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THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW IS A NOSTALGIC AMERICAN POPULAR cultural masterpiece valid for all time. Consistently ranked in the top ten television shows (and number one during its last season), The Andy Griffith Show ran on CBS from October 3, 1960, through the end of the 1967-68 season. It has had perpetual mass appeal in syndication, and since its debut, it has never been off the air. Learning its origins, revealing some behind-the-scenes aspects, and reviewing many of the episodes have led to the identification of specific factors that have contributed to the show's phenomenal success and endurance.
The Andy Griffith Show is not about reflecting or projecting reality. The producers and writers did not attempt to blend the real world and the fictional world. Although some of the episodes made references to real movies, real TV shows, the Korean War, and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, the scripts never alluded to current events, not even to the four Nixon-Kennedy debates taking place during the first few weeks of The Andy Griffith Show.
The serenity of Mayberry was seemingly uninfluenced by hard news. In this respect, Mayberry is like the eye of the hurricane, a place of tranquility in a world of anything but that. Mayberry's problems and stressors were anything but the problems and stressors that most faced in the 1960s: unemployment, overcoming obstacles to voter registration, the quest for civil rights as Americans, sons fighting in a no-cause war, the uneasiness over the risk of nuclear war--the list could go on. Had the writers reflected the happenings in the real world, the show would have likely bottomed out in the ratings. Instead, it offered an avenue of escape from life's vicissitudes by depicting the simple life with small, solvable problems.
In spite of the hard news, the simple life of Mayberry thrived. In all 249 episodes, there are no mentions of fallout shelters, Vietnam, Cuba, Castro, Khrushchev, President Kennedy, the racial and student riots of the 1960s, the civil rights movement, or the Reverend Martin Luther King. Mayberry is immune from hard news.
The Show's Origins
The Andy Griffith Show was a spin-off of The Danny Thomas Show. Sheldon Leonard, the executive producer for The Danny Thomas Show, was approached by the top echelon of the William Morris Agency to see if he could create a part for Griffith, who was performing in a Broadway musical called Destry Rides Again. Although intimidated by the thought of working in the new medium, Griffith had told the agency that he was willing to make himself available for TV roles. Therefore, Arthur Stander, a writer for The Danny Thomas Show, and Leonard came up with the idea of an episode in which city-slicker Danny gets a speeding ticket. Leonard came to Griffith to discuss the part; Griffith did not like the plot at first, but he very much liked Leonard (Kelly 15).
Living in Rye, New York, at the time, during a week off from Destry, Griffith flew to Los Angeles for filming of the pilot episode at Desilu Studios. Griffith later admitted being nervous around Thomas. When the filming began, several personnel became curious about why Griffith's advent to television had been heralded and why he had been sent for the part. Griffith later found out that many on the set had been second-guessing Leonard. Griffith recalled, "[They] were talking and wondering why they had me out here. 'What is this magic they're talking about? This will never work,' they said, because I was wooden, very wooden" (Kelly 16). As the filming progressed, Griffith became looser: "His diction, intonation, and down-home anecdotes were something refreshingly new on television, and the audience welcomed the change" (Kelly 17).
The pilot episode aired February 15, 1960, at 8 P.M. C.S.T. on CBS. Five-year-old Ron Howard as Opie was featured in the pilot, as was Frances Bavier; however, in the pilot, she did not play the part of Aunt Bee, but instead was a widow who visits Sheriff Andy Taylor to report that a department store was harassing her for the unpaid suit in which her ne'er-do-well husband was buried. The role of the town drunk, Otis, who regularly locked himself in one of the cells to get sober, was also introduced in the pilot, but the part was played by Frank Cady (who later played the storekeeper Sam Drucker in Green Acres) instead of Hal Smith, who played Otis during the show's eight seasons (Kelly 17).
Thomas recalled that no rural sitcoms were on the air, but he and Leonard had heard Griffith's recording What It Was Was Football and knew that he would be ideal. After "Danny Meets Andy" was taped, Thomas and Leonard immediately discussed that it was definitely a pilot for Griffith's own show ("Thirty Years"). That episode garnered a rating of 25.0 ("Arbitron's" 26). Don Knotts, who had worked with Griffith on Broadway in No Time for Sergeants, happened to be tuned to The Danny Thomas Show that night. Knotts telephoned Andy and suggested that Sheriff Taylor needed a deputy and that he could play the part (Knotts v-i).
Six and a half months had passed between the pilot and the first episode of The Andy Griffith Show. On Monday, October 3, 1960, at 8:30 P.M. C.S.T., the CBS audience heard for the first time the theme song happily whistled by the show's music manager Earl Hagen, and watched a father and son with their fishing poles over their shoulders walk down a country road that more than likely led to their favorite pond. The first episode garnered a rating of 26.6 that night, almost twice as much as that night's Danny Thomas Show (14.2). During premiere week of the 1960-61 season, The Andy Griffith Show had the third highest ratings. The highest that week was Bob Hope (33.7), followed by Red Skelton at 28.3 ("Some New Shows Getting Good Ratings" 60). General Foods, the sponsor of The Danny Thomas Show, seized the opportunity to sponsor The Andy Griffith Show.
The episode begins with a shot of the double-doors outside the Mayberry Courthouse. The left door has a sign reading "Sheriff," and the door on the right reads "Justice of the Peace." Inasmuch as Griffith felt uncomfortable with double roles, Andy served as both justice of the peace and sheriff, at least in the early stages of the series. First, Andy is seen performing a wedding ceremony. The couple he is marrying are Rose, Andy's former housekeeper played by Mary Treen, and Wilbur Pike, played by Frank Ferguson.
Leonard recalled that they had not intended to make Knotts a permanent and essential part of the show, but instead to use him infrequently; however, when Leonard analyzed the scene in which Andy is washing the car and Barney comes to deliver a message, he saw real chemistry. Leonard said, "After watching that scene we all looked at each other and said 'OK, that's it. Let's get him tied-up; let's make sure he's an essential part of the show'" ("Thirty Years").
It Is Funny
A complication precipitates a series of comic events, and the comedic complication is resolved. This is a good starting point in listing and discussing the factors that have led to the show's phenomenal success. Griffith, "with a natural born North Carolina drawl" ("Andy Griffith, Sheriff of Mayberry") was ideal for the part of sheriff of Mayberry, North Carolina. "Mayberry is modeled loosely after Griffith's own hometown of Mt. Airy" (Freeman 68). In Knotts (vi), Griffith recalled that initially Sheriff Andy was to be funny, but almost instantly, Griffith realized that he should play straight for Knotts. Griffith believes that the hilarious character Barney is the chief component that makes the show so popular. Although the interaction between Barney and Andy seems simplistic, the audience member soon realizes that the two are extremely fond of each other. They will stick together in spite of what they say to one another. Griffith observed that Aaron Ruben, the producer of the show during its first five years, saw to it that perfectly suited material was provided for each one. An example of Ruben's sitcom acumen occurred when he was handed a script that depicted Barney fainting after his gun went off. Ruben adroitly observed, "I don't think he'd better faint because if he faints this week, he'll have to faint funny next week, then next time he will have to faint funnier and soon the credibility of the character is gone" (Kelly 44).
The humor from character rather than from jokes is what made the Griffith Show funny. After the show had been running for a while, the writers weaned themselves from trying to write jokes. Knotts recalled that the show rarely used "jokes," and when employed, they were well disguised. A tenet of Griffith, who also helped to write the scripts, was that if it sounds like a joke, throw it out (Kelly 32).
Griffith recalled the harmony among the writers of the show. Typically, when Hollywood's writers worked on a sketch or scene, if one of them thought of something funny, someone might say, "Hey, I said that ten minutes ago." Griffith said, "If ... [one of the writers] said something funny ten minutes ago it didn't matter [on our show]. The only things that did matter were: did it work in the script, did it work in the scene, was it funny, did it …