By Denise NoeThe recent death of Don Knotts, the actor most famous for playing the high-strung, hilariously bumbling deputy Barney Fife on "The Andy Griffith Show," has focused welcome attention on that classic TV comedy.
Many people associate the program, set in a mythical bucolic small town called Mayberry, with an era of innocence. However, "The Andy Griffith Show" aired from 1960 to 1968 during one of the most tumultuous periods in American history. The wholesome program provided a refuge from news of the Vietnam War, the drug crises, the rising crime of the time period, assassinations, and riots.
Unfortunately, the program only had a single episode with a major African American character. In that, Rockne Tarkington was cast as Opie’s piano-playing football coach.
But the positive notes were many. For eight years, "The Andy Griffith Show" entertained millions, all without swear words, talk of bodily functions, or the faintest whisper of anything sexually explicit. It was not a children’s show but a show that could be enjoyed by all ages, including children. No parent ever had to fear that a young son or daughter would be exposed to anything age-inappropriate or hurtful to kids when watching the program.
Of course, no TV program ever succeeds because of what it doesn’t have. "The Andy Griffith Show" also had a lot. As observed in Transparency, “Americans got a chance to lose themselves in a depiction of home and small town, that was both comfortingly idealized and caricatured for its comic value.” It had memorable, likeable characters that were clearly drawn. Andy Griffith as Sheriff Andy Taylor, widowed father of young Opie (Ron Howard), brought a sense of easygoing wisdom and confidence to his role. In stark contrast to the many contemporary depictions of fathers as incestuous brutes or bumbling dopes, Andy Taylor was a fallible human being but one who was intelligent, caring, and responsible. Frances Bavier as Aunt Bee provided Andy and Opie as well as the program itself with a sense of warm domesticity. Supporting characters like Otis Campbell (Hal Smith), the town drunk who obligingly locks himself in a jail cell, goofy Gomer Pyle (Jim Nabors), and Andy’s love interest, pleasant schoolteacher Helen Crump (Aneta Corsaut), all helped to make the show a smashing success that is thoroughly enjoyable decades after it first aired.
The late Knotts, with his brilliant comic rendition of the skinny, overreaching, vain yet pitifully insecure Barney Fife, was the most strikingly humorous supporting character. The chemistry between Knotts and Griffith helped to really make the program.
Excellent scripts were also instrumental in making this an all-time favorite comedy. The program could be hilariously funny, especially when spotlighting one of Barney’s ambitious schemes gone awry, and it could also be heartwarming, and sometimes both at the very same time. There was often a moral but the moral flowed effortlessly from the situation so the audience never felt "preached at."
One of my favorite episodes was the “pickles” program. For all her domesticity, Aunt Bee was a complete failure at making pickles. Andy and Barney got rid of a terrible tasting bunch she had created and surreptitiously substituted store bought pickles. The unsuspecting Aunt Bee decided to enter them in the county fair. Andy paid a visit to the perennial winner of the fair’s pickle contest, Clara Johnson, and realized how important her pickle victories were to her. Thus, he and Barney had to find a way to ensure Aunt Bee did not enter the store’s pickles as her own.
Then there was the “Battle of Mayberry.” Opie began researching the famous battle that had passed into town folklore. He found that it was a simple misunderstanding fueled by too much liquor consumption and that the casualties were one cow, three deer, and a mule!
Perhaps one of the most powerful episodes was “Opie’s Hobo Friend,” in which the impressionable boy became fascinated by a hobo named Dave (Buddy Ebsen) who ignores the law to live a wanderer's life. Under his influence, Opie plays hooky and shirks chores. But after a talk with Andy, Dave realizes he must not become a role model for the child and finds a way to disillusion him with the hobo lifestyle without causing excessive trauma.
Ironically, in a TV interview shortly after Knotts’s passing, Griffith said that Knotts was a calm, confident man who had little in common with the character of Barney Fife.
So the acting too was excellent, but to me, the popularity of this show demonstrates that a creative storyline entertains in a far more enduring way than do cheap laughs or temporary "shock value."
A previous version of this was published on ModestyZone.net.