September 11, 2012

All in the Family

by Gary Fearon, Creative Director

Some years ago, I had the pleasure of speaking with Richard Kelly, who literally wrote the book on The Andy Griffith Show.  His highly entertaining and informative volume is not only a comprehensive episode guide, but a fascinating behind-the-scenes visit with the unforgettable cast and characters who populated Mayberry from 1960 to 1968.

In light of Andy's recent death, I thought you might appreciate this.  While discussing what made The Andy Griffith Show such an enduring classic, two things Mr Kelly had to say have always stuck with me, and I've seen their truth time and time again:

1. It wasn't about the jokes, but the personalities.
2. The personalities represented the family unit.

To explain:

1. Think of any scene in any episode of The Andy Griffith Show.  You'll be hard pressed to remember any punchlines.  There was plenty of humor, yes, and a spate of catch phrases like "Nip it" or "Gol-ly," but the laughs sprang from the characters and how they dealt with each situation in this situation comedy.

Anticipating how Barney would react to an embarrassing turn of events was often much funnier than any one-liner he might have uttered.  We got to know the personalities on the show through their believable, consistent behavior.  If it had been a town of stand-up comics, we'd have never bought into it, or felt like we knew these people. That is a failing of many of today's sitcoms, which are a series of setup and punchline, setup and punchline.  But back in Mayberry, we cared about Aunt Bee's feelings when the pickles which she thought were prize-winning actually tasted like kerosene.

2. A sense of family invites us in and makes us feel at home.  Andy, the patriarch, was complemented by Bee, the mother figure, and of course Opie rounded out the immediate family.  We also have characters who represent the the blowhard brother-in-law (Barney), the lovable uncle (Floyd), the busybody aunt (Clara), the unsophisticated cousin (take your pick, Gomer or Goober), etc.  Stereotypes to a large degree, perhaps, but consider other successful sitcoms and you'll see the same formula played out:

The Mary Tyler Moore Show, for instance.  Lou Grant was a strong father figure to Mary's career woman of the 70s (being the 70s, it was cool not to have kids, but if there was a child on the show, wide-eyed Georgette might fill the bill).  Ted Baxter was your blustering brother-in-law, and Murray was the uncle you could go to for a different view on things.

Again, most of the characters on this show had personalities we got to know, to the point where humor could come from merely expecting how they would react to situations. 

A good one-liner is fine for a quick laugh.  But for humor that reaches the heart and stays with us, a situation we can identify with and a personality we care about is the magic formula.  Andy had that magic, which is why we'll always have a fondness for Mayberry.

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