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Thursday, July 5, 2012

Andy Griffith: A Belated Eulogy

Any Southern humorist worth his salt will have to pay sincere acknowledgement to Andy Griffith.  He sprung on the scene with a series of recordings, "What It Is, Is..." in which he proceeded to give a down-home deconstruction of Football or Hamlet or whatever.  He proved he could play two sides of the Southern Coin: he could be country dumb as in No Time for Sergeants, or country shrewd as in A Face in the Crowd and Murder in Coweeta County.  To anyone who hasn't seen it, I thoroughly recommend A Face in the Crowd, which I would hold up alongside All the King's Men as a great satire as well as a chilling study of the faux naif that thrives on being underestimated.  But it was on The Andy Griffith Show he came into his own.  Griffith observed Danny Thomas at work on the set, yelling at underlings, blowing his top, and said if that was what was required to be a TV star, he'd just as soon pass.  He was assured he would set the tone on his own show, and if he wanted it laid back, it would be.  And it was.  Pauline Kael attributed Ron Howard's success as a director to The Andy Griffith Show, that it taught him "how to get the sweetness out of a character."  The Andy Griffith Show featured a character who was no fool, but who was also kind and gentle.
Below, I've attached a YouTube of Griffith's deadpan re-telling of Hamlet, and below that, a previous post I'd written about The Andy Griffith Show.

I grew up on Gilligan's Island, Andy Griffith, and The Dick Van Dyke Show.  Of the three, my least favorite at the time was Andy Griffith.  I much more identified with Dick Van Dyke who was simultaneously suave and goofy.  And Laura Petri in capris!  Rrrow!  Ditto for Gilligan's Island, I liked the fantasy of innocent, good-hearted, but disaster-prone Gilligan always messing up the latest fool-proof plan the Professor hatched to get them off the island.  (Moral: As soon as someone comes up with a fool-proof plan, nature comes up with a bigger and better fool.)  And Mary Anne in short-shorts!  Rrrow!  By contrast, Andy Griffith seemed slow and draggy, and his girlfriend - Ellen Crump, for pity's sake - why would anybody date someone named Crump?  And she was a school-teacher!  She was like a friend of your mother's.  I'd much rather watch Bewitched.  Samantha Stevens in capris!  Rrow!  Or I Dream of Genie.  Barbara Eden in a genie costume!  Double-Rrow!
But of all the shows I watched as a kid, the only one I can still tolerate is Andy Griffith, and over the years, I've come to love it more and more.  There was always a secret sadness to the Andy Griffith show - the soundtrack was often strangely plaintive for a situation comedy.  And Andy Griffith had one basic story - with some variations - but there was one story it told over and over again.  As I've watched reruns over the years, I've come to realize what a wise and hopeful story it is.
It starts with a sourpus.  Not someone's who's bad, but someone who believes he's bad.  There's goodness inside him, but it's like he's constipated in the goodness department.  Then Andy and his friends find a way to let him release his inner goodness without hurting his pride - sparing people's pride is another major motif in the show - and then the former sourpus realizes he's a good person after all, and it hurts him to even think of doing something selfish and unkind.  At the end of the show, everyone's a little better off, the former sour pus most of all.  Lord help me, it's hokey and obvious, but maybe the truth was hokey and obvious all along.  Maybe the secret of life's just a matter of sparing the other fellow's pride and trusting in his goodness.  And trusting in your own goodness.  I just love that show and I watch it whenever I can.

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