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The Great Don Knotts Has Died

John on February 27, 2006 at 9:27 am

I have sympathy for those who don’t watch TV out of principle. The statement “there’s nothing on worth watching” is true a great deal of the time, especially when it comes to dime-a-dozen sitcoms. But there are a few shows, maybe one or two each decade, that make TV into somthing of an art form. I Love Lucy, Fawlty Towers, Seinfeld — and my personal favorite of all time, was The Andy Griffith show.

The show ran for 8 seasons starting in 1960. The first five featured Don Knotts as Deputy Barney Fife. The last three lesser seasons without him are quite disappointing, despite the upgrade to color film. Perhaps most surprising to modern eyes, it was a Christian show — both explicitly and in its themes. Christianity was presented as normal, as possible. Ironically, the show aired just as America’s left was gearing up for Woodstock and tie-dyes and free love…This was a show for the other America.

But the show has had an impact beyond one side of the aisle. Garrison Keillor has made a whole career out of translating the genius of the show through a filter of liberal condescension. Lake Wobegon is Mayberry with irony. Perhaps that’s why I’ve never found it particularly charming. It suffers by comparison to the original mythos from which it clearly draws.

One of the best ways to get a laugh is to exploit the difference between someone’s self-image and reality. This is done expertly in films like Spinal Tap and A Mighty Wind. In the Andy Griffith Show, Knotts and the show’s writers showed themselves to be the masters of this technique. With his bony frame, Knotts looked like the 98 lb. weakling from the Charles Atlas ads. And yet Barney Fife was always quick to take charge and put on his “authority voice.” He was a tough talker who had to ask permission to load his one bullet into his gun. He was a cop’s version of the guy we all knew in jr. high school, the one who bragged about his exploits with girls despite having never had a real date.

This little-big-man dynamic became a source of great plots as well as great humor. Barney’s big mouth was frequently getting him into trouble that Andy would have to get him out of. The trick was to do it without utterly demoralizing Barney or letting him know what we, the audience, already knew: Barney Fife wasn’t much of a tough guy.

Remember the episode where a local tough guy threatens to beat Barney up the next time he sees him? Andy arranges a karate expert to stand in for Barney so that the next time Barney and the bully meet, the bully is suddenly very defferential. And as the scene progresses and Barney realizes he’s in control his “authority voice” kicks in. He’s right back to where he started, having learned nothing in true comedic form.

Knotts could make you laugh by playing the 1960s version of hyper Jim Carrey, as he usually did in the episodes focused on Barney. He could make you laugh just as hard by playing it deadpan as he usually did when Barney had a supporting role in the episode. It may seems like this is obvious, but in fact it’s the work of an accomplished comedian, using his technique to bring the best out of the material.

My favorite episode of the show is “Man in a Hurry” in which Barney plays a relatively minor supporting role (I believe it’s the first episode with Goober). Knotts does his best slice-of-country-life, getting some of the best laughs with lines like “I wonder what causes that?”, lines which would surely have fallen completely flat in the hands of less talented actor.

This article (appropriately, from a North Carolina news station) gives some history of Knotts broader career, including his films (I look forward to showing The Incredible Mr. Limpet to my daughter in the next year). The NY Times also has a nice piece which gives some comedic insight on Mr. Knotts talents.

Finally, I just have to add that I met Mr. Knotts once about 3 years ago. He was signing autographs at a movie poster show I attended in North Hollywood. The line was massive. When it was finally my turn to step up, I asked if he would sign his photo (as Barney of course) with the phrase “Nip it!” He chuckled and obliged me.

God bless you, Mr. Knotts. And thanks for continuing to make me laugh.

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