The Andy Griffith Show

(1960-68)

In The Andy Griffith Show, 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. Andy Griffith plays Andy Taylor, a well-adjusted guy with a well-adjusted son and an endearing aunt, surrounded by a town of very strange characters.

On the surface, Andy is sheriff of Mayberry in North Carolina. But he is really a young version of an old wise man and a benevolent helper who always knows how to make things right. He's an all-purpose peace-maker, self-esteem builder, and social problem-solver who sometimes works his magic without letting people know it was him. He is one of many characters in popular fiction who use their position as a base of operations to do good and keep society together, the most extreme example being Clark Kent, another mask-wearer who is forever saving the world as Superman.*

Andy's deputy, Barney Fife, played by Don Knotts, is the 90-pound weakling whose visions of grandiosity hide a vulnerable, brittle, soul. In this, he has a certain amount in common with Lucy. Like her, he is desperate to get some recognition and often engages in charades to do it, although most of his pretenses are in the nature of bragging, swaggering, and putting on airs. Inevitably, his efforts go awry, (like Lucy's) as he gets carried away with his grandiose fantasies. At times, Andy helps him succeed in pretending to be what he isn't, to boost his self-esteem.

Andy is the opposite of Barney, as the man who is comfortable being himself and content to let other people take the credit for things. Both engage in petty deceptions, one out of insecurity, one out of altruism.

The cast also includes the late Frances Bavier as Aunt Bee. Just as Andy makes the town a safe haven, so Aunt Bee creates a comfortable nest for her two bachelors: Andy, and his son, Opie, played by Ron Howard. Meanwhile, Andy provides a secure holding environment for Opie, offering him a combination of love and firmness, along with moral lessons that will ultimately turn Opie into another version of Andy.

In offering us this depiction, the show allows viewers to enjoy a sense of home and small-town wholesomeness, a commodity that is all the more precious today when social stability seems in short supply. By identifying with Andy, the audience derives a sense of what it is like to be a well-integrated, compassionate adult, who is at peace with himself and content to sit on the front porch and eat homemade ice cream. At the same time, it gets the sense of security he provides to others. By identifying with Barney, they get an idea what it is like to be vulnerable, constantly trying to not be a victim of one's own inadequacies. In addition, they get to laugh at the parade of crazies, (with a few other sane people thrown in): Floyd, the spaced out barber; Goober and Gomer, who embody friendly country bumpkin stupidity; the old-lady gossips; and the drunk who enjoys the accommodations provided by the town jail.

But The Andy Griffith Show never lets things go too far into farce, lest it interfere with the viewer's sense of security and good feeling. As in many sitcoms, things are always made right in the end, although given the sheriff's altruistic cons, the truth isn't always revealed to all the characters, so that appearance doesn't always conform to reality. But disruptions to the order of things are always restored; and people's self esteem and their relationships with each other are protected. What could not be corrected was the fact that most of town acted like it was out on a weekend pass -- from The Twilight Zone.

Addenda:

1. A more desperate variation on Barney's character reappears in Fawlty Towers in the guise of a hotel proprietor, Basil Fawlty, who similarly tries to appear more impressive than he is, (and is convinced he is more impressive than he is) and also tries to hide his inadequacies, as his charades collapse around him. Fawlty Towers is about humiliation: utter, total, and constant humiliation. It lets us take sadistic pleasure in watching Fawlty suffer and in looking down on him with disdain, as we identify with his disdainful wife, (played by Prunella Scales), even as we also sympathize with him and vicariously act out our own charades. Basil Fawlty is so funny because we know he is us, even as we take pleasure in knowing (hoping) we are never that pathetic.

2. One episode in The Andy Griffith Show has an interesting place in history. It played in 1960 and guest starred Susan Oliver as a seductress trying to use her wiles to trick her way out of the town jail. In the mid-60s, she went on to play Vina, another seductress using her wiles in another prison -- the underground world of illusions on the planet Talos IV -- in the pilot, The Cage, that launched the original Star Trek television series. The pilot aired sometime after the series actually started. It was incorporated into a two-part episode titled The Menagerie.

Andy Griffith and Comedy's Healers

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Footnotes: 
* This essay was also published in the July/August, 2000 edition of the NF Journal.
* Superman is your basic suffering savior, exiled from above into the mundane world to save humanity. Andy is a wise man who has learned to go with the flow. He'd rather play his guitar on the porch than agonize over life.
Superman saves all of humanity. Andy merely saves Barney's self-esteem. But then there's something to be said for depicting the little things in life.

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