cast.

A group of cast members began a “TV Stars of Amos ’n’ Andy” cross-country tour in 1956, which was halted by CBS; the network considered it an infringement of their exclusive rights to the show and its characters. Following the threatened legal action that brought the 1956 tour to an end, Moore, Childress, Williams and Lee were able to perform in character for at least one night in 1957 in Windsor, Ontario.

Chapter 2: The Rise of Sanford and Son.

After the cancellation of Amos & Andy there wouldn’t be another all black sitcom produced for the next two decades thanks to the NACCP’s short sightedness. Instead of getting Amos & Andy cancelled I feel that it would’ve been much smarter and better for the African American viewing audience had there just been discussion of making sure to show more range in the black experience on the show instead of more monolithic portrayals. But… the damage was done and the black audience as well as actors, writers etc. suffered for it, because for those two decades there wouldn’t even be an attempt to do another sitcom starring an all black cast. In the 60’s we got major roles for black actors in series such as Julia, I Spy, Mission: Impossible, Hogan’s Heroes and Star Trek, but that was as far as it went until television icon Norman Lear got an idea, to take a show from the UK called Steptoe and Son about a British father and son that run a junkyard business, and put it in America and make it black.

Highly acclaimed sitcom director\producer Bud Yorkin who directed many iconic sitcoms in the 70’s including All In The Family also had a big hand in developing the show and breaks down what makes the show so special:

Cementing the greatness to come was in the dress rehearsal for the pilot episode where the cast of All In The Family sat in to watch and laughed their behinds off. Carroll O’Connor even remarked to Bud and Norman after the rehearsal that “This is the greatest show ever made, I’ve never laughed so hard, it’s the funniest thing I ever seen” etc. This cinched the deal and NBC officially bought Sanford and Son. On January 14th, 1972 the pilot episode aired on NBC and was a smash hit right away. Demond Wilson told Get Tv: “Sanford and Son was the first all-black cast on network television since Amos and Andy. When the pilot aired, it got a 52 (ratings) share, which is unheard of. It outdrew the World Series.”

Chapter 3: The Legacy continues.

Demond Wilson also told Get Tv:

“Hollywood is not very creative. They jump on the bandwagon. As a result of our success they said, “Okay, black shows. We’re going to go with that.” So Good Times, The Jeffersons, That’s My Mama, Chico And The Man and all these other ethnic shows (got picked up). If we had failed, there wouldn’t have been any black shows for another decade. So, it wasn’t really groundbreaking, it was moneymaking. Of all the television shows that have been done since the 1950s, only a handful of them have survived. As long as pop culture exists, Sanford And Son will be part of it.”

Demond is quite right, because all those shows mentioned owe a huge debt to the success of Sanford and Son. But as much as television shows with casts of color as the leads owe a debt to Sanford and Son, so do the shows that were directly influenced by it like Fox’s Martin from 1992–1997.

Martin Lawrence was such a huge fan of Sanford and Son that it’s obvious that a lot of the Martin show was influenced by the show. The tone, the humor and certain character dynamics, especially the verbal battles between Martin Payne and his arch rival Pam that are reminiscent of the iconic Fred and Esther verbal assaults:

Like Sanford and Son, for the 90’s Martin was and still is considered the greatest comedy of its era. It’s the true heir to the Sanford and Son royalty, but, there’s nothing like the first and Sanford and Son will always have the amazing legacy of paving the way for comedies with black casts as well as pushing the envelope with politically correct and hilarious humor that still gets belly laughs today as it did then.

Epilogue: All hail the king of sitcoms!

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Kendall is a screenwriter who’s a huge fan of classic tv and movies. He enjoys creating good stories and characters. https://www.facebook.com/kendall.rivers.3

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Kendall Rivers

Kendall Rivers

Kendall is a screenwriter who’s a huge fan of classic tv and movies. He enjoys creating good stories and characters. https://www.facebook.com/kendall.rivers.3

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