Mild insomniacs the world over have their own methods of finding sleep: the age-old tactic of counting sheep, imagining a relaxing scene, white noise, et cetera.
I go to Mayberry to find sleep.
Every night, almost without fail, I drift off to sleep with The Andy Griffith Show playing on my iPad. Most nights, I don’t make it through a single episode before sleep finds me. A couple of weeks ago it took me four different nights to get through Man in a Hurry — the episode where a businessman’s car breaks down in Mayberry on a Sunday morning. One night I fell asleep somewhere along about the time Andy was yelling at Opie for pulling horse hairs out of the lapel of his suit. Another night, I made it until Malcolm Tucker was in despair over the Mendlebright sisters tying up the phone system by complaining about their feet falling asleep.
I don’t know how many times I’ve seen each episode of The Andy Griffith Show. I start at Season 1, Episode 1 and watch it through, then start over. Or, sometimes I watch through the five black-and-white seasons, then start over when Barney Fife leaves for Raleigh and color comes to Mayberry.
Nearly 60 years after Sheldon Leonard first brought Sheriff Andy Taylor and his bumbling sidekick Fife into our living rooms, millions of folks are still finding their way back to Mayberry. TAGS has never left the small screen, with reruns still showing up on TV Land and network stations, and the entire series available on streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime.
There are a number of reasons why TAGS has remained one of America’s most beloved television shows. It wouldn’t have been the same without Sheriff Taylor, and it wasn’t the same without Deputy Fife. But, mostly, the show’s longevity boils down to one simple thing: Mayberry.
In fact, Leonard eventually realized — and Griffith agreed — that the show should’ve been named “Mayberry” from the start, bearing the name of the town it was set in rather than its top star.
The Andy Griffith Show had to evolve to become what it became. Originally, Sheriff Taylor was supposed to be an arch-enemy to the town’s mayor. Then, he was supposed to be the show’s funnyman, which is why he began Season 1 as a country bumpkin. But as soon as Don Knotts was cast as Deputy Fife, Griffith realized that he should play straight man to Knotts as the laugh-generator, and viewers watched as Griffith’s character transformed throughout the first season.
But at the center of that evolution was Mayberry — the iconic, slow-moving town where problems didn’t seem to exist. The political issues of the day — racial strife, civil rights struggles and war protests — weren’t depicted. The closest Mayberry came to touching national politics was the town’s barber, Floyd Lawson, wondering which timeless quotes to attribute to Calvin Coolidge (“No, Floyd, Calvin Coolidge didn’t say everything!”). Nor were there depictions of folks trudging off to a factory job at 4 a.m., or worrying about no job at all. In Mayberry, life’s biggest problems revolved around finding the strength to get up out of the chair on a lazy Sunday afternoon and go down to the drugstore for ice cream before heading over to Thelma Lou’s to watch TV.
Obviously Mayberry was fictional, the work of nostalgia. Griffith once said that the show really depicted life as it was 30 years earlier, but there was never a place as peaceful and relaxed as Mayberry — not in the 1930s, not in the 1960s and certainly not in the 21st century. But that didn’t stop folks from aspiring to find their own Mayberry, which is one big reason why TAGS soared to stardom in the ‘60s. Other shows depicting rural life and characters found success in that era, but none to the level of Andy Griffith — because no other TV producer was able to recreate Mayberry.
Most fans of TAGS agree that the show just wasn’t the same after Season 5, and there are several prevailing theories why.
Most commonly, the absence of Barney Fife is blamed, as Knotts left the show to pursue a movie career. Make no mistake, Deputy Fife was central to the show’s success. Warren Ferguson, the hapless deputy who replaced Fife, might have become a TV icon in his own right if he hadn’t been following Fife — just as Tennessee sports broadcaster Bob Kesling would no doubt have been more appreciated if he hadn’t followed John Ward. Knotts’ shoes were simply too big to fill.
Others feel that the move from black-and-white to color erased much of the laid-back, carefree charisma.
There is perhaps another factor, as well: that the show had simply run its course. The more I watch TAGS, the more I realize that Season 5, which was still in black-and-white, and still with Knotts onboard, just wasn’t as good as Seasons 2-4. The storylines were becoming a little more stale, the characters a little more forced, and that trend continued into Seasons 6-8.
Mostly, though, I think the show began to age because Mayberry became less of a focal point. After Season 5, the Taylor family and the rest of the show’s characters began to spend more time out of town. Several episodes were spent in Hollywood. We spent more time among Raleigh’s high-rises. We followed Howard Sprague to the beach and Aunt Bee to Mexico. And an entire episode revolved around Aunt Bee in the sky, as a fledgling pilot.
All of those were a far cry from sitting on Andy’s front porch, while Andy strummed his guitar or whittled on an apple or piece of wood and Aunt Bee fanned the evening humidity away. And that, perhaps more than anything, is why The Andy Griffith Show began to decline. Because the most iconic aspect of TAGS wasn’t Sheriff Taylor or Deputy Fife or the show’s cozy, black-and-white presentation. It was Mayberry, and an innate desire of Americans urban and rural alike to get there.
Sixty years later, Americans of all walks of life are still going back to Mayberry — even if it’s just to fall asleep.