ASHLAND, Va. (WTVR) – Early 1960s, the Civil Rights movement, strife in the South, pain lingering from slavery and the Civil War – and here comes this new show that shows the south in a whole new light, “The Andy Griffith Show.”
So says southern historian and author Mark Malvasi, a history professor at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland. “I think it was showing the south in a different light, that these people aren’t stupid and yokels, and more than that, if you really want to put it in the context of the Civil Rights movement, not every white southerner was vicious, and hateful . . . “
It was the first of a run of hit TV comedies having a look at the south: “Gomer Pyle-USMC,” “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “Petticoat Junction” and “Green Acres” followed.
“Andy liked to play the yokel on occasion,” Malvasi said. “The character was generally smarter than everybody, including the yankees who came down to try to tell him how to do his business.”
Sometimes the others were more sophisticated, but Andy’s simple southern style fooled them, a classic southern comic tradition a la Br’er Rabbit and his “don’t throw me in the briar patch.”
Sheriff Andy was a man who knew his limitations, the opposite of the know-it-all, oppressive and crooked southern sheriffs stereotyped by Hollywood in movies such as “Heat Of The Night.”
“He wasn’t like that,” Malvasi said. “But he didn’t also adhere strictly to the letter of the law. If the law was inhumane, Andy found a way around it” as he did in an episode about a store foreclosure.
The character was very much a modern man – the gentle patriarch of Mayberry and a loving single father. But he also represented a time of family responsibility – he was loyal to his maiden aunt, giving her an honored place in his home.
“The people in his town share his values,” Malvasi said. “They share his world view.” Which is why he could maintain peace gently.
Even the town drunk, Otis, was on the same page.
“Andy doesn’t have to hunt him down. When he’s drunk, Otis comes in on a Saturday night, locks himself in a jail cell” and sleeps it off.
But the show “did ignore all of the social upheaval, the political upheaval, the racial tension and the violence that was tearing apart the south at the same time the show was airing.”
Still, Malvasi said, you had a pretty clear idea as to what Andy would do with protestors and the rapidly changing social landscape. The popular comedy showed “people could live together, they could put up with each other’s foibles, and they didn’t have to dislike or hate each other. They could actually help each other.
“That was a counter to so much of the upheaval that was taking place.”
Andy Griffith, the star and one of the shapers of the show’s arc, died Tuesday. He was 86.