Barney Fife and the way things were
By Michael M. Bates
Maybe there's a special place in the afterlife for Don Knotts. His comic genius gave us Barney Fife, undoubtedly one of the most memorable characters in television history.
Millions of us Boomers grew up watching Deputy Fife and the other unaffected folks of Mayberry on The Andy Griffith Show. For more than 40 years they've entertained us and our kids and our kids' kids.
It's fashionable to put down the program as being unreal, artificial and out of sync with what was going on in the 1960s. That's true to a degree. Mayberry didn't have protest demonstrations, riots, a drug culture, assassinations or other societal phenomena that typified the period.
But you know what? It was a welcome respite from the world's troubles and a chance to spend some time in an idyllic atmosphere where the biggest worry was if Barney the chick magnet were stretching himself too thin by trying to squeeze both Thelma Lou and Juanita from the diner into his fast paced, swingin' single lifestyle.
The show was and is still hilarious. Much of the mirth is due to the Barney Fife character. It's said that very early in the series Andy Griffith realized the gem he had in Mr. Knotts' portrayal and decided he'd play the straightman and let his deputy get the laughs.
That might not happen today. Many modern celebrities have such inflated and fragile egos that the concept of sharing isn't one with which they're comfortable.
Of course, Barney and his Mayberry pals could never make it on the air now. Television is saturated with sex, drenched in profanity and soaked in what passes in Hollywood for realism.
I saw a commercial last week in which a woman seductively beckons a man, possibly her husband. As he sees her, she strikes a provocative pose and languidly rubs her fishnet stocking clad leg. She asks if he's thinking what she's thinking. You bet, answers the lug: Two fish sandwiches for four bucks.
It's an ad for Arby's, for heaven's sake. I guess it could have been worse. She could have been rubbing her fishnet stocking clad leg with the company's oven mitt mascot, the character with the perpetual smile.
Three months ago, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission testified before a congressional committee. He cited a couple of studies conducted on television decency.
One concluded the use of profanity during the "Family Hour" increased 95 percent from 1998 to 2002. The other found that 70 percent of television shows in the 2004-2005 season had some sexual content, and the number of sexual scenes had nearly doubled since 1998.
The findings are interesting in that he wasn't comparing today's programming to TV in the 1960s, but to that of less than a decade ago. The situation then wasn't exactly tame, with Ally McBeal, Will & Grace and Dawson's Creek on primetime.
Barney and the gang would need major makeovers to even stand a chance of getting on the air in 2006. The program would have to be scripted something like this:
Sherriff Andy Taylor is a cop on the take, shaking down innocent motorists who make the mistake of driving through his town. His shack up honey, Helen Crump, is a domestic violence victim as the sheriff can't always hold his moonshine.
With Helen moving in, Aunt Bee goes to live with her neighbor Clara Edwards. They're thinking about relocating to a state where they can get married.
Thelma Lou organizes a feminist consciousness raising group when she finds out that Barney is having a third love child with Ernest T. Bass' sister.
Opie, rechristened Dopie, runs a crystal meth lab in Mt. Pilot. Floyd the barber sets aside his tonsorial business and now does tattoos and piercings exclusively.
Goober Pyle buys Wally's Gas Station and becomes the richest man in town, benefiting from obscene oil profits. The second richest man in town is his cousin Gomer, who's made millions operating a Nigerian Internet scam.
Otis Campbell still spends every weekend in jail. Not for public drunkenness, though. He's locked up for smoking, which was banned everywhere in town, including private homes, years ago.
"You Can't Go Home Again," wrote Thomas Wolfe. We won't be going back to the decently funny, warm, golden days of Mayberry either, given current standards. There isn't any room for that type of entertainment in the tawdry world of TV. A world that we the viewers have to a great extent created.
Fortunately, there are reruns and DVDs of the original series. And, of course, our memories of Barney and all the others. Thanks, Mr. Knotts.
Mike Bates is the author of Right Angles and Other Obstinate Truths. This essay originally appeared in the March 2, 2006 Oak Lawn Reporter.
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