Wednesday, January 02, 2008

53.The Andy Griffith Show

For a stereotypical cynical slacker like myself, “The Andy Griffith Show” would seem to be the last show that you would expect to find on a list like this. Especially since I don't enjoy it ironically like “Leave it to Beaver”. The list ranking of TAGS is based on its own merits and to add a caveat, this is only for the black and white episodes -- I've never seen the ones filmed in color.

What's there to like about the show; it's not particularly “real” or cutting edge. It doesn't really speak to where I'm from (geographically, socially and generationally) but it does say something. Much like “My Name is Earl”, after I watch TAGS I feel pretty good about myself and the world at large. Sure, the show is moralistic and some of the wisdom is corn-fed and homespun, however that's ok. That's what the show is about: being good to your fellow person and respecting them. The show has never apologized for this stance and they shouldn't because the Golden Rule is one that we should be trying to live by, not explain away. (Note: I am writing this the day after I made my New Year's resolution, so I still have a lot of optimism about myself and the human condition)

A lot of the things that make me laugh usually has some sort of disrespect tied to it; from making fun of someone to laughing at the shortcomings and bad luck of somebody else, I normally find that very humorous. And I know that I'm not alone, nor is this a new form of humor. Yes, during the past 15 years or so comedy culled from irony, sarcasm and cynicism has grown in leaps and bounds, but it's always been there. Don Rickles made an entire career on calling audience members hockey pucks and George Carlin and Lenny Bruce used sarcasm as an observational—mostly truth-telling sabre—that cut through the bullshit of the 60s.

Which brings us to “The Andy Griffith Show”. If you haven't seen an episode lately, Andy Taylor (played by Andy Griffith) was the single-fathered Sheriff of a small town in North Carolina called Mayberry who dispensed wisdom more than he threw people in jail. His son Opie was played by Ron Howard and his deputy and cousin Barney Fife was played by Don Knotts. Taylor's Aunt Bea (Francis Bavier) kept house and a variety of the town's characters (Floyd the barber, Otis the town drunk and Gomer and Goober) kept things interesting.

Andy is easily the most intelligent person in town and the bulk of his day is spent dealing with the less intelligent townsfolk. While I wouldn't call the average Mayberrian and idiot, they aren't far from idiot county. What makes this show work is that Andy doesn't lord his intelligence (which is really clear-thinking wisdom, Andy isn't about to split the atom any time soon) over the people he interacts with. Having an island of intelligence in a sea of stupidity has long been a (cliched) comedy staple, but the writers of TAGS don't normally stoop to that level. Andy treats his friends and people that he lives with a certain amount of respect and in turn they treat him that way too.

For example, Taylor knows that Barney Fife shouldn't be within 100 yards of a handgun, but he's a cop so he has to have one. Because he doesn't want him to shoot his big toe off, Taylor tells Fife to leave the gun unloaded and keep one bullet in his shirt pocket. Of course, Taylor doesn't tell Fife his reasoning which is why Barney goes along with his instructions.

Taylor deals with circumstances like this every day and with every person in the town.

As sheriff and brightest bulb in Mayberry Andy is the de facto mayor and if he wanted to, could use that position to his advantage. He doesn't. The only time that Andy's hackles are raised is when an outsider comes to town and tries to pull one over on the townspeople. When this occurs (and this was a story that the writers went to the well for a lot) Andy usually plays the “Aww-shucks, backward Southerner who is really smarter than expected” role to the hilt sending the offenders scurrying for the nearest big city where they can try to sandbag someone “less wily”.

In fact, this is essentially how the show began. Originally a spin off of “Make Room for Daddy”, Andy busts Danny Thomas (the star of MRFD) for running a stop sign. Thomas tries to big league Taylor and spends time in jail which makes him late for his show. After figuring out that he needs to respect Taylor and the Mayberry ways, Thomas is released and the audience learns that despite their modern conveniences and new ways city slickers don't always have it over their country bumpkin cousins.

Home style wisdom being the best solutions and life was better in an uncomplicated time were both undercurrents of the show. Many of the people who had televisions when this show was popular lived in the urban or suburban areas and had fast-paced, modern lifestyles. This show was an ode to slow living and patience. And since nothing catastrophic ever happened in Mayberry, one could argue that the overall message of the series was that the modern world is moving too quickly. One needs to stroll down main street, stop every once in awhile and talk face-to-face with your neighbors—learn about your surroundings. The end result is that you'll probably have a friendly society filled with more respect (BTW, I've alluded to or said the word “respect” more times in this essay that Ali G ever did during his show).

I think that is why I enjoy watching this show. I was born in 1974 so I am going to have to assume that most towns and cities weren't actually like this during the early 1960s. Petty grievances and gripes come up all the time and can not be solved in 30 minutes (minus commercials) with a drawl and some of Aunt Bea's famous peach cobbler. In real life, minor grievances and gripes tend to fester and turn into generational feuds that ruin families and destroy communities. But during this program, even if someone is angry with another, they always respected them enough to work their differences out.

And the respect that Andy, an officer of the law, is shown on a day-to-day basis is also refreshing. As someone who graduated a suburban high school the year after the Rodney King incident, blasted NWA's “Fuck the Police” from his father's Ford Tempo and has bitched about personal interactions with John Law (parking fines and speeding infractions) this reason may seem a bit odd. Though, I think that much of society's ills towards law enforcement is the result of the disrespect of the badge.

I've read articles and pieces about people who said that when they were kids, the neighborhood police officer was a position of great respect. Kids were taught that cops were their friends and should be the first person to run to while in trouble. During the last few decades, these thoughts have been turned on its ear. I've heard parents use the police as a scare tactic or worse, a threat; as in “If you're not good I'll have that policeman over there throw you in jail.” How does teaching a child to fear authority also show them to trust and respect the police? It doesn't; this type of parenting creates paranoia and disrespect towards authority.

Sheriff Taylor didn't have to deal with that and as such his town was a virtual utopia. Crime was nonexistent, people seemed happy. Of course respect is a two-way street and to pretend that there aren't crooked cops or people who mistake their badge as an all-access pass to take advantage of any and all situations would be naïve.

This idyllic world is a great world to live in, even if it is only for 30 minutes (minus commercials) and it's in black and white.

Bit of trivia for you: the title of the infectious theme song is called “The Old Swimming Hole”. I had no idea about that until today.

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