Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week, we’re starting coverage on the best of The Andy Griffith Show (1960-1968, CBS), which is currently available in full on DVD and Amazon.
The Andy Griffith Show stars ANDY GRIFFITH, DON KNOTTS, RON HOWARD, and FRANCES BAVIER. With ELINOR DONAHUE as Ellie.
I love The Andy Griffith Show. It’s a sitcom classic around which I have many happy after-school memories. But much like Leave It To Beaver, in the context of this blog, I don’t consider it a crowning piece of study. It’s not as funny, as consistent, or as character-driven as the best TV comedies we’ve featured, and because its maintained popularity has given most of us inflated ideas to the contrary, I wish I could pretend otherwise. I can’t; in terms of seasonal analysis, I’m not interested in dissecting the series too granularly because I know it wouldn’t increase my appreciation. Rather, it’s best to let the focus of these posts stay on the chosen episodes. For Andy Griffith is one of the most important ’60s sitcoms and the best of its type — the era’s most amusing warmedy with a modified nuclear family structure and a workplace buddy component that enables one of the finest comic performances of the decade (Don Knotts), all within an appealing small-town Americana package — and, unlike Beaver, there really ARE a healthy output of half-hour gems that make the series worthy of the kind of coverage we do here. But before we get to highlighting said gems, I have to go briefly into why the show is important in our big-picture look at the genre, and I’ll frame this discussion by explaining the criticisms I’ve leveled above via the elements of the series’ identity that define its main values. For starters, the show isn’t on the top shelf for humor — there are more hahas in an offering of early ’60s classics like Dick Van Dyke, not to mention the upcoming rural efforts by Paul Henning, than in Andy Griffith, and because any sitcom’s primary obligation is to make us laugh, this is a serious remark. However, I have to be fair and note that the show doesn’t want to be a riot — on the contrary, at the heart of its design is one of those evolved nuclear family setups that aims for gentleness, humanity, and warmth over laugh-out-loud comedy. We’ve since called these “warmedies,” and there was a wave of them in the ’60s — including two popular hits by Don Fedderson — even though this trend began back in the late ’50s, when the networks sought to put a wrinkle on the typical domestic formula by altering the family unit in some way, usually by substituting mom or dad with an outside parental figure.
With the sitcom, as a genre, in a slump at the end of the 1950s, putting a “wrinkle” in the usual formats was especially attractive, and as we’ve seen, many of the domestic comedies of 1960 sought to reach a more cosmopolitan audience by making suburbia seem “sophisticated.” This vehicle for Andy Griffith — a country singer and comic best known to viewers for his performances in the films A Face In The Crowd and No Time For Sergeants, the latter of which he also appeared in on Broadway, where, in 1960, he was just coming out of the musical version of the classic western Destry Rides Again — takes exactly the opposite tack, as a matter of sincerity, and sets its family up in a more rural environment. (More on this below.) Otherwise, the story of a widower raising a kid with help from his aunt is a very traditional low-concept premise and, unless tailored for a multi-cam that’s beholden to making a live audience laugh (like The Danny Thomas Show, which also had a season of widowerhood), it’s not a format built for guffaws. And there are no guffaws here, for no matter how much humanity we think Griffith and Frances Bavier and Ron Howard manage to instill in their characters, or how much we appreciate their relationships, they’re not primed for humor, just warmth. And even then, sometimes this smile-inducing warmth gets short shrift when the show turns either sanctimonious or dramatic — in episodes like “Opie, The Birdman,” a popular outing that contains ZERO laughs and therefore doesn’t deserve to be an exalted segment of a situation comedy, no matter how unfunny it wants to be. Frankly, Andy Griffith is actually lucky, for it came from the same creative well as the aforementioned Danny Thomas — we just highlighted its February 1960 backdoor pilot — with producer Sheldon Leonard taking an active interest in shaping the show and Thomas lending his pool of writers. Indeed, all 32 scripts from the first season are credited to at least one scribe who also worked on Danny Thomas, and their pronounced comic sensibilities keep this warmedy from being as humorless as some others from this era. In fact, even though the show isn’t a comedic titan (comparatively), it’s at least the funniest of the domestic warmedies — and being the best of this important subgenre is enough of a reason to celebrate it.
However, most of the comedy comes from a part of the series’ identity on which I think most of us are in agreement: the Mayberry courthouse where Sheriff Andy Taylor engages in workplace stories with his best pal and overeager deputy, Barney Fife. As teased above, I think Don Knotts’ Barney is one of the best performances of the decade, mostly due to the intuitive actor’s ability to elevate material by finding both humor and humanity in a series that only prioritizes the latter, and to say that scripts rely on Barney to supply the bulk of their hahas is an understatement, for as these lists prove, if you’re a viewer (like me) who seeks a sitcom’s com, then most of your favorites are going to involve him… well, at least in the first five seasons. This is where my second criticism comes into play — I chide Andy Griffith for not being as consistently enjoyable as other classics. Now, consistency is the challenge of all episodic television, but with so much of this show’s humor residing in stories heavily featuring Knotts’ five-time Emmy-winning performance, then episodes without him are obviously going to be lacking, both during the years where he’s a regular but isn’t a focus, and especially in the final years WITHOUT him. To wit, most fans divide the series’ run into two — the “black-and-white era,” which features Barney, and the “color era,” which doesn’t — between which there is often cited a major decline in quality: a demarcation so unmistakable that I almost want to challenge it, simply because it’s uncommon for series television to be so cut and dried; that is, usually a decline is slow and painful. And yes, we’ll discover that, by Knotts’ departure in 1965, the series is already coming down from its third season peak, but it’s really the loss of the show’s main laugh-generating character — not to mention the harder law enforcement workplace angle that serves as a tonic to Andy’s saccharine domestic world — that truly stops the series from being regularly comedic. Heck, I’ll spoil now that I find the last three years, and the ensuing Mayberry R.F.D. (the focus of an upcoming Wildcard), so mediocre that if I didn’t have to cover them, I wouldn’t… And yet, because of those early favorites — again, most of which are directly attributable to Knotts’ Barney Fife — it’s a worthwhile trade-off.
The disappearance of Barney isn’t the only major change in the show’s trajectory. At the same time Knotts left, the head writer from the first five years, Aaron Ruben (The Milton Berle Show, The Phil Silvers Show, Caesar’s Hour), departed to focus solely on the spin-off that he’d created the year before, Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. Ruben was replaced by Bob Ross (Amos ‘N’ Andy, The Real McCoys, Leave It To Beaver), who didn’t know the show’s humor as well. Additionally, over the course of the run, the rural part of the equation — the country vibe imparted largely from its star, who wanted the show’s fictional town modeled off his own birthplace in North Carolina — was diluted, such that the characters and their world became less regionalized and more generic. Mayberry became less a small country spot near the backwoods with characters who spoke and act like they came from a small country spot near the backwoods, and more like any charming small town in America — you know, a Main Street U.S.A. that you could find as commonly in North Carolina as in New England or the Midwest. This didn’t alter the show’s appeal — it was always relatable for folks all over the country — but the shift away from outright rurality does mark a loss of color in the descriptive sense, for there becomes less of a comedic distinction about Mayberry and its inhabitants, as they grow more generalized. Nevertheless, the show is always a good ol’ slice of neighborly Americana — a welcome and emotionally connectable part of its identity that assumes greater prominence once Knotts leaves, his replacement (Jack Burns) burns out, and the series no longer has a regular supply of workplace stories, forcing it to instead turn outward to the ensemble of Mayberry townsfolk (the main ingredient in R.F.D.) to sustain plots beyond the more prominent nuclear family. I think this is where a lot of my own disappointment sets in, for although this “small town” design is tailored for the creation of a wonderful cast that can be used in various recurring capacities, I sadly don’t think Andy Griffith is ever capable of regularly offering characters who are strong enough to either motivate stories or even exist in them as unique and individual. This was my third major criticism above: the show isn’t as character-driven as the best of its genre.
Now, the first defense here is to cite the show’s bevy of memorable players. But, apart from glorified guests like the Darlings and Ernest T. Bass, who have just enough caricatured definition to suggest the same type of story when they pop in once or twice a year, the regular inhabitants of Mayberry, in keeping with the show’s gentle tone, are not big purveyors of comedy, so they don’t ever get much by way of personas. Ask yourself: with the exception of Barney, who in town has an unmistakable comic voice and an ability to propel original story? Okay, Gomer maybe has an identifiable perspective, yet so much of that character’s usability has to do with Jim Nabors’ layer-adding portrayal, for when he’s replaced by his cousin Goober, who plays up the sweet imbecility but keeps it entirely on that dimension, the results are less satisfying, and story for him never goes past the broad strokes. (Also, much of our perception of Gomer comes from his spin-off.) Then you may be thinking of Otis, the town drunk. But aside from perhaps one or two episodes that do grant him something resembling humanity, you have to admit he’s a one-joke notion in the Darlings vein. (I’m not fully complaining — at least the show is employing a joke!) Meanwhile, the rest of the ensemble — the characters who fill out the world — are poised to provide extra laughs and additional story, but they seldom do so winningly, and it’s because there’s a distinct lack of individualization. Any idea for the Floyd character could just as easily be done with Howard. And in ensemble scenes, a funny line given to Emmett could have just as easily come from Jud Fletcher. They’re all of the same type — filling out the series’ notion of small town America, but without the distinct, bold choices that would benefit both the show’s humor and its regular need for story. So, what’s the point? Accordingly, the series — built with an eye towards character, but written by folks like Ruben and Ross who came from an idea-driven understanding — mostly uses narratives that make sense for the setting and the premise, putting the characters secondary. And even if YOU personally give the series more credit than I do for supplying ideas that fit said characters, I think it’s hard to deny that the show’s capacity for character exceeds their actual utilization.
But just like the family and Barney, the hometown’s amiable ensemble is vital to the series and one of its major draws. (After all, Andy Griffith ended its run as the most-watched show of the 1967-’68 season, and when Mayberry R.F.D. curdled as part of the so-called “Rural Purge,” it was — per my research — one of the only shows indeed axed while remaining popular and profitable.) Thus, the series’ utilization of all three core elements is largely what determines seasonal quality. As we’ve noted, the years without Barney suffer greatly as a result, and the same is true here in One, for although the family is already fully realized — it’s always the primary focus; just look at each premiere — it takes a little while for scripts to discover what a goldmine they have in Knotts, and his usage increases considerably until by Three, the series’ finest, when it’s obvious that the show is thriving because of the cultivated opportunities it affords him… and its ensemble. To that point, though I remain generally dissatisfied with how the cast is collectively drawn and used, there is strength in numbers, and if some of the later additions like Howard and Emmett are bland, then earlier peripheral players like Floyd the barber, introduced in One, and Gomer, debuting in Three, are slightly more fun (mostly because, thanks to Ruben, the first half of the run is written better than the second). And in this additive first half — before the show loses anything — more is better, meaning One feels somewhat lacking in relation to the two, even three, years ahead, when the show has increased opportunities… As for what makes Season One unique, there’s the presence of Father Knows Best‘s Elinor Donahue as Ellie, Andy’s first potential love interest. Unfortunately, like all of Andy’s gals, she’s a non-threatening non-sexual non-entity — no more capable of propelling comedic story than anyone in the cast — and while I’ve seen some fans try to argue in favor of her being a stronger, more oppositional force against Andy in comparison to the even less bold Helen Crump, this strikes me as debating the difference between vanilla and vanilla bean. However, Donahue is a more likable performer than Aneta Corsaut — and in Mayberry, likability counts for a lot.
That said, I don’t want to give the impression that I’m gritting my teeth through coverage or that I don’t consider the series worthy of being on our roster of classic sitcoms. On the contrary, I’ve married my chief complaints to facets of the show’s identity as a way to embed flaws as foundational, and therefore ultimately not a true liability to enjoyment. For instance, when it comes to comedy, Andy Griffith doesn’t want to be the funniest series, so expecting it to be is unfair. Sure, I can bemoan that humor is not more of a pressing concern, but the truth is, this makes the moments where the show is funny, particularly at home with Andy, Bee and Opie, all the richer. Additionally, if the show is inconsistent, primarily because it doesn’t always have Barney (or use him well), that means we end up appreciating Knotts and his usage more than ever. And, as I said, if the show doesn’t fully live up to its character-rich design by creating well-defined personas capable of propelling story, “there is strength in numbers” and everybody is a likable recurring player who aids the show’s warmth, making Mayberry a place we want to visit — a key part of its charm, for the gentle Americana is more than just pleasant: it’s inviting. Consequently, another thing that keeps Season One from being the series’ best is that it spends at least its first half working out its tone. These Danny Thomas writers, including former showrunner Arthur Stander, really know comedy and they set up Andy Griffith to be a jokier series than it’ll become, with Andy himself providing more of the humor, sometimes as a bumbler. But, for as much as I’ve critiqued the show for its often muted comic quotient, I recognize that it not only wants to be something else, it actually functions better as something else — a show that’s slower and sweeter, where Sheriff Andy is always right, and the bumbling is left to Barney (or some of the other side characters). If this is a blander take, it’s also a truer one, and I think the last benefit Andy Griffith really has going for it — in its best years — is that we buy the fantasy, both because we want to, and because the show earns our trust… So, let’s get to it; the episodes I’ve chosen below are the ones that I think reveal the show best — and with the most texture — through the delineated elements of its identity.
01) Episode 1: “The New Housekeeper” (Aired: 10/03/60)
Aunt Bee moves in with the Taylors, but Opie misses their old housekeeper.
Written by Jack Elinson & Charles Stewart | Directed by Sheldon Leonard
Following the Danny Thomas backdoor pilot, the series’ official premiere does a phenomenal job of redefining its core interests — particularly the family, which gets a new addition in Aunt Be — and introducing the gentle tone that will quickly come to permeate the series over the course of its first season and stick throughout the remainder of its run. It’s no comic or character gem, but as a sample of what the series is and wants to be, this is an ideal debut.
02) Episode 2: “The Manhunt” (Aired: 10/10/60)
State police think they know best when conducting a manhunt.
Written by Jack Elinson & Charles Stewart | Directed by Don Weiss
After the opener establishes the family as its main focus, the year’s sophomore outing caters to another part of the show’s identity: the workplace, with a “bad guy on the loose” story that works because, a) it doesn’t put the main characters in real danger — which this light series isn’t strong enough to handle — and b) it derives its comedy from the clash of rural vs. urban, as Andy and Barney find themselves in opposition with the arrogant state police. (Also, the recurring Emma, played by Cheerio Meredith, is great here, as usual.)
03) Episode 11: “Christmas Story” (Aired: 12/19/60)
A Scrooge-like store owner wants to join in on Andy’s Christmas festivities.
Written by David Adler | Directed by Bob Sweeney
One of the most popular episodes of the series, this — Andy Griffith‘s only Christmas-themed entry — was colorized several years back and shown by CBS in primetime. Admittedly, I never quite understood the affinity for such a sentimental premise-based show that puts so much of its stock in a guest character (Will Wright’s Ben Weaver), but my study clarified for me that this is the perfect encapsulation of the show’s emerging ethos, for it’s the first script since the pilot to shed some of its more forceful comedic ideas and discover the tonal modus operandi that works best. So, I consider this an important stepping stone in self-discovery, and for this (and the absence of an undeniable gem), I’m shocking you all and choosing it as my MVE.
04) Episode 15: “Those Gossipin’ Men” (Aired: 01/16/61)
Aunt Bee proves that Mayberry’s men are bigger gossips than the women.
Written by Jack Elinson & Charles Stewart | Directed by Bob Sweeney
Another facet of the series’ identity that we discussed above is its depiction of Americana via an ensemble of small town peripheral players, and though they will become more significant in later years when the show has to fill the Barney void, let it be known that they’re always an important element, even in One, where several stories make use of the town as a collective. This is among the funniest, with an amusing story kicked off by Aunt Bee.
05) Episode 17: “Alcohol And Old Lace” (Aired: 01/30/61)
Two moonshining spinsters use Andy and Barney to take out their competition.
Written by Jack Elinson & Charles Stewart | Directed by Gene Reynolds
I’m usually hesitant to favor episodes that derive so much of their value from a guest performance, because this undermines the importance of the regular characters and structure. But some series have a knack for creating iconic one-off roles, and Andy Griffith is among them, particularly when it comes to outrageous women (like the Fun Girls). This pair — sweet spinsters and secret moonshiners — is swell, largely thanks to an inherently comic premise.
06) Episode 20: “Andy Saves Barney’s Morale” (Aired: 02/20/61)
Andy tries to boost Barney’s ego after an embarrassing day for the deputy.
Written by David Adler | Directed by Bob Sweeney
Knotts, who won his first Emmy this year, provides moments of expert clowning throughout the first season, but this is the first great entry to take advantage of his unique character, in a story that improves upon a similar idea used months before in “Andy, The Matchmaker,” for now Andy has to help Barney’s ego after he foolishly gets power-drunk and arrests half of Mayberry while taking Andy’s place for the day. This will be a recurring notion in future years, but this script already has an understanding of character that makes it an early classic.
07) Episode 22: “Cyrano Andy” (Aired: 03/06/61)
Barney turns to Ellie after he thinks Andy is courting his beloved Thelma Lou.
Written by Jack Elinson & Charles Stewart | Directed by Bob Sweeney
This is my favorite of the Ellie shows and it’s not because of her or her relationship with Andy, but rather because it rightfully puts its comic focus on Barney, who jealously believes that Andy is going after his chosen paramour, Thelma Lou (Betty Lynn), who is the best of the “love interests,” because unlike Andy’s ladies, any woman paired with Barney has to be a little quirky. Barney’s pursuit of Ellie is the highlight, as is her tables-turning “come on” to him.
08) Episode 23: “Andy And Opie, Housekeepers” (Aired: 03/13/61)
Andy and Opie have the house to themselves when Aunt Bee is away.
Written by David Adler | Directed by Bob Sweeney
Although I seldom see this entry singled out among even this year’s best, this is a highly enjoyable half hour for the family because it reinforces the premiere’s key relationships by illustrating how important Aunt Bee is to the Taylors and also the terrific chemistry shared between Griffith and young Ron Howard, one of the most natural kid actors of the era. In serving the family part of the show’s construction, this is one of the first season’s finest.
09) Episode 25: “A Plaque For Mayberry” (Aired: 04/03/61)
Barney thinks he’s the descendant of Mayberry’s famous Revolutionary War hero.
Written by Leo Solomon & Ben Gershman | Directed by Bob Sweeney
In the category of ensemble Americana shows, this offering hits because of a fundamentally funny idea — the descendant of a Mayberry hero from the Revolutionary War is to be honored; naturally Barney thinks it’s him, but of course, it turns out to be one of the theoretically least honorable persons, Otis the town drunk. More than just a Victory In Premise, this one totally understands the characters and the small town — Dick Elliott’s Mayor Pike shines.
10) Episode 30: “Barney Gets His Man” (Aired: 05/08/61)
Barney accidentally catches an escaped convict who gets loose and vows revenge.
Written by Leo Solomon & Ben Gershman | Directed by Bob Sweeney
Yet another show where Barney’s ego is inflated and deflated while in the line of duty, this popular installment not only caters to the character who has quickly proven himself to be the series’ not-so-secret comedic weapon, it also enjoys a sense of genuine dramatic tension, as the characters are put in potential danger. This is an element that can be hit-and-miss, for the series is generally too light to handle any serious threat, but it’s potent when used well.
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “Stranger In Town,” another ensemble-led outing that puts too much emphasis on its guest, “The New Doctor,” whose forced love triangle I only support because of Barney’s buffoonery, and “Quiet Sam,” where neurotic Barney is on full display. Of more Honorable Mention quality are three shows that display the small-town rurality, “Opie’s Charity,” “A Feud Is A Feud,” and “The Beauty Contest.”
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season One of The Andy Griffith Show goes to…
Come back next week for Season Two! Stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard!