This original and thorough discussion of a legendary American sitcom uses the experience of exile to reveal that The Andy Griffith Show’s enduring appeal comes from the intimacy between person and place that viewers enjoy in Mayberry.
Half a century after viewers first watched a father and son walking to the local fishing hole, whistling a simple, yet unforgettable, tune, The Andy Griffith Show remains one of the most popular sitcoms in the history of American television. Tens of millions of viewers have seen the show either in its original run, its ongoing reruns, on DVD, or on the internet. Websites devoted to the show abound, hundreds of fan clubs bring enthusiasts together, and a plethora of books and Mayberry-themed merchandise have celebrated all things Mayberry. A small cottage industry has even developed around the teachings of the show’s episodes. But why does a sitcom from the 1960s set in the rural South still evoke such devotion in people today?
In A Cuban in Mayberry, acclaimed author Gustavo Pérez Firmat revisits America’s hometown to discover the source of its enduring appeal. He approaches the show from a unique perspective—that of an exile who has never experienced the rootedness that Andy and his fellow Mayberrians take for granted, as folks who have never strayed from home or lived among strangers. As Pérez Firmat weaves his personal recollections of exile from Cuba with an analysis of the show, he makes a convincing case that the intimacy between person and place depicted in TAGS is the secret of its lasting relevance, even as he reveals the surprising ways in which the series also reflects the racial, generational, and political turbulence of the 1960s.
Introduction: To the Fishing Hole
Part 1: The Place
1. A World unto Itself
2. Against Change
3. Stopping the Story
4. Great Pages in History
5. From R.F.D. to R.I.P.
Interlude: The Road to Mayberry
Part 2: The People
1. Sheriff without a Gun (Andy)
2. Imagination (Mr. McBeevee)
3. Life Imitates Fife (Barney)
4. A Face in the Crowd (Mr. Schwump)
5. Growing Up, Growing Old (Opie and Floyd)
6. Old Geezers (Judd and Asa)
7. Mayberry Maidens (Aunt Bee, Helen, and Thelma Lou)
8. Beasts of the Southern Wild (Ernest T. Bass and the Darlings)
9. Otis Regrets (Otis Campbell)
10. Love in the Country (Gomer, Goober, and Howard)
11. Trashy Women (Daphne and Skippy)
Conclusion: Old Sam
Epilogue: A Cuban in Mayberry
Appendix: List of Episodes
To the Fishing Hole
A youngish man and a boy stroll along a dirt road. Barefoot, the boy is dressed in a T-shirt and rolled-up jeans. The man is wearing a law enforcement uniform―the badge is visible above the flap of the left shirt pocket―and boots. Fishing poles are slung over their shoulders. Since their figures cast only a slight shadow, it must be around midday. While the man whistles a simple tune, the boy runs ahead of him and throws pebbles into a pond. When the man catches up, he takes the boy by the hand. From their ease with each other, it's obvious that they know each other well. The sequence ends when they reach the edge of the pond and the boy flings one last pebble into the water.
Although this scene is scarcely twenty seconds long and more than half a century old, millions of Americans still recognize it today as the title sequence of The Andy Griffith Show (1960–1968), one of the most popular sitcoms in the history of American television. The man is Andy Taylor, sheriff of Mayberry, and the boy is his son, Opie. The pond is Myers Lake.
This rural setting, heightened by Earle Hagen's catchy melody, begins to suggest what distinguishes TAGS (as aficionados call The Andy Griffith Show) from other sitcoms from the 1950s and 1960s. This is not the urban world of I Love Lucy and Make Room for Daddy or the suburban world of Father Knows Best, Leave It to Beaver, and The Donna Reed Show. One establishing shot of Father Knows Best shows Robert Young walking into a large and well-appointed house, where he is greeted by his wife and children. The briefcase hanging from his arm conveys that he has a white-collar job. Another shows him by the front door looking at his watch, as he waits for his wife to bring him his hat and his briefcase. The title sequence for the second season of Leave It to Beaver shows Wally and Beaver rushing down the stairs, at the bottom of which their mother waits, lunch bag and box in hand. The following season, the episodes begin with Ward and June Cleaver coming into the boys' room to wake them up for school. Other opening sequences show June Cleaver outside the door, ready to give the boys their lunches and jackets, or coming out of the house carrying a tray with pitcher and glasses while her husband and sons tend to the front yard. The Donna Reed Show opens with Donna coming down the stairs in the morning and answering the phone. She is followed by her two children and her husband. She hands the kids their lunches, and her husband his briefcase, and gets a peck on the lips as he rushes out the door.
These scenes portray a family unit composed of two or more children, a mother who is the heart of the household, and a father who brings home the bacon (in a briefcase). In the opening of TAGS, nothing suggests labor or domesticity. Even though the show is usually lumped together with other "affable family comedies," TAGS focuses on the father-son dyad, the minimal unit of community, rather than on the nuclear family. For sure, this is not the only TV show of the 1960s focused on a widower. The long-running My Three Sons, which debuted the same year as TAGS, did likewise, as also, some years later, Family Affair. But TAGS is the only one to feature a single father and an only son, and to suggest by the two-shot title sequence that they constitute an autonomous unit. (To make this point in a different way, Griffith insisted that the first episode of each season deal with Andy and Opie's relationship.) Like other sitcoms, TAGS will also have a domestic component, but the viewer gets no inkling of this from the initial images, which show Andy and Opie Taylor off in the woods by themselves. Absent is the wife and mother who stands by the door with lunch box and briefcase. Absent also is any suggestion that father and son are leaving for work or school. On the contrary, it seems that Andy and Opie are taking time off. The easy pace at which they are walking tells the viewer that they don't have a care in the world. And instead of briefcases and books, they carry fishing poles. It's clear that this slice of Americana has less to do with the ethic of hard work than with the enjoyment of leisure.
Another of the title sequences of Leave It to Beaver shows the Cleavers emerging from their house in the morning. Since Ward Cleaver is carrying a thermos jug and Mrs. Cleaver a picnic basket, we can assume that he is not going to work. And yet they all rush into their late-model sedan. Andy and Opie would not understand their hurry or the necessity to drive to their destination. The Cleaver home, as well as the shiny car sitting in the driveway, situates the show in 1950s suburban America. The opening scene of TAGS is more difficult to place. Andy's uniform is generic; Opie's T-shirt and jeans are even less datable. The vagueness of temporal reference hints that TAGS will tap into areas of cultural identification older and deeper than those evoked in other family shows. There's something of Walden here, as there is of Tom Sawyer. If not exactly an errand into the wilderness, Andy and Opie's outing to Myers Lake suggests breaking away, playing hooky. If Andy is dressed for work, why is he not working? If Opie is dressed as he would be for school (minus the sneakers), why is he not in school?
Vague about the time frame, the opening sequence is no more precise about the whereabouts. The foliage is indistinct; the pine trees in the background could be almost anywhere in America. But Andy is wearing his uniform, so we can assume that he works somewhere nearby. That somewhere is Mayberry, a fictional town in the North Carolina foothills based on Mount Airy, North Carolina, where Andy Griffith was born and raised. Mayberry is the quintessential small town, the kind of place where everyone is kith or kin and life's troubles are brief, comic, and solvable―and also the kind of place that sets TAGS apart from other rural sitcoms. Successful shows like Petticoat Junction and Green Acres also extolled the virtues and exposed the follies of small towns. If TAGS was a "rubecom," so were The Real McCoys―which started the genre―and The Beverly Hillbillies. But The Real McCoys and The Beverly Hillbillies extracted hillbillies from their natural habitat―West Virginia and Tennessee―and plopped them down in California; and neither Green Acres nor Petticoat Junction did much to make Hooterville more than a gag site: the village of hoots and hooters.
In TV land, perhaps only Cheers, named after the bar "where everybody knows your name," has exploited as effectively the spirit of place and sense of community. But nobody actually lives in Sam's bar, even if it sometimes seems that Cliff and Norm are glued to their stools. In TAGS we see the locals not only relaxing after work but also going about their daily business. And although Cheers takes place in Boston, every city has a neighborhood bar like the one in the show. Mayberry has to be in the rural South, and, more particularly, in the Piedmont. As often happens with Southern fictions, place is crucial. And not only because the speech of many of the characters would be incongruous anywhere else, but because TAGS derives meaning from location. The implicit premise is that what happens in Mayberry does not happen anywhere else. As the episodes stress repeatedly, the townsfolk's ways are unique to this Southern town, population 1,800 (coincidentally the same number as that of another fictional town, Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg).
In the course of the series, hundreds of Mayberrians appear on the screen or are spoken of, but the episodes revolve around a select group of worthies. In addition to Andy and Opie, the regulars or semiregulars include Andy's Aunt Bee, who looks after her nephew and his son; Barney Fife, the reliably unreliable deputy; Floyd Lawson, owner of the "best clip joint" (barbershop) in town; Otis Campbell, an amiable dipsomaniac who locks himself in jail every Friday and Saturday evening; Gomer Pyle, the gas jockey with the tenor voice; a couple of irksome mayors, Pike and Stoner; a preacher, Reverend Tucker of All Souls Church; merchants like Ben Weaver of Weaver's Department Store and Orville Monroe, a mortician who doubles as TV repairman; Helen Crump, Andy's girl; Thelma Lou, Barney's girl; Skippy and Daphne, the "Fun Girls," demimondaines from nearby Mt. Pilot who compete for Andy and Barney's attention; Malcolm Merriweather, an English tourist and the only outsider who makes repeated visits to Mayberry; and a passel of farmers and hillbillies, among them Rafe Hollister, the Darling clan, and the indomitable Ernest T. Bass, rhymester and rock thrower extraordinaire.
During the show's eight seasons there was considerable turnover in the cast. After the fifth season, Don Knotts (Barney Fife) left to pursue a movie career. Gomer (Jim Nabors) and Floyd (Howard McNear) were written out. Nabors went on to Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C., and McNear became too ill to perform. As these actors left, new characters were added: Warren Ferguson (Jack Burns), Barney's short-lived replacement; Goober Pyle (George Lindsey), Gomer's cousin and successor at Wally's Service; Howard Sprague (Jack Dodson), the nerdy county clerk; and Emmett Clark (Paul Hartman), whose Fix-It Shop takes over the locale of Floyd's barbershop. After the eighth season Andy Griffith and Ron Howard called it quits. When the show resurfaced the next season as Mayberry R.F.D., another widower and his son, Sam Jones (Ken Berry) and Mike (Buddy Foster, Jodie's brother), took over from Andy and Opie. Of the original characters, only Aunt Bee was left. By the time Mayberry R.F.D. went off the air three years later, none of the original characters lived in Mayberry, since Aunt Bee had been written out at the end of the second season. Yet in its last season, The Andy Griffith Show's offspring still ranked among the top fifteen programs on television. In contrast to almost every other sitcom then or now, the appeal of TAGS and Mayberry R.F.D. had more to do with the setting than with any particular character or group of characters. People came and went, but Mayberry remained.
In 1964 the show's popularity led CBS to begin rerunning TAGS on weekday mornings; to differentiate between the daily reruns and the weekly shows, the former were retitled Andy of Mayberry. Griffith recognized that the town was, by design, "as much a character on the show as Sheriff Andy Taylor." Move Andy and Opie to the San Fernando Valley, as in The Real McCoys, or Los Angeles, as in The Beverly Hillbillies, and the show would not have survived the relocation. Embodiments of the genius of the place, the townsfolk belong to Mayberry as much as the town belongs to them. A case in point: Barney Fife, who leaves to work for the police department in Raleigh. Away from Mayberry, Barney is a fish out of water, much like Gomer Pyle in the Marines or Old Sam, the legendary silver carp from Tucker's Lake, when it is moved to an aquarium.
Early in the first season, "Stranger in Town" (episode 1.13) introduced a New Yorker who, having heard so many good things about Mayberry, intends to adopt it as his hometown. The stranger, Ed Sawyer, knows as much about Mayberry as any of the natives. He can tell apart the Buntley twins. He remembers that it was in room 209 of the Mayberry Hotel where Wilbur Hennessey got drunk and fell out the window. He knows about Floyd's rheumatism, which sometimes prevents him from indulging his hobby of tossing horseshoes. He is in love with Lucy Matthews, though he has never seen her. He even knows that Sarah, the switchboard operator, takes a pinch of snuff now and then. Some of the townsfolk think he's a foreign agent; others believe that he comes from another planet.
But Ed Sawyer's intimate knowledge of the town's everyday life derives from causes less exotic. While in the armed forces, he struck up a friendship with Joe Larson, a Mayberrian who talked about his hometown all the time. By the time Ed left the service, he was so enamored of the town that he subscribed to the Mayberry Gazette to keep up with local doings, and as soon as he was able, he moved to Mayberry. When Andy asks him how he knows he is going to be happy in Mayberry, Sawyer replies: "Mayberry is my hometown." Ed Sawyer represents TAGS viewers, Mayberrians by choice rather than birth. The remarkable thing, however, is that "Stranger in Town" was filmed in September 1960, before a single episode of TAGS had been broadcast. By the time it aired, in December, Griffith had been proved prescient, for Mayberry was already on the way to becoming America's favorite hometown.
In the following week's episode, "Mayberry Goes Hollywood," a movie producer shows up in town. He too has been captivated by the relaxed and simple ways of Mayberry. Suspicious of outsiders, the locals initially fear that the movie will make fun of how they talk and look. Once the producer reassures them, they agree to let him proceed with his project; but the prospect of being in the movies induces the locals to act up. Barney dons a new uniform that makes him look like a member of the Canadian Mounties. The barbershop is rebranded a "Tonsorial Parlor" and the Bluebird Diner the "Cinemascope Café." Orville's mortuary starts advertising "Hollywood Funerals." Even the old geezers who sit in front of the courthouse get "gussied up" with suits and ties. The producer is dismayed: "What's gotten into you people? What have you done to the town, and to yourselves? This isn't the Mayberry I wanted to photograph. I could have built a set like this in Hollywood." Chastised, Mayberrians revert to their old ways, which were odd enough. As the episode ends, the producer reiterates his intention of making a movie about Mayberry. His movie, divided into 249 segments, is TAGS, a convincing fiction of unscripted life.
Mayberry is a far more compelling fictional locale than Hooterville or, for that matter, the Hilldale of The Donna Reed Show, the Springfield of Father Knows Best, and other similar fields and dales. Seemingly a placid backwater, the town contains (and fails to contain) undercurrents that complicate the town's way of life. The townspeople's view of the rest of the country, to the extent that they have one, is conflicted to the point of incoherence. Their hostility to outsiders belies the friendliness they advertise. Their insistence on town traditions, particularly Founder's Day, betrays worry about their continuance, worry that arises from the ever-present threat of invasion by outsiders, raids that the townsfolk are hard-pressed to rebuff. There's more to this paradise than meets the viewer's eye. The charm, simplicity, and sunny disposition of Mayberrians make it easy to overlook the occasional darkness of TAGS. Mayberry is a paradise, but an anxious one, Arcadia under siege. Floyd is right that Mayberry is "the garden city of the state," but there are serpents in the garden.
In fact, Mayberry is doomed. Several late episodes make clear that the sleepy Southern town with the oddball characters and quaint customs is undergoing a quiet revolution. Barney, the most unforgettable of the many memorable characters in the show, once said he had a clock in his stomach, a trait that he inherited from his mother. When Barney's clock strikes midnight, Mayberry will disappear, taking him with it. The new day will bring forth the town of Mayberry R.F.D., a progressive, New South community that, for better and worse, bears little resemblance to the Mayberry of old. According to Griffith, TAGS was superior to other rubecoms because the humor relied less on jokes than on character, but TAGS also stands out because of the complexity of its fictional world, which sinks its roots into Southern history, and specifically into the South's legacy of loss. As we will see, old-time Mayberrians reject the New South because, to them, the New South is a Northern South, and hence no South at all. Barney also believed that "your true schizophreeniacs" are the ones who don't look it. What applies to the deranged applies to Barney's hometown: superficially placid but in distress.
The Andy Griffith Show premiered on CBS on October 3, 1960, at 9:30 in the evening, following The Danny Thomas Show. It remained on Monday night for the rest of its run, the last show airing on April 1, 1968. For all of its eight seasons, TAGS ranked among the top seven programs on television. Every Monday night millions of viewers in all parts of America dropped in on Mayberry, among them such unlikely fans as Gipsy Rose Lee and Frank Sinatra. When Griffith called it quits as Sheriff Andy, TAGS was number one in the ratings, one of only three shows―the others are I Love Lucy and Seinfeld―to have accomplished the rare feat of going out on top. After 1968, TAGS continued its life in reruns on local stations. With the arrival of cable networks, the show found a home on TBS (Ted Turner is a lifelong TAGS fan) and later on Nickelodeon's Nick at Nite and TV Land, where it remains one of the network's most popular shows. During TAGS's last season on CBS, it had a weekly audience of about fifteen and a half million viewers. In 1998 the Christian Science Monitor estimated that every day about five million people watched TAGS reruns on more than one hundred television stations across the country. More than ten years later, TAGS is still syndicated in almost one hundred local TV markets. In Roanoke, Virginia, The Oprah Winfrey Show ended its spectacular twenty-five-year run without ever beating reruns of TAGS.
When TAGS commemorated its fiftieth anniversary in 2010, the milestone was duly observed by the TAGS community with a telethon on TV Land, a festival in Mount Airy, and the maiden race of the "Andy Griffith" stock car at the Banking 500 in Charlotte ("Andy" finished 31st). Websites devoted to the show abound. One of them, The Andy Griffith Show Rerun Watchers Club (TAGSrwc.com), originally a fan club founded at Vanderbilt University in 1979, has grown to more than twenty thousand members and over a thousand local chapters with such names as All Us Fifes Are Sensitive; Pipe Down, Otis; Aunt Bee's Pickles; Briscoe's Jug; and Ernest T. Bass Window Removers. At the virtual franchise of Mayberry's own Weaver's Department Store, fans can purchase T-shirts, calendars, mouse pads, board games (Mayberry-opoly), greeting cards, and bumper stickers ("This Sure Ain't Mayberry"). Ever since its publication in 1991, Aunt Bee's Mayberry Cookbook has sold more than a million copies. Its success spawned several sequels: Postcards from Aunt Bee's Cookbook (1993), Aunt Bee's Delightful Desserts (1996), The Best of Mayberry (1996), and Aunt Bee's Mealtime in Mayberry (1999). Offering thirty-two different "fixin's," Mayberry's Finest, a line of canned foods, made its debut in stores throughout the South in 2007. The Mayberry Ice Cream Restaurants, a chain of soup and sandwich shops, have existed in North Carolina since 1969.
It's not only fixin's, but food for the soul, that Mayberry has to offer. During the last fifteen years, a small cottage industry has developed around the teachings of the show's episodes. Life Lessons from Mayberry (1997), by John and Len Oszustowicz, "captures the message of Mayberry and offers it in a down-home style as warm and relaxed as Andy's front porch." Religious groups and individuals have also used the homespun homilies in TAGS as an accessible vehicle for the dissemination of Christian doctrine. In The Way Back to Mayberry (2001) Joey Fann examines the show "in the light of Biblical truth." Sunday school and Bible classes have available to them several study guides based on TAGS: The Andy Griffith Show: Bible Study Series (2000), The Mayberry Bible Study (2002), and Mayberry Moments (2008). In The Mayberry Bible Study, the episode in which Andy lets Malcolm Merriweather work off a debt he can't pay dramatizes the biblical principle of service, as set out in the Gospels. The episode in which Barney fills the courthouse with dogs, another "primetime parable," demonstrates that in Mayberry the quality of mercy is not strained.
When TAGS came on the air, the highest rated show in its time slot was Adventures in Paradise, an ABC offering about the captain of a schooner in the South Seas. James Michener's brainchild, Adventures in Paradise drew its appeal from the exotic settings and the handsome star, Gardner McKay. No sooner would Adam Troy, the dreamboat of the Tiki III, sail to Hong Kong to rescue a kidnapped damsel than he would be trolling the Pitcairn Islands looking for a black pearl. Inhabited by landlubbers rather than seadogs, Mayberry was an entirely different kind of paradise. Mayberrians' idea of a south sea is Myers Lake. To satisfy their taste for adventure, they dine on pounded steak at Morelli's or travel to the Chinese restaurant in Mt. Pilot. Insensible to the romance of the road, Mayberrians have little desire to go anywhere but where they have already been. Their fantasies are all déjà vu. Adam Troy and Andy Taylor may be young, good-looking, and share the same initials, but that's where the resemblance ends. Until he spends a few days in Hollywood in a couple of episodes from the sixth season, Andy has never been farther from his hometown than Fayetteville, North Carolina. When the producers ordered six scripts that took the principal characters to Rome, Paris, and London, Griffith nixed them because he felt that they didn't fit the show.
The other show opposite TAGS on Monday nights was NBC's Dante, whose title referred to the ex-con owner of a nightclub in San Francisco called―you guessed it―Dante's Inferno. TAGS found itself in the position of competing with both paradise and inferno. No matter. In 1961 TV watchers were no more interested in one than in the other. Neither noir stories in gritty San Francisco nor romance in far-flung island settings could match the cornball charisma of Mayberry. The debut episode of TAGS easily outdrew both shows. As the weeks went on, the disparity in ratings increased. Dante was cancelled at the end of the season. Adventures in Paradise would hang on, in a different time slot, until 1962. In the following seven seasons, TAGS would continue to dominate its competition, which ran the gamut of TV genres: comedies, Westerns, crime shows, Variety shows. During the 1964–1965 season, TAGS was up against a short-lived remake of No Time for Sergeants, the play and movie that had launched Andy Griffith's rise to stardom in the 1950s. In 1967– 1968 the competition was Danny Thomas, at the time the host of a Variety show on NBC, The Danny Thomas Hour, who years earlier had introduced Mayberry to the world in an episode of The Danny Thomas Show (a.k.a. Make Room for Daddy). Neither one had better luck than Dante.
From the critics TAGS received mixed reviews. Describing the first episode as "warm, human, comical, and for a change, tastefully dramatic," the Chicago Daily Tribune thought that the show would be a hit. The Philadelphia Inquirer also predicted that TAGS "would be a good bet for laughs and longevity." But other reactions, particularly from the New York press, ranged from the lukewarm to the hostile. The New York Times remarked that the show was "only mildly entertaining." The New York Journal American agreed, calling TAGS "a friendly, shaggy-comedy study in the obvious which doesn't offend, and―for Andy Griffith fans―may amuse." Variety chimed in that the show might hold its own provided it didn't overdo "the molasses to the detriment of the comedy." The Newark Evening News considered TAGS a "dull" but "acceptable" addition to the CBS lineup. According to the New York Herald Tribune, the show was "trite, tedious and unimaginative." Syndicated columnist Fred Danzig piled on by observing that TAGS's allure was easy to resist, since Griffith's manner was copied from Tennessee Ernie Ford, his smile from Bert Parks, and the dialogue came straight out of Lassie. A few years later, once TAGS was firmly entrenched, Variety remarked that its popularity "plain defies rational analysis, even allowing for the rube taste in tv literature." It did concede that Andy Griffith "makes a hick almost likeable." During its eight-year run, TAGS was nominated twice for an Emmy, not winning either time. By contrast, The Dick Van Dyke Show, on the air during five of those years, won three Emmys for best comedy series.
Surprisingly, perhaps, few of TAGS's principals had any connection with the South. Sheldon Leonard, the executive producer, had made his name initially by playing heavies in 1940s movies like Week-End in Havana and had gone on to become a successful director and producer. Neither Aaron Ruben, the producer for the first five seasons, nor Bob Ross, who produced the last three seasons, nor the writers who contributed many of the finest scripts―Charles Stewart and Jack Elinson, Bill Idelson and Sam Bobrick, Everett Greenbaum and Jim Fritzell-.were Southerners. Greenbaum, a Buffalo native, came up with the "hick" characters: Ernest T. Bass, the Darlings, and Gomer Pyle. (He and Fritzell had a knack for writing what Greenbaum called "odd ducks"; they got their start as a team working on Wally Cox's Mister Peepers.) Howard Morris, who portrayed Ernest T. and directed several episodes, was a native New Yorker who had appeared on Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows. Some of the actors, like Griffith, did hail from the South: Don Knotts from Morgantown, West Virginia; Jim Nabors from Sylacauga, Alabama; and George Lindsey from Jasper, Alabama. Frances Bavier (Aunt Bee), a stage actor from New York, began her career playing ingenue parts on Broadway. Ron Howard was born in Oklahoma. Howard McNear was a lifelong Californian. Like her character Helen Crump, Aneta Corsaut was a Kansan.
Andy Griffith often praised the genius of the writers for being able to capture the "feeling of North Carolina without ever being there." But the lifelikeness of the portrayal derived in no small part from Griffith's attention to every aspect of the show, from the plots to the speech and names of the characters to the toponymy of Mayberry County. TAGS is not only The Andy Griffith Show but Andy Griffith's show. It's an auteur sitcom, to use a concept not often applied to television, and Griffith is the auteur. Although the initial idea for the series―Griffith as the sheriff of a Southern town―was Leonard's, Griffith fleshed out Leonard's idea with his temperament, tastes, and memories. Even his self-avowed "difficulty" with women made it into the show, as we will see. Although Griffith didn't write any of the scripts, he suggested plots, crafted individual scenes, and meticulously edited every script for verisimilitude and consistency. In the papers he donated to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, almost every script contains his handwritten changes and annotations. TV Guide accurately labeled Griffith the "Cornball with the Steel-Trap Mind." His vision made TAGS what it is, or what it has been taken to be: an iconic portrayal of life in a small Southern town.
The enduring appeal of TAGS has generated several excellent guides to the show, beginning with Richard Kelly's groundbreaking The Andy Griffith Show (1981), written by a professor of English at the University of Tennessee. Equally useful are Mayberry: My Hometown (1987) by Stephen J. Spignesi; Inside Mayberry (1994) by Dan Harrison and Bill Habeeb; The Official Andy Griffith Show Scrapbook (1995) by Lee Pfeiffer; The Definitive Andy Griffith Show Reference (1996) by Dale Robinson and David Fernandes; and Mayberry Memories (2005) and The Andy Griffith Show Book (2010) by Ken Beck and Jim Clark. The hardiest of the lot, The Andy Griffith Show Book, has gone through several editions and updatings since its original publication in 1985. These books contain plot summaries, descriptions of the characters, information about the people involved in the making of the show, and abundant catalogs of TAGS trivia. Neal Brower's Mayberry 101: Behind the Scenes of a TV Classic (1998), which includes comments on selected episodes by actors, writers, and directors, derives from a continuing-education course that the author, a Methodist minister, has taught in North Carolina community colleges.
A latecomer to Mayberry, I cannot claim the length of acquaintance or depth of knowledge of the authors of these books. In "Mountain Wedding," an episode from the third season, Barney Fife takes his leave from Briscoe Darling by saying, "Adios, amigo," a Spanish-language echo of Mayberry's motto, "The Friendly Town." Briscoe turns to Andy and asks: "He one of ours?" Were this question addressed to me, of course I'd have to answer in the negative. Mayberry is as foreign to me, as a Cuban professor of Spanish, as Marianao, the neighborhood in Havana where I was born, would be to most Americans. If nothing else, my "Southern" accent―from the truly deep South―would give me away. In the 1930s, advertising posters used to lure Americans to Cuba with the slogan, "So near and yet so foreign." Although I make my home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, a couple of hours from Mount Airy, I could say much the same thing about Mayberry: physically close yet culturally remote, so near and yet so foreign. For someone who was raised among people who wouldn't know a dumpling from a duck, Mayberry is something of a blank, "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma," as Winston Churchill said about Russia. Like Cuba to Americans, Mayberry is physically close but culturally remote, so near and yet so foreign.
Some time ago, when I told a Cuban friend that I was writing a book about TAGS, his response was: "Eso es una americanada." An americanada is a vaguely derisive term used by Cubans for behavior regarded as typical of Anglo-Americans―and hence unbecoming to a Cuban. Until a few years ago, I shared my friend's attitude. I've lived in North Carolina for most of my of adult life, but I can't count myself among longtime fans of the show. I had never watched an entire episode until I began to spend several months of each year in those parts unknown that Mayberrians identify as "up North." Before then my only significant contact with the show had been through a cockatiel named Sunshine, my daughter's, which spent its long life endlessly whistling TAGS's familiar theme. But once I became a part-time northerner, I became homesick for North Carolina, a place that I had never considered home. At the time the show came on Nickelodeon in the early evening, and my wife and I got into the habit of watching it every weeknight after dinner. At first what struck me is what strikes most TAGS viewers: each episode is a little morality play that teaches us something about loyalty, generosity, neighborliness, parenting. But as I continued to watch, I noticed that the most interesting things in TAGS occur on the margins of the plot, in scenes where a lot is going on because nothing is happening. My fascination with the show had less to do with North Carolina than with my status as a foreigner, and more concretely, as an exile. I envied Mayberrians because, unlike me, they don't spend their lives among strangers; indeed, they do everything they can to avoid them. Following the Biblical precept, Mayberrians love their neighbors―to the exclusion of everyone else. As one of Opie's friends puts it, "You gotta keep somebody out, or it ain't a club" (3.23).
One part of me found the townspeople's mild and comical xenophobia off-putting; another part of me wished I were part of the club. Unlike other TAGS fans, I wasn't watching the show to relive the golden years of my childhood. There was no nostalgia in my attachment to Mayberry, not even the secondhand nostalgia derived from other people's memories, as happens with my nostalgia toward pre-Castro Cuba. It's not always true that the allure of reruns depends on the viewer's memory track, which the rerun jogs. It can be equally true that the allure of a rerun can reside in the fact that it's not a rerun in any personal sense, that it takes us to a time and a place where we've never been. What I liked about TAGS was Mayberry, and what I liked about Mayberrians was that they lived in their hometown, a word that has no exact translation in Spanish, since a hometown is not simply the town where one makes one's home. Someone who emigrates leaves many things, but none more strictly irreplaceable than the intimacy between person and place. Watching TAGS, I developed a sense of what it must be like to enjoy such intimacy, to feel rooted in the ground under your feet and to know that you live among people who are similarly rooted.
My interest in the show as a mitigation of exile dictates the structure of this book. In the first part I look at the Mayberrian world as a whole―its geography, atmosphere, the distinction between outsider and insider, and the townsfolk's view of history. The last chapter of this section, an extended obituary, traces the decline and fall of Mayberry as it evolves from TAGS to Mayberry R.F.D. and subsequently to the 1986 reunion movie, Return to Mayberry. In the second part of the book, I draw partial portraits of many of the town's citizens to explain how they contribute to the personality of the town. Rather than discussing the characters in descending order of prominence, as guidebooks to the show usually do, I have opted for a sequence that brings out the dynamic relationship among them. And so, for example, I discuss Opie and Floyd together in "Growing Up, Growing Old," for what I intend to bring out is the pathos created by the contrast between Floyd's aging and Opie's growing up as the series unfolds. For the same reason, the portrait of Mr. McBeevee follows the discussion of Andy Taylor, since Mr. McBeevee, the protagonist of one of the best-liked episodes, represents an alternative father figure. Given the large number of characters in the show, I have not tried to be exhaustive, but I have included all of the principal characters and several secondary ones.
If in part 1 the discussion of the Mayberrian sense of place is motivated my own displacement, the portraits in part 2 are underwritten by an exile's search for community. Throughout, my aim has been to understand, on the one hand, the conditions that make possible the intimacy of person and place, and on the other, the sequence of events that leads to the erosion of this intimacy. The interlude and the epilogue explain in greater detail the reasons for my effort to put myself in the place of people who have never lost their place.
As a naturalized Mayberrian, I'm aware that, unlike Groucho Marx, I belong to a club that may not welcome me as a member. Mayberrian soil―red clay―is not receptive to transplants. Imagine someone walking into the Bluebird Diner and ordering arroz con pollo. The outlandishness of this request lies at the root of my investment in TAGS. My hope is that this admittedly subjective perspective―my americanada―promotes a more comprehensive appreciation of this exemplar of "pure Americana."
When Andy Griffith passed away on July 3, 2012, all of North Carolina seemed to go into mourning. In addition to the normal reruns (here in Chapel Hill two episodes of TAGS are shown back to back during weekends), local stations launched weeklong TAGS marathons, and thousands of North Carolinians sent in testimonials to the stations of the impact that the program had had on their lives. Some said that they had learned from Sheriff Andy how to raise their children; others talked about the joy that the program had brought into their lives. Someone from Greenville wrote: "Andy is my hero. He has been for most of my 49 years. Andy represented the very best of what makes North Carolina so special. My family will never forget him." Many others echoed this sentiment; Andy―the actor as well as the persona―was a "true Tarheel." At the time I was working on a draft of this book. By then I had spent the better part of two years watching and thinking about the 249 episodes of TAGS. My home office in Chapel Hill, where I watched the show on a computer, had become an outpost of Mayberry. On the shelf nearest me, the handful of books about the show and its stars. On the wall, still shots of some of my favorite scenes. Like other fans, I had begun to feel that I was a Mayberrian. I had become as familiar with the characters on the show as with my own kin. I knew their secrets: I knew that Barney subscribed to men's magazines, that Andy's true love was not Helen Crump but Sharon DeSpain, and that old Emma, busybody par excellence, bleached her hair with peroxide.
I was tempted to add my own testimonial about what TAGS has meant to me, but I was embarrassed to do so. As a less-than.true Tarheel and, moreover, a relative newcomer to Mayberry, I did not share the experiences of the authors of the testimonials. I didn't grow up watching TAGS and I felt no special connection to Andy Griffith. Had I submitted a testimonial, I would have been like the stranger who shows up at a funeral and no one knows what he is doing there. The Spanish word for someone who sticks his nose into other people's business is metido, literally, inserted. I didn't think it was right to insert myself into Carolinians' sorrow.
Nonetheless, whatever its limitations, this is a fan's book. Although my comments about TAGS will not be uncritical, I have no desire to deconstruct, disparage, or otherwise knock the show. If our work should be the praise of what we love, as John Ruskin believed, this book tells the story of a late-blooming love affair with Mayberry.
I suspect that mine will seem a strange passion―a Mayberry-December romance―even if I were not excluded from Briscoe's band of brothers. In universities and their environs, The Andy Griffith Show is not highly thought of or, in fact, much thought of at all. Gerard Jones, the author of a superb history of sitcoms, recognizes TAGS's production values but dislikes Mayberrians, a "population of idiots and provincials" who represent "the traps and limitations of old southern ways." Gomer is "cretinous"; Floyd, "an old gossip quick to think evil of others"; Emma, "an aging hypochondriac with a paranoic streak"; and Barney, "a wired-up pop-eyed lunatic." Another influential scholar of sitcoms, David Marc, dismisses TAGS as "surrealist small-town fantasia." Harry Castleman and Walter Podrazik label Mayberrians "a handful of citizens who had long ago lost the fight for mental stability." In response to these criticisms, I am reminded of Flannery O'Connor's remark that for Northern readers any fiction coming out of the South is going to be called grotesque unless it is really grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.
Because of this antirural (perhaps anti-Southern) sentiment, discussions of sitcoms from the 1960s and 1970s give pride of place to the "smart" shows, "litcoms" as Marc calls them: The Dick Van Dyke Show, That Girl, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, All in the Family. Rubecoms, which merit no more than passing mention, are exiled to the boonies of TV-land: scorn for corn. Dandy for Andy and his neighbors, I take a different view. Barney is Mayberry's Everyman, no more or less lunatic than the rest of us. Floyd wouldn't know evil even if the devil himself plopped down in his barber chair; his gossiping, like that of the other gadflies in town, performs a crucial function, that of perpetuating local history. As for Gomer, I'd call him flouncy rather than cretinous: he is Mayberry's queen. And if old Emma is paranoid, it's only because Barney keeps arresting her for jaywalking.
For TAGS fans, Mayberry exists not only for the twenty-five minutes of each episode. Our access to Mayberry is intermittent, but the town's life doesn't stop, Truman Show– like, when the camera is turned off. What takes place in Mayberry during each episode is important, but so is what happens when we're not looking. One example: since Aunt Bee's last name is Taylor, she must be Andy's father's sister, though this relationship is never mentioned. We are told that she's from West Virginia and that, along with her best friend, Clara Edwards, she attended Sweet Briar Normal School. We also know that she's never been married, apparently not for lack of opportunity. Since Aunt Bee raised Andy after his parents died, she must have lived in Mayberry while Andy was growing up. But apparently it's been so long that in the first episode of the series, "The New Housekeeper," she is treated like a newcomer. By the next episode, however, she has become a town fixture, known and respected by all. Her reacclimation occurs between the first and the second episodes―one week in real time, an indeterminate span in Mayberrian time. TAGS offers small slices of larger life, scattered pearls from a longer string.
A different kind of viewer would dismiss these comments as silly. Hardheaded, he would point out that Aunt Bee only exists while she is on the screen. She is born the moment we see her come through the door of Andy's house and dies after her last scene in Mayberry R.F.D. In between the scenes and episodes in which she appears, she slumbers like a dowdy zombie in a 1940s updo. To believe otherwise is to confound flimsy fiction with hard fact. Soft-minded viewers, people like me, concede that the hardheaded critic is right, yet we also know that the pot simmering on Aunt Bee's stove contains lamb stew. We know it because lamb stew is Andy's favorite dish.
My point is that the number and distinctiveness of episodes in which the principal characters appear engenders a continuity of contact whose analogue, as viewers have pointed out many times, is kinship. With characters who show up less frequently―the Fun Girls, the Darlings, Ernest T. Bass―the ruckus they create compensates for the rarity of their appearances. They too are kin, like the uncle you see only two or three times in your life but who leaves an indelible impression.
In an influential analysis of early twentieth-century aesthetic movements, the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset likened the appreciation of a modern painting to looking at a garden through a windowpane and only attending to the glass. Since the observer's vision is focused on the medium-.the geometrical shapes and pigments of color―rather than on the representation, he called the type of art that encourages this point of view "intranscendent" (today we might call it "self.referential"). But in fiction, and particularly in the classical novel, intranscendence takes a very different form, for it is the represented world that monopolizes our attention. A great novel, according to Ortega, tricks us into thinking that there is no windowpane. As a result, our access to the world of the characters seems unmediated. And so in the novels of Stendhal or Trollope intranscendence appears as hermeticism, the power of these books to lure their readers into imaginary gardens and block the exit. I can think of no better description of the effect of watching TAGS, which also transports its viewers, novel-like, to the closed world of Mayberry. Other sitcoms don't do this, or do it to a lesser extent, not because they are self-referential (though some are: witness The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet or It's Garry Shandling's Show), but because they are permeable to contemporaneity. Their imaginary gardens can't help reminding us of real toads. But TAGS makes a point of insulating Mayberry from the amphibian here and now, frog gigging notwithstanding. Mayberry is less a microcosm than a heterocosm, a world apart. The episodes of TAGS do not literally unfold in another era, like those of The Waltons or Happy Days, but they might as well have. According to Harvey Bullock, the scriptwriters "never really designated the period we were writing about, but we were always thinking earlier, back in the amorphous middle age of innocence, if you will." Ortega also points out that the finest novels turn their readers into provincials, temporary inhabitants of narrow, confined realms. TAGS has turned millions of Americans and at least one Cuban into Mayberrians, whether or not Briscoe Darling consents.
Something else that TAGS has in common with the classical novel is what Ortega calls morosidad (slowness, long.windedness). This may seem paradoxical, given how quickly the half-hour episodes fly by. But if one regards them as installments in a serial narrative―"The Mayberry Chronicles"-.then it takes much longer to watch the 249 episodes of TAGS than to read War and Peace. What the viewer retains from all those hours of exposure are not only specific scenes―Barney dressed up like a mannequin, Charlene Darling singing "Salty Dog," Goober dismantling a car inside the courthouse―but also an abiding sense of what it's like to live in Mayberry. Remarking on the novel's subordination of event to experience, Ortega adds that recalling the title of a novel that we've read is tantamount to naming a place where we have lived. What we remember most distinctly is not the plot but the climate, the faces on the street, the pace of life. In sum, "la hora simple y sin leyenda" ("the simple, unremarkable hour")―that is, uneventful duration. One of the keys to the success of TAGS is its ability to render uneventful duration, a notion whose material correlate is whittling, a favorite activity of the townsfolk. Crazy things go on in Mayberry, but they are temporary disturbances, like the pebbles Opie throws into Myers Lake at the beginning of each episode.
During its original run, Mayberry barely registered a tremor of the social and political upheavals that were sweeping the country. Never mind that in February 1960, a few months before TAGS premiered, African American college students staged a sit-in at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro, a stone's throw away from the fictional location of Mayberry, an event that set off similar protests in other segregated facilities in North Carolina. Like other denizens of sixties sitcoms, the inhabitants of this almost lily-white town lived in blissful ignorance of the turmoil around them. Even so, if the show was escapist in the 1960s, today, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, it must seem like the jawbone of a dinosaur, especially to younger viewers, most of whom have never used a typewriter, much less a candlestick phone.
When TAGS went on the air, one-third of Americans still lived in rural areas. By 2010, that number had dropped to 15 percent. To mark the show's thirtieth anniversary in 1990, Mount Airy celebrated its first Mayberry Days. At the time, most of the actors who had appeared on the show were still alive, and many of the attendees had seen it on Monday nights. But those people are now at least in their sixties. (Before his death Andy Griffith usually topped the list of celebrities that AARP members were most interested in.) As I write, the median age in the United States is thirty-eight years, which means that most Americans are not old enough to have seen the show except in reruns or on DVDs. And yet the show retains its appeal. A Google search for "Mayberry" will yield over five million hits.
For the last couple of years, I've been performing an unscientific survey in my classes at Columbia University. I bring to class a still shot from the episode of TAGS in which a young Barbara Eden (later of I Dream of Jeannie fame) arrives in Mayberry and installs herself as a manicurist in Floyd's barbershop, much to his bewilderment. The shot shows the "boys" (Andy, Barney, Floyd, Mayor Pike, and a couple of other Mayberrians―a barbershop sextet) staring wide-eyed at Barbara, "a calendar come to life," as she gets off the Nashville bus. I pass the photo around, tell my students that it's from an old TV program that their parents or grandparents might have watched, and ask whether they know the name of the show or of any of the characters. Typically, in a class of twenty, at least half will be able to identify the show. Many of them will also be able to name Barney and Andy. On one occasion a student not only knew the name of the program and all of the main characters, but was able to recall that particular episode. It turned out that she was born in Montgomery, Alabama, and grew up watching TAGS every afternoon on a local station.
I marvel at the fact that these young people, a generation of texters and tweeters, are still drawn to Mayberry. But I maybe shouldn't. The Mayberry Gazette's gossip column was called "Mayberry after Midnight," a funny name because the town's night owl, Barney Fife, hits the sack at the late hour of 10:45 p.m. The reason for watching TAGS was never its timeliness. From the outset, the show was framed in the past tense. In this respect, the more time passes, the more irrelevantly seductive Mayberry becomes, like the image of a man and his son, poles over their shoulders, heading for a fishin' hole.
“This 194-page book, the first book about "The Andy Griffith Show" in over 12 years, is the most scholarly book about the show to date. It's sure to be fascinating reading for the many devoted fans of the show, and is certain to expand any fan's knowledge of and appreciation for "The Andy Griffith Show" and what Mayberry means to all of us.And along the way, we might even learn some things about ourselves, too.”
The Andy Griffith Show Rerun Watcher's Club
“As always, Gustavo Pérez Firmat’s engaging prose and well researched, detailed analysis of the series and its meaning for him is a pleasure to read. For those of us who, like the author, grew up watching the show, the book brings back fond memories while letting us see Mayberry in a new way. Those who did not grow up watching the show may well be inspired to find it on reruns and enter into Mayberry’s timelessness where home feels, almost, like a place we can go back to.”
South Atlantic Review
“This is, by far, the best volume about a single television show that I have ever read. . . . Not only is it the most thorough and informed treatment of The Andy Griffith Show available, it also provides many insights and contexts about 1960s television in general. I think, however, that it may find its greatest audience among general readers. . . . The rabid fans—and there are many of them—would consider this required reading, but many other more casual viewers who have a warm and nostalgic relationship to the show will also find it very appealing.”
Robert J. Thompson, founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture and Trustee Professor, S. I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Syracuse University
“Once I took a look at the first few paragraphs, I couldn’t put the book down. By the time I finished reading it, Pérez Firmat had convinced me that Mayberry, long regarded as an icon of the rural, pastoral, and nostalgic South, is also a special location on the cultural map of Cuban America. Fans of The Andy Griffith Show—and they are legion—will be thrilled by this smart, witty, and moving book.”
Jorge Olivares, Allen Family Professor of Latin American Literature, Colby College