“The Andy Griffith Show” is on TV today.
Sure, it’s a rerun – if you’re lucky, it’s one in black and white and with Don Knotts as Barney Fife. (Seeing Mayberry in color drained it of life, perversely.) Maybe it’s the one where Opie kills the mother bird and cares for its baby as penance, or the one where Barney buys a car only to find out it’s a hot lemon, or the one where Aunt Bee makes bad pickles, dubbed “kerosene cucumbers,” for the country fair.
And if you miss today’s rerun, there’ll be one tomorrow. And the next day, and the next. There have been reruns of “The Andy Griffith Show” on the air continuously since the series ended its run, as the number one show in the ratings, in 1968.
So even though we lost Andy on Tuesday, at age 86, and even though he did more with his career than “The Andy Griffith Show,” he did nothing better, nothing more personal. And we can watch his best, most personal, work every day.
He never won an Emmy, but Andy Griffith was the guiding creative force behind “The Andy Griffith Show.” Griffithgrew up in the area portrayed on the show, and scripts included references to local towns and landmarks. One season, the show’s writers went to North Carolinain search of real stories and at least one was produced – the 1962 episode “The Cow Thief,” where a rustler puts shoes on a cow to disguise its footprints.
Griffith also grew up with a fierce appreciation of the power of radio – specifically, shows with dry, homespun, low key humor. When I interviewed him in 1984, I asked him about his favorite show. His choice: the radio sitcom-serial “Lum and Abner,” about two Arkansas storekeepers who would have felt right at home in Mayberry. “Those shows still stand up like a house afire,” he told me.
It was this same kind of style, of course, that was a hallmark of “The Andy Griffith Show,” especially in scenes played out between Griffith and the unparalleled Don Knotts as Deputy Barney Fife. The scenes didn’t really contain jokes; they were funny in the way standing around talking to friends is funny. And they were played with total sincerity. Take this one, from “One-Punch Opie,” where Andy and Barney are concerned that Opie is hanging with a bad crowd:
BARNEY: I don’t like it. I don’t like it one bit. I tell you this is just the beginning: goin’ around breaking street lamps — city property, mind you! Next thing you know they’ll be on motorcycles and wearin’ them leather jackets and zoomin’ around. They’ll take over the whole town… a reign of terror!
ANDY: Barney, these are just boys you’re talkin’ about. They’re only about eight years old.
BARNEY: Yeah, well today’s eight-year olds are tomorrow’s teenagers. I say this calls for action and now. Nip it in the bud. First sign of youngsters goin’ wrong, you got to nip it in the bud!
ANDY: I’m gonna have a talk with ’em. Now what more do you want me to do?
BARNEY: Well, just don’t mollycoddle ’em.
ANDY: I won’t.
BARNEY: Nip it! You go read any book you want on the subject of child discipline and you’ll find that every one of them is in favor of bud-nippin’.
ANDY: I’ll take care of it.
BARNEY: Only one way to take care of it.
ANDY: Nip it.
BARNEY: In the bud.
In the beginning, as it was introduced as an episode of “The Danny Thomas Show,” “The Andy Griffith Show” was going to center around its star, as the slow-talking but wily Sheriff of Mayberry – kind of a countrified version of the Phil Silvers character Sgt. Bilko. In the episode, series star Thomas is stopped in Mayberry for speeding – and when he tries to appeal the sheriff’s citation to the Justice of the Peace, he finds out that Griffith is the Justice of the Peace, too.
By the time “The Andy Griffith Show” premiered in the fall of 1960, a couple of significant changes had been made to give the show more heart and more humor – one was to introduce a new housekeeper, Andy’s Aunt Bee (Frances Bavier); the other was to introduce Andy’s deputy (and cousin), Bernard Milton Fife.
Griffith and Knotts had known each other since 1955, when they worked together in the Broadway production “No Time for Sergeants,” but Knotts was added almost at the last minute – his scenes in the first episode are completely separate from the main story, that of Opie’s acceptance of Aunt Bee. But in the show’s second episode, “The Manhunt,” Barney comes to the forefront. He unwittingly helps a convict escape and Andy, working behind the scenes, tricks the escapee into taking a leaky rowboat, ensuing his capture. The pattern was set – Barney would be hyper-aggressive in stopping what little crime happened in Mayberry, usually botching it, and Andy would defuse the situation.
But Griffith was still known as a comedian – he’d first gained fame for a comedy routine, “What It Was, Was Football” that had been a million-selling record. And in the show’s ninth episode, “A Feud Is a Feud,” he was to counsel feuding families with a backwoods version of “Romeo and Juliet,” another one of his record hits.
“That episode,” he told me in 1984, “was never worth a tinker’s dam.” He knew by then that Andy worked best as a reactor to the people and events around him, and he hated speaking in an exaggerated Southern accent. So the supporting cast grew more prominent in the stories and Griffith began toning down Andy’s twang.
“The Andy Griffith Show” was immediately popular – it was always comfortably hammocked on Monday night with the likes of “The Lucy Show” and “The Danny Thomas Show” – so there was little or no interference with Griffith’s vision. Everyone was happy – sponsors (General Foods – you can still see Griffith and the cast doing commercials for Post Toasties or Sanka on YouTube), the network, viewers. Knotts won five Emmy Awards as Barney.
But success meant outside offers.
In 1960, Griffith and Knotts had informally agreed to end the series after five years. So Knotts made a couple of movies and was ready to fly the coop. Based on the success of his film “The Ghost and Mr. Chicken,” Knotts signed a contract with Universal Pictures.
Griffith, on the other hand, was tempted by money – lots of it – to stay in Mayberry. So he agreed to do “The Andy Griffith Show” until 1968. Knotts made occasional appearances as Barney, who had moved to Raleigh to work for the police department in a menial job.
By 1965, the series had built a strong supporting cast – beyond Ron Howard as Opie and Francis Bavier at Aunt Bee, there was George Lindsey as Goober, Howard McNear as Floyd the barber and Hal Smith as town drunk Otis Campbell. But without Knotts, the series lost comedic strength and a good deal of its heart.
The show’s best year, arguably, was 1963. Knotts was still around, Jim Nabors was a regular as Gomer Pyle, and the episodes included the memorable “Man in a Hurry,” in which a hard-driving businessman’s car breaks > down in Mayberry and he learns to relax; “Barney’s First Car,” mentioned above; and “Ernest T. Bass Joins the Army,” with Howard Morris as Ernest T.
That same year, TV Guide, which had always been slightly patronizing toward the show and to Griffith, came to its senses and published a story about the show’s admirers, including Rod Serling, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Frank Sinatra and Gypsy Rose Lee.
It’s “one of the few genuinely funny comedies in the medium,” Serling said. “What hits me is that the people are all characters, not caricatures.”
Added Carl Reiner, “On that show they’re a lot more hip than homespun.”
Andy Griffith was not one to cater to the hip. But if they caught up with him, that was fine.