Finally, America's all-time funniest television series is available on video, trumpets the TV ad. Like memories of an era long past but not forgotten, scenes of the stars insulting and joshing each other unfold once again.
But unlike "Leave It to Beaver" or "Green Acres," the return of "The Amos 'n' Andy Show" is not merely a case of another beloved series riding the nostalgia wave.
Driven by a stream of publicity and public awareness, the show is emerging from the shadows of a stormy past into a new light of rediscovery. And much of the increased interest comes from African Americans who are viewing the series with a new perspective.
For 31 years, "Amos 'n' Andy" has been virtually banished from television. The situation comedy about a Harlem-based group of lodge brothers--the first network show to feature an all-black cast--ran on CBS from 1951 to 1953. It then continued in reruns but was unceremoniously withdrawn from syndication in 1966 by CBS, which considered it too controversial because of prolonged protests by the NAACP over the way the characters spoke and behaved.
The furor over the series and legal disputes about who owns the rights to the program have combined to keep "Amos 'n' Andy" largely underground.
Most Americans have not been able to see the show since it went off the air, giving it almost a mythical status with a generation of TV fans. For years, episodes were only sold quietly through collectors and smaller nostalgia video outfits.
But now, a home video distributor has launched an aggressive marketing campaign as it makes episodes more widely available in such major outlets as Tower Records. Director Robert Altman and entertainer Harry Belafonte have announced plans for a movie about "Amos 'n' Andy."
The show still troubles many people. But mixed feelings about contemporary African American sitcoms and movies containing what some observers call outrageous characters and situations have prompted more interest in seeking out "Amos 'n' Andy" for comparison. And with the growing prominence of black writers, producers and directors, as well as a greater variety of roles for blacks, some African Americans and others regard "Amos 'n' Andy" with less resistance than they did in the past, when the involvement of blacks in Hollywood was more stereotyped and restricted.
"Most things mellow out over time, and what may have been offensive at one point is now comical," said Todd Boyd, an African American who is assistant professor of critical studies at USC's School of Cinema-Television. "As time passes, different circumstances arise and context changes. With quite a bit of historical distance, there is a different approach that we can apply in the 1990s that we could not apply before."
"I have 'Amos 'n' Andy' in my own collection. I go back and look at them and genuinely laugh," said African American actress-director Anna Maria Horsford, who co-stars in the WB network's "The Wayans Bros." "It's just like 'I Married Joan' or any other comedy during that time. It was just a slice of life of who these people are."
Even the national NAACP, which was instrumental in getting "Amos 'n' Andy" off the air, has taken a hands-off position on the series this time around, declining to comment on the show's resurgence. The president of the organization's Beverly Hills/Hollywood chapter says "Amos 'n' Andy" in many respects is more dignified than many black-oriented sitcoms on the air today.
Not everyone is laughing. The show can still provoke emotional responses from many African Americans.
"There is a stunning lack of consensus among black viewers when it comes to 'Amos 'n' Andy,' " said Melvin Patrick Ely, a professor of history and black studies at the College of William & Mary in Virginia, and author of "The Adventures of Amos 'n' Andy: A Social History of an American Phenomenon."
"Sometimes I will give talks on the series, and then show about five minutes of clips," Ely said. "At times audiences are very receptive and friendly, while others find it a total turn-off. Seeing it turns their stomach. I don't think there will ever be agreement on 'Amos 'n' Andy.' "
And some observers have objected to the packaging of the videos by Arizona-based Bridgestone Multimedia Co., which is making the current home video push. It makes no reference to the historical context of the images or the controversy surrounding the show.
"History taken out of context is inappropriate, and 'Amos 'n' Andy' has a history that is so rooted in controversy that it needs to be examined at the same time," said USC's Boyd. "To bring it back without examining the content is as problematic as acting as if [the controversy] never existed."
To counter such concerns, Bridgestone is making available an "Amos 'n' Andy" documentary made in the 1970s and narrated by the late comedian George Kirby. Shelly Barrios-LeVeille, vice president of sales and marketing, said the company hopes this will help put the series in perspective.