What I Learned From “The Andy Griffith Show”

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Andy_Griffith_Don_KnottsI grew up watching afternoon repeats of “The Andy Griffith Show,” and though I took them for granted at the time, I now realize just how much I’ve learned from those shows, just how profound and dear the show is to me, how it helped form my values, and how I so desperately wish there were more shows like it on TV today. “The Andy Griffith Show” was essentially one of television’s great morality plays. Of course there were shows about Angels or whatever, and great shows like M*A*S*H, but the lessons in “The Andy Griffith Show” were not “out front,” so to speak, the lessons were simply a part of the lives of the characters. The lessons were woven into the show at every moment. They were in the food Andy ate, and they were in the ever fresh air of Mayberry. They weren’t preached, they simply were.

Andy Griffith used to point out that the show wasn’t about “dumb hillbillies.” As a TV critic from Cleveland once said to me, it was about how far one would go to help a friend. This philosophy extends past the mere one-on-one aspect of friendship, Mayberry, as a town, pulls together time and again to help their friends, or as we would say today, “members of the community.” I was inspired to write this today after watching Andy and Barney in action. For a start, as a comedy team, the two of them had amazing chemistry as both friends and actors. The timing between them is exquisite, funny, and as natural as can be, and this is exemplified most strongly in the slow moments when nothing is happening. Though “Seinfeld” claimed to be the first show about nothing, I would suggest that the seeds of that approach to a TV show started with “The Andy Griffith Show.” Those moments when Andy and Barney are sitting on the porch or around the office lazily talking about nothing are some of my favorite moments ever to air on TV. They were tight. And more often than not the very “nothing” the show seemed to be about would slowly and seductively turn into a very special something. Among the many things I learned from the Andy Griffith show is that a slow and easy conversation on a porch can be far more enduring and entertaining than the histrionics and cynical smart-assiness modern TV shows use as a crutch–crutches we now wrongfully consider “sophisticated.” It seems we have traded in romantic innocence for mean-spirited cynicism. I prefer the slow and deceptively simple tales spun in Mayberry over any recent TV shows.

Andy was close to Barney, and could spend time doing “nothing” with him–the sort of friendship I envy and wish I had. I think of the classic “Man In a Hurry” episode where an “important” businessman arrives in Mayberry, urgently in need of a car repair so he can do his “important” business. As he grows more and more irate at the leisurely pace of life in Mayberry we slowly learn the value of Zen and the Tao, and we slowly learn that the citizens of Mayberry don’t need more to do, this guy needs to learn to do nothing. Yeah… how I would love to have a friend who I could wile away hours with on a front porch, talking for an hour about whether or not we should play a game of Checkers. The pace of life in Mayberry is enviable, it seems anymore that every person I spend time with has important business and can only shoehorn in an hour or so here or there around their important business. I envy the pace of Mayberry, and I envy the simple trust Andy and Barney have in each other, the trust they have in the value of sitting quietly together on a porch talking about whether or not to go into town for a soda… until Barney falls asleep. Once upon a time I saw times like that all around me, in the hills of Pennsylvania when my grandfather and great grandfather and uncles would just sit on the porch and breathe the crisp clean air while we kids played in the sun and our moms, aunts, grandmas and great grandmas chatted away in the kitchen or dining room.

I learned a lot about real friendship from watching Andy and Barney, and not just in how well they did nothing together. Even in the face of everyone in town being annoyed with Barney’s antics, even as much as Barney could be laughable and pompous, Andy loved him, Andy defended him, was infinitely patient with him… because Andy had taken the time to understand Barney. Barney, who could be a rather annoying human, who could get so full of himself as to blow it time and again, who could get hot tempered and mean, who was the worst kind of swaggering know-it-all, and who frequently alienated himself from the people of Mayberry… there was one person who always liked him, who always stood beside him and stood up for him: Andy. Through the course of my life I have often been able to talk with and befriend people that others picked on or despised; outcasts, people with difficult personalities, people that were worth getting to know. I have often been chided for the company I keep, and I realize all these years later that I learned how to like and enjoy the company of people who are “unlikeable” by the standards of most people through watching Andy Taylor, and not just with Barney, Andy extended such generosity to a number of people in the show. Really, this is core Hinduism, being able to see past a person’s awkward external traits and love them for who they are within, or in the Hindu sense, seeing past all that awkwardness and loving the Godhead in them. Perhaps it seems absurd, but there is a mystical quality to Andy’s presence. He is a man with a depth of compassion and simple down-home wisdom, rather like a back porch Dalai Lama. Perhaps most importantly, I learned that we can’t all be like Andy, and if some of us are a little more like Barney, that’s OK, there’s always an Andy or a Tom Hart out there who can see you’re worth the trouble. At SAW (where I work), Tom and I often joke that we’re like the Kermit and Fozzy of SAW… I laugh to think that sometimes it’s rather more like he’s Andy and I’m a hippie-chick version of Barney. It’s tough to live down, that.

I learned that sometimes progressive values can be presented subversively. Very often Andy was not a group-thinker, very often he stood outside the populist opinions and considered things on his own–and not just about his friendship with a challenging personality like Barney. Very often it was Andy who realized that just because a person was different didn’t mean they were to be shunned or under suspicion. Andy tried to get to know and understand misfits, the people that put off or frightened others in Mayberry. Andy realized that good-hearted people often rested under the skin of a misfit, or a person that was grossly misunderstood. Andy took the time to understand people who were different, and I wish that was a value more fans of his show took to heart. Andy stood alone, Andy had the courage to defy the popular opinions of those around him. Andy said no to power, said no to absurd rules, Andy used his judgment rather than taking the easy way out and relying on regulations or mandates from bureaucracy, and more than once this got him into trouble. Seriously, look closer, Andy was an iconoclast, an easy going subversive, and he knew that often the right thing to do was to disregard what was expected, regulated or popular.

Justine's Papa McClain (photo restored by Justine Mara Andersen)

Justine’s Papa McClain (photo restored by Justine Mara Andersen)

My grandfather, “Papa” McClain, reminded me of Andy in many ways. Papa was easy going as could be, kind hearted, calm and gentle, and he could fix ANYTHING! I learned a lot from my Papa, and not just about physical stuff, but he planted the seeds of my more progressive and subversive values when he patiently explained to me that cowboy and Indian movies had it wrong. I learned from my Papa McClain that not all cowboys were heroes, and that the Indians had a valid right to fight for their land and their ways. This was a revelation to my young mind, it woke me up and created in me a person that doesn’t believe everything she reads, and certainly does not believe in commonly held misconceptions. When watching Andy Taylor, I see my grandfather, who has passed. Unfortunately, when watching Bareny Fife, as I said earlier, I am reminded a little too often of my over-sensitive and emotional self… it’s humbling and comically embarrassing. Fortunately, Like Barney, I too have a friend (back in Ohio) who loves and understands me with the same good humor as Andy loved Barney.

I learned through “The Andy Griffith Show” that heroes and leading men could be fallible, could make mistakes and admit it when they were wrong. My old man never once admitted to being wrong, and I think to this day he is convinced he never did anything wrong. Everything was someone else’s fault. Thankfully I had the example set by my grandfather and Andy Taylor to follow. Andy was often mistaken in the show, even about his son, and often had to apologize or rethink his stances and beliefs. Andy was not rigid. I learned as a writer and creator that your lead characters and heroes were all the more charming for the moments they discovered they were wrong. Andy Taylor was frequently humbled. This, of course, created a lovely state of affairs in the show, as it created a reality in which we weren’t always certain how things were going to come out. After all, if Andy could be wrong and admit it… all through any given show we weren’t 100% certain that Andy was in the right or that things were going to turn out in line with his stances or actions. I learned that I, as a person, could be wrong, could make mistakes and still be admirable, in fact, more admirable if I handled it with the same grace as Andy.

I learned something even more important than all that through “The Andy Griffith Show,” and that is that “simple Southerners,” “Hillbillies,” and people who say “ain’t” are not to be dismissed as ignorant backwards people. In college I recall more than one professor or fellow “intellectual” student dismissing someone because they said “was” when it was proper to say “were,” or “seen” instead of “saw,” or they said “ain’t,” and so forth. The thing is, thanks to Andy Taylor, I realized that my grandfather and all my hillbilly relatives just might be smarter than art profs with Masters degrees. I’ll tell you this, if the shit hit the fan I’d rather be with my grandpa than a University professor… I imagine the prof would starve… my grandpa knew how to shoot and skin a squirrel, how to raise corn and potatoes, how to survive on nothing.

1x08-Opie-s-Charity-the-andy-griffith-show-17880405-640-480“When a man carries a gun all the time, the respect he thinks he’s getting might really be fear. So I don’t carry a gun because I don’t want the people of Mayberry to fear a gun. I’d rather they respect me.”

Andy Taylor (From “The Andy Griffith Show”)

I learned through “The Andy Griffith Show” something my other favorite childhood TV shows tried to undo. I learned that violence is a thing to be avoided, after all, Andy Taylor never carried a gun! Oh, he used them as the Sheriff if need be, but he never wore one around town, on duty, or merely as a matter of course. While most every other show I saw as a kid featured fights and gunfights, “The Andy Griffith Show” was different. Andy was respected for who he was and for how he carried himself. Only true cowards demand respect or feel that they should be respected because they carry a gun. Guns are for fools, craven people who are afraid of all sorts of things they have made up, don’t understand, or have been brainwashed to fear by a media that preys on the weak-minded, hostile, and ignorant. Andy Taylor didn’t need such a crutch, he was a real man. Real men don’t believe they need open carry laws. Real men don’t create and live in worlds of fear. Recently, in dating, I met a number of men who couldn’t help but go on about their guns… I recognized them as cowards and moved along… looking for a guy more like Andy, looking for a guy who didn’t mistake a gun as a show of strength.

Sadly there weren’t many women to relate to for me in Mayberry. Loveable as Aunt Bea was, she just wasn’t me, and the girlfriend Andy had the longest, Helen Krump, was brittle and often unpleasantly quick to spit fire and fury. I preferred Ellie, the druggist, who unfortunately disappeared all too quickly. I do have to say that I find it surprising and refreshing that the women of Mayberry were always varied, and many held down jobs. Even Helen wanted to keep working and teaching. When “The Andy Griffith Show” did a show about Andy and Barney’s high school reunion, Andy met an old sweetheart, and we learn that the reason they drifted apart was that this woman didn’t want to settle down as a wife in Mayberry, she had dreams of her own and was determined to set off and live them. Sure, there are stay at home moms and other “stereotypes”, but there were just as many women in the universe of “The Andy Griffith Show” that were working and “liberated”… just like in real life. What some on the left sometimes forget is that some women want to stay at home and raise kids… and that there is not a damn thing wrong with that! The beauty of “The Andy Griffith Show” is that it did show a variety of women with a variety of needs, wants, and dreams.

Of course I could go show by show and talk about the lessons of particular shows, but I was more interested in talking about the ethos of the show in general terms, about the underlying philosophy and recurring themes. Oddly, one of the most important metaphoric lessons I learned from “The Andy Griffith Show” was clearly explained by Chuck Jones (Looney Tunes director) when he talked about how he related to Bugs and Daffy. Jones said that he liked to believe himself to be Bugs Bunny, but when he looked in the mirror all he saw was Daffy Duck, and that realization plays out in “The Andy Griffith Show.” Sure, I’d like to be more like Bugs or Andy… but I’m probably a lot more like Daffy or Barney. but here’s what I really learned, the real heart of the matter… it doesn’t matter, it’s OK, so long as we see our inner Barney and aspire to release our inner Andy… everything’s gonna be fine.

I recognize now that the very lessons I learned in “The Andy Griffith Show” were sometimes even closer to me than Mayberry, they were all around me. There was, of course, my grandfather, but there was also my great grandmother, whose deathbed advice to me was “be nice to people, try not to hurt anyone, and mind your own business.” And boy has that served me well, and those words flow through every scene and every episode of “The Andy Griffith Show.” So if you weren’t lucky enough to have a Papa McClain to learn from, nor a Granny Glover to tell you to mind your own business… don’t worry about it, those same lessons are being served up everyday somewhere on your TV through “The Andy Griffith Show.” And the world is still a better place for it.

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