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  • Dan Connors

The Andy Griffith Show- my return to Mayberry

How did a pair of Jewish and Arabic comedians create a sitcom that captured the heart of America and the top spot on television for almost an entire decade? The Andy Griffith Show debuted in 1960 and it transported the very young medium of situation comedies to a rural setting that sparked many copiers like The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, and Petticoat Junction. I recently did a months long binge of the show to see why it remains so beloved- some 63 years later. I was born too late to appreciate the show when it aired, but many of the episodes still hold up, as rabid TAGS fans will tell you.

The Andy Griffith Show was originally created as an episode of the Danny Thomas Show. Danny Thomas (father of Marlo and benefactor of St. Jude's) already had a popular long-running comedy Make Room for Daddy. He teamed up with Sheldon Leonard to develop this show and one other sitcom treasure- The Dick Van Dyke Show. Griffith was hired and given significant input and ownership of the show as it developed. Set in Mayberry, NC, the town was based on Griffith's own home town of Mt. Airy, NC, which still has festivals celebrating the show.

Many of the more popular shows of the 50's (I Love Lucy, Leave it to Beaver, The Honeymooners) centered around urban and suburban environments, and the small-town atmosphere of Mayberry hit a nerve that the rapidly urbanizing US audience responded to. Even today, many people long for the simpler times and slower lifestyles of small town America, even if they weren't nearly as rosy as depicted here. The Andy Griffith show rarely dealt with any controversial topics and people of color were rarely seen on the show. It was an alternate reality. In that sense, watching the people of Mayberry struggle with how to enter nasty tasting pickles into a county fair is a welcome respite from current shows that struggle with racism, drug use, and climate change.

Is the show funny? Andy Griffith is not the funny man in this show. Most of the comedy comes from his deputy, Barney Fife, played by the bug-eyed goofball Don Knotts. Knotts won 5 Emmy awards for his work on the show (2 of them for guest appearances after he'd already left to do movies.) Griffith played the straight man to Knotts' overzealous and fragile deputy, and the show somehow found a way to milk the craziness while Griffith's gentle prodding kept things from going off the rail. The supporting cast includes a very young Ron Howard as Andy's son, and marks one of the first of many times a single parent was the focus of a sitcom. (Happily married couples can be boring, and watching Andy date and struggle with parenthood gave the show added dramatic and comedic possibilities.)

The citizens of Mayberry remind me of the citizens of Hooterville- simple country folk who get into mischief that Andy has to unravel in his wise but gentle way. The Andy Griffith Show was a good template for shows like Green Acres and Newhart, where a "normal" person is surrounded by colorful characters who provide the actual comedy.

The show can be divided up into three sections:

1- The original, black and white episodes from the first five seasons. These all include Don Knotts and are rated the best by viewers.

2- The last three seasons in color after Knotts left and they tried to replace him. These episodes are rated low by viewers in general, even though the show held top tv ratings all the way up to the very end.

3- The aftermath and spinoffs, including Mayberry RFD, The New Andy Griffith Show, and several reunion movies. With a show this popular, it was inevitable that they would run it into the ground, and I'm not aware of any of these that are worth watching.

Here are some other tidbits I gathered from my TAGS binge:

Don Knotts, who wasn't in the original pilot, was signed to a five year contract. By the fifth year he hadn't heard from producers and began entertaining film offers. They finally offered him a new contract but by that time he had already committed elsewhere. The show was never the same without him.

Dick Van Dyke's brother, Jerry Van Dyke, was considered for Knotts' replacement as deputy, showing up in one episode. He took a starring role in the ill-fated My Mother The Car and missed a chance to join tv royalty.

Comedian Jack Burns was hired to be Knott's replacement at the start of season six, but fans didn't take to him, and he was quietly written out of the show with no mention of why his character left. They decided to not replace the deputy character, instead focusing on others townspeople like Goober Pyle, Howard Sprague, and Floyd the Barber.

Jim Nabors played Gomer Pyle in the earlier episodes and successfully spun off his character for the Gomer Pyle USMC sitcom. Pyle's simple-minded character fit right in for Mayberry but caused plenty of comedic tension at the marine base (filmed just yards from the Mayberry set in California). Nabors was gay, a fact that never came up for most of his career, and sort of shatters the idyllic straight Southern stereotype of Mayberry.

Andy was paired with several women during the show. Ellie was his girlfriend in season one and she quietly left the show due to lack of chemistry between the two. He briefly dated a woman named Peg in season two, before finding Helen Crump, his son Opie's teacher. The two finally married during the spin-off series, Mayberry RFD.

The theme song was whistled at the start of every episode, and it was titled "The Fishing Hole." Little Ron Howard was shown throwing a rock into the lake, but because his throw couldn't reach it, an offscreen member of the crew threw the rock instead.

Mayberry was remarkably crime-free, a great place for a laid-back sheriff and bumbling deputy. Its main criminal activity was related to alcohol and moonshiners, but occasionally an out-of-town crook showed up, to be slyly outwitted by Sheriff Taylor and Deputy Fife. Taylor rarely carried a gun, and Fife had a gun, but only one bullet that he kept in his pocket.

Barney fancied himself something of a ladies man, which was odd given his appearance and fragile ego. He flirted with a waitress named Juanita while also dating Thelma Lou, eventually leaving her and the town at the end of season five. An attempt to reunite with her failed in season six because she had married someone else. Barney at his core was a tragic character, and the balance of humor and pathos made him fascinating to watch. He was lucky to have Andy around to prod him into doing the right thing eventually.

Ron Howard is the only surviving main cast member. He went on to star in other movies and the popular TV show Happy Days before turning to directing. Some of the guest stars and lesser cast members are still alive, and still do appearances at TAGS events like Mayberry Days, an annual celebration of the show in Mt. Airy, NC.

The Andy Griffith Show became so beloved because it presented an idyllic setting where life was gentler and funnier. Oddly, it originally aired during the 1960's, a turbulent decade full of war, assassinations, race riots, and rising protests about women's rights, the environment, and the Vietnam War. Some probably fantasize about getting back to that idyllic setting, but it was both fictional and fleeting. Personally, I'd rather be transported to the silliness of Green Acres Hootersville, but the gentle humor and community spirit of Mayberry seems inviting as well. A show like this could never be made today.

All 8 seasons of the Andy Griffith Show are available on DVD and paid streaming services. About 16 episodes from season 3 are in the public domain because of failure to renew copyrights. They can be accessed here.

Here is one of my favorite segments, when Barney comes clean about himself and his relationship to Andy.

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