A couple of weeks ago, a reader sent in a sprawling essay from the Los Angeles Review Of Books that’s broadly about Andy Griffith and his legacy, written by Evan Smith Rakoff, a man who, like Griffith, grew up in North Carolina. But the reader said that it’s really about all kinds of things. He wrote:
Ostensibly, it’s about Andy Griffith and Mayberry — but it isn’t just that by a long distance. I hope you enjoy it, it is a long read but I think a truly moving and reflective one, on everything from the power of cultural memory to family life, on what makes America how we see and sense it, and from what sources. Every time I thought I had a sense of what this essay would encompass, it opened up yet another door, and I would proclaim it to be something close to magisterial.
He’s right, it really is a remarkable piece of work. Here’s a quote from it, but it hardly gives you a sense of the scope of the Rakoff essay, which is, generally speaking, about The Andy Griffith Show, and Andy Griffith, as cultural history, written by a man who loves it for complicated reasons:
In Mayberry, Thelma Lou didn’t put a cigarette out on Barney’s arm like my girlfriend did to on mine; Andy Taylor wasn’t embittered or slump-shouldered after a lifetime of ridicule by those with more social status; no Beasley beat his wife half to death with a shoe. Still, Mayberry was a believable universe without these things. Tools of television helped make this true — camera angles, lighting, a disciplined laugh track, extras so far in the background they are almost invisible, along with other aspects I’ve mentioned. But there is one thing about the story that has not been discussed, and it is the thing that gives it gravitas, and why I, and others, watched. Opie’s mother is dead, unaccountably, before the show begins — it’s what sets the fiction in motion. Aunt Bee arrives to keep Opie from growing up wild and sullen — to keep the home from falling apart. The show offers humor as a way to contend with a constant state of grief.
In 1963, Andy Griffith appeared on Bob Hope’s NBC comedy special, invited to lampoon The Andy Griffith Show. In the 10-minute sketch, Hope, as a mafia boss, arrives in Mayberry to create an alibi for a high-profile murder. Hope brings with him a parade of violence, sex, extortion, racketeering, and ill-gotten riches. In the end, all the players, including Andy, are piled dead on the floor, shot in a battle of rival gangs. After a beat, Andy slowly rises, grabs his fishing rod and makes for the door. Bob Hope lifts his head, “Hey, Andy, wait a minute, you’re supposed to be dead. Where ya going?” Andy answers, “Fishing. On my show we always have a happy ending.”
The small town where I grew up in North Carolina was not so unlike Andy Griffith’s hometown of Mount Airy. It was a dry county, churches were prominent; we had a sole high school the community rallied around. Still, in this little idyllic town, the dad next door beat his sons without mercy; a lady down the street shot her drunken husband; a teenager fell into a coma after falling off his skateboard and fracturing his skull; a state trooper’s son, just out of high school, offered all us boys playing kick-the-can a dollar if we’d let him give us blowjobs; the dentist’s son shot himself in the chest; the coroner’s son hung himself; the dad I’d known was long dead, my natural father forever estranged, my mother silent behind her bedroom door, trapped by depression and prescription narcotics. When I heard that famous whistling theme song at 5:30 p.m., I ran inside, knelt on the floor, and turned my face fully toward the screen. I came inside when I was called.