Primetime Blues: African Americans on Network Television
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Primetime Blues is the first comprehensive history of African Americans on network television. Donald Bogle examines the stereotypes, which too often continue to march across the screen today, but also shows the ways in which television has been invigorated by extraordinary black performers, whose presence on the screen has been of great significance to the African American community.
Bogle's exhaustive study moves from the postwar era of Beulah and Amos 'n' Andy to the politically restless sixties reflected in I Spy and an edgy, ultra-hip program like Mod Squad. He examines the television of the seventies, when a nation still caught up in Vietnam and Watergate retreated into the ethnic humor of Sanford and Son and Good Times and the poltically conservative eighties marked by the unexpected success of The Cosby Show and the emergence of deracialized characters on such dramatic series as L.A. Law. Finally, he turns a critical eye to the television landscape of the nineties, with shows such as The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, I'll Fly Away, ER, and The Steve Harvey Show.
and Correll had first played the characters on a local Chicago radio show called Sam ’n’ Henry. In 1928, the series was renamed and went network, running on NBC five times a week, from 7 to 7:15 each night. In the beginning, Gosden and Correll played all the roles, employing thick dialects and performing outlandish comic absurdities. Later African American performers such as Ernestine Wade, Nick Stewart, Wonderful Smith, Eddie Green, and Johnny Lee joined the cast. No one could have predicted
sitcom have done,” wrote critic David Bianculli, “is to take a popular performer of rap music and build a totally nonthreatening comedy about him.” Benny Medina seemed to agree. “Will is not threatening,” he said. “As the show develops, we will start to deal with some of the same things as N.W.A., Public Enemy, Ice Cube and artists with a much more radical way of communicating their life style.” That never happened. Will Smith’s inexperience as an actor also showed. TV Guide commented, “For all
toned down, he never evolved into another being, a really adult figure. With its exaggerations and absurdities, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air seemed to descend into farce. No doubt it was precisely this comicbook style that made younger viewers tune in. Variety reported that in its first season the series was “a solid performance. … It won its time slot five of eight weeks this season and has drawn strong shares among teens and young adults, its target audience.” It did better than such other
guts than ordinary observers could imagine, cast Negro comedian Bill Cosby in a feature role, then turned about in the premiere stanza and racked another ethnic group, the Chinese, with casting that was a throwback to Fu Manchu and dialog [sic] that would be more likely on the washroom walls of a southern bus station—‘give Charlie Chan a fortune cookie and he goes away happy.’ ” While heralding a new day for images of one minority group, I Spy had obviously fallen into the trap of rigidly
and deals in double-truth. The business of TV comedy is not primarily to make people laugh: it is to manage consumption; and if in so doing it dulls critical sensibilities in people who have ‘had a pretty grim day,’ it contributes its share to the rigidity of a way of life in which black Americans suffer more severely than others.” Others were also critical. Actor Harry Belafonte “launched a full-scale assault on Julia, then asked me not to do it,” recalled Carroll. Thus before Julia even aired,