Sometimes a single TV episode can exemplify the spirit of its time and the properties that make television a unique medium. A Very Special Episode presents The A.V. Club’s survey of TV at its most distinctive.
Television went hick-happy in the 1960s, moving out of the cities and suburbs and discovering a world of farms and tiny Southern hamlets populated by quirky characters with funny accents. The Andy Griffith Show was one of the first shows in the cycle, and it’s often grouped—unfairly—with the broader comedies that followed. The Andy Griffith Show wasn’t exactly stingy with the salt-of-the-earth oddballs, but Griffith used his behind-the-scenes pull to shape a vision of Southern community that was more varied, and truer to what he knew. The show looked authentic, and more importantly, it sounded authentic. In fact, I’ll go further: The Andy Griffith Show was the best-written, best-acted, best-shot sitcom of the ’60s—and I’ll stand on The Dick Van Dyke Show’s ottoman in my cowboy boots and say that.
Take the fourth-season Andy Griffith episode “The Sermon For Today,” a masterpiece of escalating farce that puts the show’s eclectic cast and deliberate pace to perfect use. The plot of “The Sermon For Today” is simple: A traveling preacher named Dr. Breen delivers a sermon called “What’s Your Hurry?”, about slowing down and enjoying life, and the people of Mayberry respond by working themselves into a tizzy to put on a “relaxing” band concert. Within that rough frame, the writers and cast scribble in a wealth of detail.
In the opening scene, for example, Sheriff Andy Taylor (played by Griffith) reads Little Orphan Annie aloud to his son Opie (Ron Howard), and has a pointless but sweet conversation about the age of its heroine. Then Aunt Bee (Francis Bavier) hustles the boys off the porch to get ready for church, after she and Andy have a contentious exchange about the necessity of impressing the visiting preacher “from New York.” Nearly everything about this scene—from the idle speculation about Little Orphan Annie to the terse disagreement over which minister the Taylor family should be “taking from”—deals primarily with character and setting, and only tangentially sets up the plot.
Similarly, the scene that follows is all delightful delay, as a now-dressed Andy and Opie wait impatiently for Aunt Bee to get off the phone with her friend Clara, whom they’re about to take to church. Again, the specificity of Aunt Bee’s gossip (“Everybody knows she’s been henna-rinsing for years!”) and the genuine irritation in the voices of both Andy and his aunt serve primarily as atmosphere. There are no “gags” here, per se. Note what Andy does throughout the scene: He fills out an envelope to put in the offering plate. We never see the offertory, and the envelope is never mentioned or seen again. But that’s exactly what a man on his way to church would be doing.
We finally arrive at All Souls Church, where the congregation is singing “Holy Spirit, Truth Divine” while the ladies mime appreciation of each other’s hats, and Andy’s best friend and deputy Barney Fife (played by Don Knotts) fumbles to keep his place in the hymn. These are well-observed bits of character comedy—especially Barney losing track of the song, which should be a familiar experience to any churchgoer—but even more significant is the way the scene moves back and forth from the individuals having their own little mini-dramas to the whole community singing as one. Church attendance is such a significant part of American life, and yet it’s rarely a significant part of American television (outside of The Simpsons, oddly). Here, The Andy Griffith Show reaffirms the rituals that unite.
As for the sermon in “The Sermon For Today,” it’s a well-crafted piece of faux-profound pop-philosophy, delivered with the proper fatuousness by guest star David Lewis. Even better are the reactions to “What’s Your Hurry?”, such as Andy quickly and subtly saving Barney from the embarrassment of applauding the introduction, Opie catching a fly and getting no credit for it…
…and finally, Barney and Andy struggling to stay awake.
After the service, Barney thanks Dr. Breen for his wonderful message, though he clearly wasn’t paying attention. (“That’s one subject you just can’t talk enough about: sin.”) Then the Taylors and Barney return home for Sunday dinner, where Barney packs away a huge meal and boasts to Andy how it’ll all turn to fat, not muscle. (“That’s the mark of us Fifes.”) Andy suggests that they go pick up some ice cream for later, and he and Barney have a lazy back-and-forth about who should pick it up.
Aunt Bee, arriving late and missing the gist of the conversation, castigates the boys for their urgency, and demands they sit back down on the porch and take it easy. But then the subject of Dr. Breen’s sermon and his mention of soothing evening band concerts comes up, and within minutes, all concerned are mobilized to sew up the old uniforms, rehearse with the old band, and fix up the old bandstand to put on a concert that very night.
The episode’s second act is far more frenzied than the first. Aside from a short, funny, deadpan dialogue exchange between Andy and Barney about the latter’s advertising plans…
…the second part of “The Sermon For Today” is all about comings-and-goings and people hollering at each other. Gomer Pyle (played by Jim Nabors) arrives at the rickety bandstand with his cousin Goober’s toolbox—“Hey to Goober,” Andy says, perfunctorily—and Barney yells at him over whether there might be spiders under the sagging stage.
Meanwhile, Aunt Bee and Clara bicker over whether the uniforms are fixable, with Bee wanting to press on and Clara adopting an “I told you so” tone. Caught in the crossfire: Opie, who’s seen a lazy Sunday afternoon turn into long hours of standing still in a hot, itchy band-coat.
The only part of “The Sermon For Today” that doesn’t work is the last scene of the second act, when Andy finds out that his band is too rusty to perform. There’s an overly broad bit of shtick involving a deaf saxophonist, and once Barney, Gomer, Bee, and Clara arrive at the courthouse, their squabbling quickly turns shrill. But the episode rallies in the epilogue, when Dr. Breen stops by again and finds everyone sprawled out, exhausted, on the Taylors’ front porch. Dr. Breen praises them for taking his lessons to heart, then apologizes that he can’t stay for coffee and dessert, since he has another engagement. And Andy needles him—gently—by asking, “What’s your hurry?” It isn’t just the people of Mayberry who’ve taken the wrong message from Dr. Breen; the reverend himself is either self-deluded or an out-and-out hypocrite. He’s delivered a sermon by rote, pretending he’s tailored it specifically to this congregation, when he clearly hasn’t. And that sermon contains a message he himself won’t follow.
“The Sermon For Today” is credited to writer John Whedon (yep, Joss Whedon’s grandpa), but the writing on any given The Andy Griffith Show was highly collaborative. The show’s staff gathered between seasons for three-day “seminars” to brainstorm ideas, which were then assigned around to the writers. The cast gave each episode multiple table-reads well ahead of going into production, and everyone involved tweaked the dialogue, often favoring lines that rang true over lines that got big laughs. Griffith and Knotts vetted their scenes especially carefully, bringing in old expressions they remembered from their respective Southern childhoods. And when an episode looked to be running short, the two stars would huddle in a corner and come up with the little time-filler conversations that became some of The Andy Griffith Show’s most beloved scenes.
In Dr. Richard Kelly’s 1981 book The Andy Griffith Show, one of the show’s regular writers, Harvey Bullock, described the ways the producers pampered their writers, and the level of prestige the industry afforded those who worked on the show:
After just one completed script for the Griffith Show, my agent was able to get me assignments on many other programs, such as The Danny Thomas Show and The Dick Van Dyke Show. The Griffith Show was truly an open sesamè… Credit goes to Sheldon Leonard and Aaron Ruben… They nurtured our fragile egos in even the most minute ways. When we had appointments to pitch stories, they never kept us waiting in the outer room. And when [we were] with them, they did not take routine phone calls. They gave every stray notion respectful consideration. The coffee pot was on, the cigar humidor open.
The show’s direction was just as strong, and focused mainly on performance, perhaps because the producers tended to hire people with long acting résumés to step behind the camera. Veteran character actor Richard Crenna directed “The Sermon For Today,” as well as a handful of other episodes, and comic actor Howard Morris—best-known for playing Ernest T. Bass on Andy Griffith—was one of the show’s regular helmers. Episodes frequently relied on extended dialogue-free stretches where a subtly moving camera, artful close-ups, small acting gestures, richly detailed décor, and a smart use of exterior locations carried the story. There’s nothing in “The Sermon For Today” that can compete with the lovely dolly-in to a perfectly peeled apple in the third-season classic “Man In A Hurry,” but Crenna has the camera in the right place to capture little comic moments, like Barney beaming with pride when Andy praises his suggestion of using a jack on the bandstand, or Gomer staring at his hand at the end of the episode and muttering, “Spider-bite…”
In Kelly’s book, Griffith credits the single-camera, no-studio audience format for allowing the show to go softer with its comedy. He complains that three-camera shows tend to start with jokes, not characters, and that the writers of those shows are too willing to eliminate good lines if they don’t get a laugh in dress rehearsal. Knotts agrees:
When you’re doing theater you play to the audience. When you’re doing film or television you play to the camera—that’s where it counts. I think doing a television show before a live audience diffuses the focus of an actor and even the people in charge because they’re always listening for what gets a laugh and they’re punching up the lines with jokes. On the Griffith Show we never used jokes. Well, sometimes we would but they were very well disguised. As Andy would say, “If it sounds like a joke, throw it out.” That’s what we did.
It took a while for The Andy Griffith Show to find its footing. Griffith himself comes off more hickish and less sage in the first season, while Knotts’ prideful, bumbling deputy didn’t become a wholly ingenious comic creation until about halfway through season one. By the second season, the two stars developed an easy, slow-simmering rhythm, based on Griffith patiently pushing Knotts through multiple states of frustration. In Kelly’s book, producer Aaron Ruben says that the trick was to make Barney Fife foolish enough to laugh at, but likeable enough that the audience wouldn’t reject Andy for coddling him. He adds that it was equally tricky building a show around Griffith, who retreated quickly from the clownish character he played in the first season and became more of a straight man, helping the supporting characters with their problems. The Andy Griffith Show was undoubtedly a situation comedy, but rarely has a sitcom’s humor been less about its “situations.”
That commitment to building a believable world extended to the sets and the outdoor locations, which make the show feel like it was actually filmed in North Carolina, not at the Desilu lot in Los Angeles. Outside the studio, the city was changing rapidly, and those changes crept into the show in small ways: guest shots by swingin’ ’60s scenesters like Jack Nicholson and Rob Reiner; regular appearances by comedian Jack Burns (the former partner of George Carlin) and bluegrass musician Doug Dillard (who later partnered with The Byrds’ Gene Clark for a pair of terrific folk-rock albums); early scripts by future Room 222/Mary Tyler Moore Show writer James L. Brooks; and so on. Ron Howard’s presence is also a reminder of where showbiz was headed in the years after The Andy Griffith Show went off the air. Howard went on to star in American Graffiti with film-school brat George Lucas, then worked his way up to being a blockbuster filmmaker himself after apprenticing with drive-in maven Roger Corman. In its own small way, The Andy Griffith Show was part of several pop-culture revolutions.
That said, it’d be inapt to call The Andy Griffith Show true to its times. Most damningly, the show completely sidestepped the issue of Southern race relations. Mayberry was an all-white town, aside from the very occasional extra. Granted, Andy Griffith wasn’t an “issue of the day” kind of series, and adding black characters would’ve raised a lot of questions in the minds of the viewers who’d just seen protest marches on the nightly news. But this was still a disappointing failure of nerve on Griffith’s part, since he by all accounts was inclined to be sympathetic to the civil-rights cause. Because the show was so apolitical, it could’ve made a strong statement, just by including African-Americans as a vital part of Mayberry life.
Because otherwise, The Andy Griffith Show defied stereotypes more often than not. Only a few characters spoke with exaggerated Southern drawls, and the ones who did were often played by native Southerners. Mayberry contained a good mix of farmers, businessmen, and even a few intellectuals, and though the town was pretty far from any major cities, the townsfolk seemed reasonably up to date on movies, music, television, books, and the latest scientific breakthroughs. Even now, a trip to Mayberry doesn’t feel like a journey way off the beaten path; it’s more like a short visit with a beloved relative who lives right off the interstate.
Growing up in Nashville, I had plenty of chances to take those trips, since Nashville—and specifically Vanderbilt University—was the home base of “The Andy Griffith Show Rerun Watchers Club,” a group that published the newsletter The Bullet, ran fan-polls to determine all-time favorite episodes, and organized Griffith Show marathons on our local UHF station. I’d stay up late, watching episode after episode, marveling at how different The Andy Griffith Show’s characters and setting were from the nondescript Middletown, U.S.A.s I was used to seeing on TV. This was more like seeing pieces of my own life, or home movies featuring my older friends and relatives.
Television is especially good at two things: creating well-populated modern spaces that people want to retreat to weekly, and preserving parts of our past that we like to revisit. The Andy Griffith Show did both. Mayberry is a comfortable place just to hang out for 22 minutes at a time, but also a place that freezes moments, gestures, and conversations for eternity. I can’t see Aunt Bee hustling Andy and Opie off the porch without thinking about how my own father was often extra-surly on Sunday mornings, usually because he was the one making us all late to church. And I can’t hear Andy sarcastically telling a flustered Aunt Bee to “just wear one” earring without thinking about my father-in-law, who has a similarly wry Southern wit.
“The Sermon For Today” is about how people drive themselves to exhaustion in order to relax, which is an apt subject for a show that embraced the contradictions of human behavior. Mayberry was a friendly town full of people who were often snappish. The show was made by progressive entertainers who wound up celebrating conservatism. It presents a peaceful fantasy of small-town living, populated by the hauntingly real. The show has been a constant on television for 50 years, yet remains as fresh as homemade bread. In offering its fans a place to return to again and again for comfort, nostalgia, and reminders of how people really are, The Andy Griffith Show illuminates the words of that old hymn: “Firmly bound, forever free.”
Information on the production of The Andy Griffith Show (including quotes from the cast and writers) taken from Richard Kelly’s 1981 book The Andy Griffith Show, one of the first extensive academic/historical treatments of a sitcom.
Next time on A Very Special Episode: Eerie Indiana, “Reality Takes A Holiday.”