Sunday, July 8, 2012

Missing Andy

It’s an interesting feature of human nature that, too often, it takes a person’s death to get us to fully comprehend the importance of that person to us.  You would think that after going through the process a few times, we wouldn’t keep falling for the same old prank, but we do.  It’s like we’re Charlie Brown.  We see Lucy holding that football, and we want to believe that she will let us kick it, even though we know, based on past experience, that it’s wrong to believe it.  So we go through our whole routine, and, well, you know what happens.  And then, as we’re lying on our backs with little Woodstocks circling our heads, we are confronted once again by the thing we somehow keep forgetting.  It’s not Lucy that suckers us into doing this every time; we sucker ourselves.  And the worst part is, even though we know it now, we also know that we will forget it again, probably right before the next time we come around a corner to see Lucy, holding an innocent-looking football and grinning sadistically…

In other words, it would be nice if we could fully esteem someone while they’re still around, when both we and they could reap the rewards of our heightened sense of appreciation.  But unless someone gives us clear and unmistakable advance notice of their imminent passing, there’s no real sense of urgency driving us to a full scale assessment.  It’s simply not the kind of thing that needs to get done today, like getting to the grocery store for milk, or washing the kids’ school clothes.  Our minds cling to the illusion of permanence, and we keep our daily stores based on the erroneous belief that things don’t change much from day to day.  I don’t know if there’s a whole lot we can do about that.  It’s seems to be the way we’re made.  Death just has a funny way of refuting that particular belief.  It also has a funny way of focusing our attention. 

These somber, perhaps even macabre, reflections come in response to the news of Andy Griffith’s death last week.  Strange that the passing of a TV sitcom actor would be the catalyst for such introspective spelunking, but there it is. 

Like millions of others, when I think of Andy Griffith, I think of The Andy Griffith Show.  And when I think of The Andy Griffith Show, I think of two things: the classic sitcom itself, and Griffith’s character at the center of it all, Sheriff Andy Taylor.

For my generation, The Andy Griffith Show is part of that great triumvirate of classic television sitcoms, along with I Love Lucy and The Dick Van Dyke Show.  Growing up in Phoenix, then-independent Channel 5 was the station that carried those shows, always clustered together like a prized, three-piece collection of rare Tiffany glass.  As I remember it, the classic order was The Dick Van Dyke Show at noon, followed by The Andy Griffith Show at 12:30, and I Love Lucy at 1:00.  There was a fourth (mostly Hogan’s Heroes, although other shows would sometimes supplant it for short stretches) that bridged the gap until Donohue started at 2:00. 

Throughout the seventies and eighties, no matter where you lived in this great land of ours, you probably had a Channel 5, and that station probably played the same trifecta of sitcom greats at least once every weekday on what appeared to be direct orders from God. 

Times have changed of course; the old, three-networks-and-an-independent-station-or-two paradigm eventually crumbled, then collapsed.  The rise of cable TV finally broke the indivisible (so we believed) bonds which held the glorious triumvirate together, and the individual shows have now been exiled to various far-flung channels in the sitcom equivalent of a diaspora. 

It may be that it is no longer possible for mere TV shows to occupy such a central place in our collective lives the way these shows did for us as we grew up.  The sheer proliferation of content and entertainment options may finally be overwhelming their ability to serve as a cultural touchstone.  As Stephen King would put it, “The world has moved on.”  This makes me a little sad, but only because I know the world will be the worse for it. 

Amongst the three, The Andy Griffith Show has the least in common with the other two.  Both Lucy and Dick Van Dyke were set in New York City and its environs.  Both were shows that were centered around show business: Lucy’s hubby Ricky Ricardo was a singer/entertainer in NYC’s high-profile Latin club scene of the 50’s, and Rob Petrie (Dick Van Dyke) was a writer for a popular variety television show.  Both shows relied heavily on physical comedy and slapstick humor, in both cases performed exquisitely by their singular stars.  Both Lucy and Dick Van Dyke exploited the dichotomy between work and home lives, and primarily focused on the rich vein of comedy to be extracted from spousal relationships and tensions. 

The Andy Griffith Show, however, took a contrarian approach on almost every major point.  Instead of the big city, the show was set in Mayberry, a tiny (and fictional) town in rural North Carolina.  It did not focus on the heady glamour of show business, but on the day-to-day, mostly mundane business of small town sheriffing.  There was no husband and wife tension, because there was no wife; Andy Taylor was raising young son Opie (Ron Howard) on his own, with the help of his live-in Aunt Bee (Francis Bavier).  The show didn’t have a supremely gifted physical comedian for a star, so Andy Griffith relied more on low-key humor, powerful insight, and the interactions of an insanely inspired cast of characters.    

Andy Griffith was the first successful sitcom to generate the special kind of magic, alchemy really, that can come exclusively from what I call ‘menagerie comedy’ (which is only because I've never heard it called by an actual name, so I had to make one up).  Anyway, in 'menagerie comedy,' you take an earnest, solid, steadfast main character, and then surround him (or her) with a bunch of supporting characters who possess zany and/or quirky personalities.  It becomes like a trip to the zoo, only with strange, exotic, funny people instead of animals.  You lock your well-intentioned main character inside the gates, open all the cages, and then sit back and watch (if it’s done skillfully enough) as hilarity ensues. 

Personally, this is one of my favorite forms of comedy.  My own comic strip, Noman’s Land, was constructed from this blueprint.  And it’s a form of comic storytelling whose lineage can be traced directly backwards in time from 30 Rock and The Office to NewsRadio, Cheers, Northern Exposure (a wonderful example of the same principle, although not a sitcom), Taxi, WKRP in Cincinnati, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, just to name a few, until you end up at The Andy Griffith Show.  In its turn, Andy Griffith probably owes an inspirational debt to the great sketch comedy from the decade before, programs like Your Show of Shows.  The key was getting the proportions correct within the context of the half-hour sitcom, combined with the inherent advantages of a persistent story and characters, which allowed it to accomplish what those great sketch comedy shows couldn’t do:  transcend into the collective consciousness of successive generations. 

That’s the kind of thing that comes to my mind when I think about The Andy Griffith Show.   When it comes to Sheriff Andy Taylor, there are many things we could talk about:  his integrity, humility and compassion as sheriff, his decency, thoughtfulness and honesty as a father, his home-spun wisdom, his impact as a role-model on millions of people.  But upon reflection, what is most striking to me right now has something to do with his Southernness. 

For our generation, and those before, there weren’t many TV shows set in the South.  In fact, in the Midwest at least, there wasn’t much of anything available to us about the South.  I was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and lived there for much of my early childhood.  We didn’t know much about the South, other than what we read in our textbooks about the Civil War, and what we overheard our parents, or the TV set, talk about in the news.  Either way, the impressions left behind were not generally positive.  In my young mind, the South was a largely dark, mysterious, unspokenly off-limits place for a Midwestern boy.  It was also a monolithic place, the South; a bloc, an undistinguished mass.  If there was a difference between Baton Rouge and Memphis, or Memphis and Charleston, or Charleston and Huntsville, Alabama, we weren’t equipped to know what it was; and furthermore, we wouldn’t have even known why it should matter.  It was all the same; it was the South.  The same went for the people there, too, once you made the initial, necessary division of Southern Black and Southern White.  Deprived of information and a variety of examples, the Southern White condensed into a Looney Tunes image of a Hatfield, or a McCoy.  It actually didn’t matter which one, since they both looked, and acted, the same.

It must have taken a great deal of courage for Andy Griffith to bring his Carolina drawl to Hollywood, to resist changing who he was in order to be successful in the face of such deep, pervasive ignorance (not to mention the total domination of the entertainment industry by non-Southerners).  There must have been times when he wondered how far he could go with his aw-shucks, Southern bumpkin persona, even though the bumpkin part was strictly illusion, and useful primarily for playing to - and preying on - the prejudices of the audience.  I can’t but wonder how tempted he might have been to ditch the accent, take the elocution lessons, and become just another fine actor, a charming, unconventionally handsome, solid, steady actor, like, say Fred MacMurray, for example.  

Fred MacMurray
Actually, MacMurray wasn’t from the South (he, like me, was from the Midwest); I invoke him solely as an example of the kind of actor Griffith might have been, had he been so inclined.  It’s an interesting comparison, and when you look at MacMurray’s distinguished and remarkably varied resume, you can see how a non-Southern-sounding Griffith would have likely had far more opportunities as an actor, especially in film. 

Thankfully, though, he didn’t.  He kept the accent, and in the end accomplished something far more important.  He brought a piece of the South to an audience of people who knew next to nothing (or less than nothing) about it, and imbued it with dignity, humor, wisdom, and maybe most profoundly, a sense of kinship.  He showed us a South that we needed to see, one that was in some ways similar to our preconceptions, but also one that we could empathize with, and feel deeply connected to.

The Andy Griffith Show turned some stereotypical notions of Southerners on their heads.  Take the notion of a gun-worshipping South as an example.  Andy Taylor, sheriff of Mayberry, didn’t carry a gun, and his deputy was so inept with one that he had to carry an unloaded weapon, and keep his carefully rationed, single bullet in the pocket of his shirt.  We think it hysterically funny, which it was, and is, but it was also a lesson.  Don’t believe the notion, the shows subtly intones, that we are all one thing or another.  It’s never true.   

When it came to being sheriff, Andy Taylor was no stereotypical Southern rube, although he allowed people (especially haughty Northerners) to think he was, if that’s what they thought they saw.  Nor was he the other kind of stereotypical Southern lawman: the redneck Napoleon who prides himself on a perverse taste for punishment.  Griffith’s character stood in steady defiance of those two easy and hackneyed clichés. Rational, competent, dedicated to justice.  Smart enough to know when to uphold the letter of the law, and when to uphold the spirit of the law, and wise enough to know that if justice is your goal, you must take the measure every time.  He is an example of the kind of lawman all reasonable people, no matter where they live, can only hope (or is it dream?) to have in positions of power.

The Andy Griffith Show cast a warming light over the dark, faceless South in a way few things have before or since.  We got to see an ebullient, endearing, humanizing portrait of Southerners and Southern life, and the South got to see a version of itself in the mainstream media that wasn’t a put-down, punchline, or flat-out insult.  In fact, it’s hard for me to believe that the show didn’t serve to ease those bitter, reclusive, subterranean tensions between the South and the rest of the country, and vice versa, at least a little bit.  I know my own conception of that part of the country has been influenced by the knowledge that towns like Mayberry could exist there, and that in those towns could be men like Andy Taylor.  

In recent years, however, it seems that the old conflict has been reinvigorated, and is striving to reassert itself in various forms.  North vs. South.  Liberal vs. Conservative.  Science vs. Religion.  Rich vs. Poor.  In the end, they all come down to the same thing:  Us vs. Us.  Instead of finding ways to bind ourselves closer together (e pluribus unum – from many, one), we seem to be eagerly reaching for the cleaver, and, with a butcher’s appraising eye, looking for the best places to cut.  Instead of focusing on what we share in common, we obsess over the discrepancies, turn the discrepancies we find (seek and ye shall find, the Good Book tells us true) into the whole, and then use that to justify our intolerance and righteous anger.  Instead of seeking to add more light to the room so we can see things more clearly and more truly, we snuff the bulbs, one by one, so we can safely attribute our actions to our fear of the dark.  It also helps assuage our misgivings when it’s too dim to see the faces of those we would rid ourselves of.    

Again, not the kind of thing you expect to read (or even think) when reflecting upon a sitcom and the passing of a TV actor, but there it is.  Andy Griffith was special. The Andy Griffith Show was special.  It played a special role in our lives, and perhaps in the life of our country.  But he’s gone now, and the show’s impact is in decline.  Whether this is something to be mourned probably depends mostly on individual perspective, but for myself…

I am missing Andy.


  1. If you want to see an example of his acting talent, watch his movie "A Face In The Crowd." It was his first movie and as far away from Andy Taylor as you can probably get. This performance was great.

  2. Actually did see the first part of that movie not too long ago. Very Southern, yet totally removed from his gentle sheriff persona.