Culture and the Sitcom — Goodbye to Andy Griffith

Sitcoms have loomed large in my thoughts this week.  Tuesday, the same day Andy Griffith died, I gave the final exam in my summer course, Culture and the Sitcom.

Griffith is best known as Southern sheriff Andy Taylor from Mayberry, NC in the series The Andy Griffith Show (but if you haven’t seen his chilling performance in A Face in the Crowd, give it a look!).  We saw two episodes from the series in class, “Opie the Birdman” and “Man in a Hurry,” to go along with the assigned class reading, “Against the Organizational Man:  The Andy Griffith Show and the Small-Town Family Ideal” by John O’Leary and Rick Worland.

I doubt any of my students loved the show like I do.  After all, I have years of watching and some experience with the small town life of an earlier era through visits to my grandparents’ farm as a child.  It occurred to me as I was preparing for an interview on FOX 8 Wednesday that O’Leary and Worland are on to something.

The Andy Griffith Show was a bit of nostalgia even when it aired.  It celebrated a time-gone-by that really never existed because Mayberry and the people in it represent an ideal of kindness and community that is comforting and a bit elusive in real life.  Certainly, the series never addresses the social upheaval that characterized Southern towns in the actual 60s.  Ironically, it is that dislocation from an actual time and place that makes the show timeless for some of us.

During the FOX 8 interview, Brad Jones asked me if the show resonated with my students, and I said that I don’t think it speaks to them as powerfully as, say, Friends, which is a show of their childhood that they have seen widely, a series that also speaks in its own way to family and community.

Even if different shows resonate with us, I hope the students learned something during our joint explorations of television, history, and culture in recent weeks.  Our talks in class were wide-ranging, and I learned something from each of them in the process of discussion.

That’s what makes teaching exciting for me:  we get to think and talk together and try to figure out layers of meaning where much has been taken for granted.  In a future post, I’ll share some of our ruminations on Real Time With Bill Maher, which is not a sitcom but still fair game in our class (at the time we were talking about “pushing the envelope” on shows like South Park, which qualifies as an animated sitcom!).

On the final exam for the course, I included a question asking students to share the most significant thing they learned in class.  Several of them cited the way the trajectory of the second wave of the women’s movement paralleled the role of women represented on television.  In class, we saw episodes of 50s family sitcoms, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and the two-part “Maude’s Dilemma” in which Maude Findley decides whether or not to get an abortion, Roseanne, and more.

Similar comments were voiced about gay characters.  In class we charted the silliness of the pilot episode of Three’s Company, in which a straight man pretends to be gay to share an apartment with two women, and looked at the coming out episode of Ellen as well as heteronormative strategies employed in Will & Grace to make mainstream audiences more comfortable with gay characters.

Another student reported that learning to “read against the grain” to seek deeper or hidden meanings in texts is what was most significant for him. He used The Andy Griffith Show as one of his examples and discussed the lack of racial diversity in the town (certainly not the norm in small town, Southern life) and the fact that people from cities, especially from the North, are always proven to be inferior in some way to the rural sensibilities that inform the lives of those living in Mayberry.

Two other students thought about the form more broadly.  “From this class I have learned to be more critical of the shows I choose to watch,” one wrote.  “I have a better understanding of how television is a consumer product and does not provide an unbiased view of the world.”  If only more people grasped the role television has played in selling us certain ideologies – for better and for worse – in addition to the overt role of advertising in television from sponsored programs to commercials to produce placement.

Another student wrote about how the class had challenged her and her own viewing habits.  “The past five weeks we have sat in this classroom and in a weird way, I thought we were all playing a pseudo-sitcom.  Each with a role to play that had been set up for us by society, each with concrete examples seen in television sitcoms,” she wrote.  This student noted that television used to be one of her favorite mindless activities but that now she is aware of the larger points made in the series about race, gender, social class, and sexual orientation.  She noted a new flexibility in her thinking about certain concepts.

I like that.

Andy Griffith is gone, but Andy Taylor is still with us along with seasons worth of messages and meaning, both explicit (and usually intentional) and implicit (and often unintentional).  Just thinking about how much I love the show (while realizing what may be certain shortcomings) and how it intersects with different periods of my life makes me smile.

Bring out the kerosene cucumbers and enjoy them on the front porch while Andy picks out a tune.

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