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The (Brilliant) Andy Griffith Show

Consider a list of “The Top 20 Greatest Things of All Time.”  Wide-open category.   I’ll start, in no particular order:  Chocolate Ice Cream, New Orleans, Golden Retrievers, “Sgt. Pepper’s,” the Gutenberg Printing Press, the Polio Vaccine, Pac-Man…I’ll work on the rest of the list later, but one of the items that must be included is “The Andy Griffith Show.”  1960 – 1968.  A classic.

Even in its day, the show’s nostalgia for a simpler time already felt quaint and out of step with the Swingin’ Sixties.  Yet today, 60 years later, it still holds up, because its humor comes from the timeless struggle of people getting along with people.  There will always be The Neighborhood Gossip.  There will always be The Clueless Individual who is confident beyond his capabilities.  These characteristics don’t go out of style; they’ll continue to be relevant for as long as people are on the planet.

The strength of “The Andy Griffith Show” also comes from great performances and great writing, but the bonus scoop of ice cream on top of the show’s apple pie is that it gives itself permission not to be funny 100% of the time.  There are moments of genuine empathy and humanity, and the writing is so subtle and so perfect, those scenes sneak up on you—you’re laughing one minute, lump in your throat the next.  Two good examples come to mind.

Season 4, Episode 1: “Opie, The Bird Man.”  Opie has raised three baby birds who were orphaned when he accidentally killed their mother with a slingshot.  (Yikes!  Rough start, already.)  Now the birds are older, and Andy is explaining to Opie that it’s time to set them free.  Opie worries that he didn’t prepare them for that, as he “wasn’t really their Ma.”  They’re talking about the birds, but Andy has to be thinking about his own situation and the inevitable day when Opie leaves the nest.  (We’re never told how Opie’s mother died, but Andy is a widower.)  Touching moment.  Check out the clip.

Come on, man, that’s GOLD!  Great stuff and played so subtly, I didn’t make the connection of the subtext the first 100 times I saw it.

Even more subtle is an exchange with the unhinged Ernest T. Bass who would periodically scamper down from the mountains and wreak havoc on the town.  Season 4, Episode 3:  “Ernest T. Bass Joins the Army.”  In this one, Ernest T. spends most of the episode saying he wants to enlist, but he’s such a maniac, he’s never going to make it past the first push-up.  You might say I’m reaching on this one but hear me out.

E.T. Bass finally reveals that what he really wants from the Army is a uniform, making him more appealing to the gals back home.  The reality is that he is simply too much of a flake to succeed with the ladies, and, in his heart, he knows it.  He says, “The only thing standing ‘twixt me and sweet romance is…uniform.”  He doesn’t say, “a uniform,” he says “uniform”—as in, he lacks uniformity.  As in, he is not uniform.  I would like to suggest that the writers gave Ernest T. a moment of clarity and had him say (but not say), “I’m different, and I’m lonely.”  Andy gets it.  You can tell by his reaction and by the way the music comes in.  This scene has always stuck with me, and I think I’m right about it.  Or maybe I’m as disconnected from reality as Ernest T. Bass.  Play the video and decide for yourself!