A former English professor of mine called me last night to offer his condolences about the death of Andy Griffith.
No, I am not related to the iconic actor. My first book was about his legendary Andy Griffith Show. It was called Mayberry, My Hometown and in it I chronicled what I called the “magic of Mayberry,” but which Ron Howard corrected me was actually just people looking out for each other and being kind to each other.
My former teacher told me something I had forgotten. He told me that during a conversation many years ago, I had made the remark, “That’s not the Mayberry way,” and he said it had stuck with him ever since.
What is the Mayberry Way? Is it a liberal ideology? A conservative one? A Biblical one?
What are Mayberry values and why are they so well defined that the phrase “Mayberry values” is understood without further explanation?
As Ron Howard astutely summed it up, it’s all about kindness.
The Mayberry Way was about people being kind to each other. Sheriff Andy Taylor treated everyone — moonshiners, bank robbers, abusive spouses, alcoholics, petty thieves, mischievous youth, visiting FBI agents and “fun girls” — with respect and kindness. He also treated Mayberry denizens like Goober, Gomer, and Ernest T. Bass — characters who could easily and regularly try the patience of less-elevated souls — with bemused acceptance and, above all, respect and kindness.
Ernest T., for heaven’s sake, would break windows for fun (and to make a statement, of course.)
Goober assembled a car in the courthouse.
Gomer … well, let’s just say Gomer was frustrating and leave it at that.
The visiting Darling family would refill their truck’s radiator from the horse trough, and think nothing of applying their mountain logic and laws to the doing of Mayberry, leaving a frazzled Sheriff Taylor to straighten everything out (while dealing with the complicating fact that Charlene Darling wanted to marry him, of course.)
But Sheriff Taylor not only did not snap at Briscoe Darling and his taciturn clan, he treated them with boundless respect and even had them over to supper, where Aunt Bea saw to it that they ate their fill. (And then some.)
Andy Taylor’s default position was respectful.
Unlike his lovable, bumbling deputy, one-bullet Barney Fife, who was more than willing to crack the whip, cite the law, and slam the cell doors shut, Andy was keenly able to put himself in other people’s places and may have been one of the most empathetic characters every to grace primetime TV.
Andy Taylor’s empathy was never more obvious than when dealing with Barney. I couldn’t tell you how many times Andy manipulated circumstances in order to make Barney the hero, or to save him being embarrassed.
He also taught his son Opie to think of others, and to take responsibility for his actions. In my favorite episode, “Opie the Birdman,” Opie kills a mother bird with a slingshot (after being warned by his father to be careful with it), leaving her three newborn chicks crying for their mother in their nest.
Andy gently makes Opie realize the profound tragedy of his actions, but leaves it to Opie to figure out how to make amends. Opie’s education at the hands of his father and Aunt Bea serve him well and he decides to take care of the chicks himself until they are able to fly away on their own. He names them Wynken, Blynken, and Nod, and hand-feeds them “juicy worms” every day.
And they thrive. Opie is delighted with their progress, but the day comes when Andy makes him realize that they’re all too big for their cage and that he has to let them go. Reluctantly, he takes them out of the cage one by one and sets them aflight.
And then he looks at the empty cage and says, “Cage sure looks awful empty, don’t it, Paw?”
Andy nods and says it does, and then says one of the greatest lines of the series, and possibly of television history: “But don’t the trees look nice and full?”
Personal responsibility and kindness were the lessons Andy had taught Opie over the years, and personal responsibility and kindness were how Opie redeemed himself after making a tragic mistake.
And that is the Mayberry Way.
Interestingly, the dynamic of Mayberry and the personalities of its many wonderful characters are now so engrained in the American cultural zeitgeist that we can understand why my comment to my teacher about something not being the Mayberry Way resonated with him.
It’s like “What would Jesus do?”
Or how they used a similar trope in The West Wing when CJ hands incoming White House Chief of Staff Josh Lyman a Post-It with “WWLD?” — “What would Leo do?” — written on it.
The simple question to ask when confronted with any morally tricky situation is “What’s the Mayberry Way?” Or even “What would Andy do?”
You’re handed too much change at a store? What’s the Mayberry Way? What would Andy do?
You’re confronted by a short-tempered co-worker? What’s the Mayberry Way? What would Andy do?
Your beloved Aunt Bea makes a batch of pickles that taste like kerosene? What’s the Mayberry Way? What would Andy do? (Actually, we know the answer to this one: you compliment her on her pickles so as not to hurt her feelings and then work diligently to get rid of them so you don’t have to eat any more of them!)
What I find most memorable about The Andy Griffith Show and Andy Griffith himself is that Mayberry and the show would not have existed without Andy Griffith. I know that seems obvious, but my point is that Andy’s nature, his essence, his very soul, were imbued within the writing, production, and acting on the show. The show and the town would not have been the same without Andy Griffith. He based the concept of the show on his childhood hometown of Mt. Airy, North Carolina, and it’s clear that that was where he was first introduced to the people, the places, the situations, and the lessons that he would fine-tune and interpret into what we now call the Mayberry Way.
Andy Griffith is gone, but Mayberry lives on, as does the Mayberry Way.
In the opening lines of Woody Allen’s Manhattan, Woody’s character talks about New York, saying, “To him, no matter what the season was, this was still a town that existed in black and white…”
That’s how I feel about Mayberry. To me, it still exists somewhere beyond our ken. Andy’s behind his desk, Barney’s sitting next to him, Otis is in his cell, and look here…Aunt Bea and Opie just walked in with a picnic basket loaded with Andy and Barney’s lunch.
I just hope she didn’t bring pickles.