Monday, May 10, 2010

KenBerry, R.F.D.

Back in April, my good friend Rick Brooks wrote a blog post entitled “The enigma that is Ken Berry”—a tongue-in-cheek musing about how the celebrated television personality “was all over the tube when I was growing up.” Special attention was given to his co-star status on the sitcom Mama’s Family, as well as his guest appearances (Rick counted seven in total) on Fantasy Island.

When I was a mere sprat, F Troop and Mayberry R.F.D. were the two television series that allowed Mr. Berry to display his formidable acting and comedic prowess—and maybe the occasional singing-and-dancing guest appearance on The Carol Burnett Show, which was responsible for his landing the Mama’s Family gig. He was a fixture on several other shows that have since fallen by the wayside: he was Woody on The Ann Sothern Show, Lt. Melton on the short-lived sitcom Ensign O’Toole and Dr. Kapish on the TV version of Dr. Kildare. He even got the opportunity to headline his own series—The Ken Berry ‘Wow’ Show, which I would write about at length were it not for the fact that I don’t remember a damn thing about watching it.

I’ve mentioned in the past that I’m a big fan of F Troop—I’ve seen all sixty-five episodes, due to the fact that Warner Home Video was good enough to release the entire run of the series to DVD. But I’ll be damned if I can remember anything about Mayberry R.F.D. other than the opening credits, in which Berry plays catch with his TV son (Buddy Foster) to the strains of “The Mayberry March”…and the little bastard ends up breaking a window in some storage shed, much to Berry’s chagrin.

“Why do you care about Mayberry R.F.D.?” I’m certain you’re asking at this point—and to be honest, I’m not entirely positive I know myself. If I had to hazard a guess, it’s because that with The Andy Griffith Show and Gomer Pyle, USMC available on DVD, the third series in the “Mayberry” trilogy—R.F.D.—is clearly due for a disc debut as well. But with WHV’s reluctance to release their classic television backlog to DVD (let’s face it—if you owned the rights to series like 77 Sunset Strip or Maverick…would you sit on your hands and let them languish in the vaults?) it looks as if we’ll be old-and-grey before we get access to the show that chronicled what life was like in that famed sleepy North Carolina town once Sheriff Andy Taylor and his new bride Helen (nee Crump) made tracks for greener pastures in Charlotte. (According to the entry for Mayberry R.F.D. on Wikipedia, the show ranks seventh among those series copied from the networks and resold as “rootpeg” DVDs.)

And besides that, I’m looking for a weekly project to embark upon…and watching the entirety of R.F.D. is as good a prospect as any. (Yes, I’m one of those individuals who owns the seventh-ranked show on discs…are you happy that you shamed it out of me?) You have to admit—“Mayberry Mondays” is pretty catchy, alliteration-wise. So consider this the inaugural Mayberry Mondays post…but before we start shoving the show into the DVD player, a little history is in order…

In television history, only three sitcoms—I Love Lucy, The Andy Griffith Show and Seinfeld—finished their final seasons on the air ranked #1 in the ratings for the entire season. As to why Lucy and Seinfeld were still phenomenally popular as they were taking their final bows—well, those are posts for another day (though I wouldn’t hold my breath). Our concern is for The Andy Griffith Show—how did a series that had a phenomenal eight-year run on the air chart its biggest ratings numbers during what would ultimately become its seasonal swan song?

This question is even more intriguing when you stop to consider that if you were poll any fan of Griffith, dollars to donuts would say that they would consider the early black-and-white shows (particularly those co-starring Don Knotts) the peak of the series’ output. The Andy Griffith Show, which debuted over CBS-TV in 1960, was a character-based situation comedy that celebrated small-town life and mined big laughs by having its star play straight man to a hamlet populated by zanies. By 1967, Griffith had become a completely different series—a show that eschewed its broad, farcical beginnings (the Barney Fife years) in lieu of a dry, quirkier humor not unlike that of the radio classic Vic & Sade.

Even the main character of Sheriff Andy Taylor had changed dramatically. In the earlier years of the show, he was a man constantly bemused by the peccadilloes and eccentricities of his town’s admittedly off-the-wall inhabitants. But when the series switched to color, he began to morph into a carbon copy of Oliver Wendell Douglas of Green Acres fame—a man frustrated and visibly annoyed by the zanies in Mayberry (though considerably more subdued than his Acres counterpart). It’s been suggested that a lot of this had to do with star Griffith’s disenchantment with the series and wanting out—but whatever the case, it didn’t do the show any favors. Sheriff Taylor had become the town’s most notorious grouch.

I’ve spent the past few days watching every single episode of The Andy Griffith Show’s final season, thinking that maybe I could delineate something in the shows that would explain the top-ranked popularity it enjoyed as it was ringing down the final curtain. But I’ve come up with bupkis. I’ll be the first to say, of course, that the show was still funny—episodes like “Howard the Bowler,” “The Mayberry Chef,” “Opie’s Drugstore Job,” “Goober Goes to an Auto Show” and “Helen’s Past” can compete with any of the earlier Mayberry classics—and that even though I enjoyed the maturity evident in these later installments, entries that attempt to recapture the flavor of the earlier years, like “Barney Hosts a Summit Meeting,” (the highest-ranked episode in the series’ history) were entertaining as well.

As production on The Andy Griffith Show was winding down, the decision was made to continue on with the good folks in Mayberry despite the star’s clearly-stated intentions to pack it in. So with the 246th episode of the series, “Sam for Town Council” (03/11/68), the groundwork is laid to introduce Griffith’s replacement—Ken Berry, who essays the role of Mayberry citizen/farmer Sam Jones.

“Council” commences with a devastating announcement destined to shake Mayberry’s political landscape, delivered by none other than gas pump jockey Goober Pyle (George Lindsey) himself:

GOOBER: Hey…hey, guess what I just heard…

ANDY: What?

GOOBER: …I’m the first one to know…

HOWARD: Know what?

GOOBER: …he just stopped in for gas and he told me…

ANDY: Who stopped in?

EMMETT: This better be good, the way you’re draggin’ it out…

GOOBER: Herb Bradshaw!

HOWARD: Oh, you mean about him resigning as head of City Council…

GOOBER: Well, how’d you know that?

HOWARD: It was in the paper this morning…

GOOBER: Well, I was the one who got it from him direct

ANDY: Well, you can’t blame him for moving away…offer like that…head teller of the Raleigh Security Bank…

HOWARD: Yeah…job like that; the world’s your oyster…

ANDY (in agreement): Hmm…

GOOBER: What…?

HOWARD: Just an expression, Goob…

GOOBER: Boy, they’re sure comin’ up with some crazy ones…

Fix-it man Emmett Clark (Paul Hartman) asserts that the departing Bradshaw did a lot for Mayberry, but county clerk Howard Sprague (Jack Dodson) demurs, arguing that the council head practiced the fine art of patronage, parceling out favors to his cronies. Emmett counters that that’s the way the game is played—and when the talk turns as to who will replace Herb, he begins to have visions of a political career…so much so that he announces to Andy, Goober and Howard his intentions of running to fill Herb’s vacancy. “I think it’s a man’s duty to serve when he’s called, “ Emmett explains. “Well, who called you?” is Goober’s queried response.

The reaction to Emmett’s decision to run as head of city council amongst his friends is—well, “measured” would be a slight understatement. Actually, it’s “kind of frightening,” in Andy’s opinion—the sheriff opines that Emmett lacks experience, but this could just be a tactful way of expressing that Emmett is a complete doofus and that city government is the last place he should be. (Not that that ever stops anybody in real life.) The three men decide to “caucus” at Andy’s house later that evening to find a candidate that can beat Emmett—and the suggestion that they reach (along with Aunt Bee [Frances Bavier] and Helen [Aneta Corsaut]) is a hero who sneezed and abruptly seized retreat and reversed it to victory…

Whoops! Sorry about that…wrong sitcom:

HOWARD: …I’ve been going over it all morning, and there’s one name that’s a real standout…a man who’s done his share for the community—he’s solid, and a real hard worker…Sam Jones…

GOOBER: Hey!

ANDY: Now Sam Jones is a good idea!

HELEN: Oh, yes…he’s been a big force on the school board!

HOWARD: And he’s always been active in civic affairs…

AUNT BEE: Yes! And I can promise a Garden Club plurality!

GOOBER: He’s a veteran, too—he’s got a sharpshooter’s medal…that ought to draw votes…

He’s a political hack’s dream come true! The only thing that goes unexplained is how this force to be reckoned with has managed to keep such a low profile in Mayberry for so many years. (Had I been scripting this episode, I would’ve gone the route of having the Jones character just arriving in Mayberry and maybe being comically dragooned into running for office.) But there’s no time to assess the logic of this episode—Goober suggests that he and Howard go out to Casa del Jones to soften Sam up, prompting Howard to pontificate: “A certain amount of preconditioning is always a good tactical maneuver.”

“You always gotta change my words, don’t you,” replies Goober, a little hurt.

Goober and Howard begin Operation Soft Soap on Sam, but before they can go in for the kill Andy arrives on the scene to pop the political question. Sam is a bit reluctant at first, but all three men stress that he’s clearly the best candidate for the job…and he finally agrees. Meanwhile, his worthy opponent, Emmett Clark, is in full swing—putting up banners and treating the voters to cookies and lemonade. But when his friends tell him that they’ve recruited Sam to run against him, a rift naturally results…to the point where Emmett puts the kibosh on Goober’s snagging a cookie, informing him: “Those are for my real friends.” “Boy, politics can really get dirty,” returns the Goob.

As the campaign gets underway, it would seem that Emmett has the inside track if only because he’s borrowed a page or two from the Herb Bradshaw playbook by promising favors to potential voters: arranging to have the town’s bus stop moved to outside the diner to beef up the establishment’s business; moving the Cub Scouts meetings back to the school, etc. This “one-hand-washes-the-other” method of campaigning is frustrating for Sam—“That’s the very thing we’re trying to keep out of the government,” he explains to Andy. But as difficult as this effort not to promise the voters anything would be to believe in real life, Sam emerges victorious on election night, trouncing Emmett by 405 votes…and Emmett takes his loss in stride. Unfortunately for Sam, his supporters—Goober, Howard…even Aunt Bee, who tries to bribe him with a homemade pie—begin to hammer him with requests to “do them a solid.”

ANDY: You know, Sam…I’ve been in public office a long time myself, and I’ve been faced with that same problem…and you know what happens to people sometimes, they get confused with the meaning of favoritism…sometimes they think that favoritism is anything somebody else gets…

SAM: Hmm…anything somebody else gets, huh?

ANDY: Yeah…

SAM: Yeah…well, I guess it’s…just going to be part of my job to convince folks that what’s best for all is also best for the individual…

ANDY: I think you can handle that, Sam…

That’s easy for you to say—you’re not replacing the star of a number-one rated situation comedy, law enforcement boy…

The Sam Jones character appears in three additional Andy Griffith Show episodes—the first of these three, “Opie and Mike” (03/18/68), tells the tale of Sam’s young son (the “Mike” of the title) and his subsequent hero-worship of Andy’s son when Opie stops a bully (Russell Shulman) from pummeling young Master Jones at school. “A Girl for Goober” (03/25/68) puts Sam only on the periphery of the plot, choosing to concentrate instead on the hapless auto mechanic and his attempts to romance a female doctor (Nancy Malone) in charge of a computer dating service.

It’s the final episode of The Andy Griffith Show—fittingly titled “Mayberry R.F.D.” (03/25/68)—that allows Sam to grab the baton from Sheriff Andy Taylor and become the focal point of the spin-off to follow. But this pilot—written by Griffith script consultant Bob Ross—spotlights a situation that, curiously enough, is abandoned once the official R.F.D. series gets underway.

The plot revolves around Sam’s old war buddy Mario Vincente (Gabrielle Tinti), whom has been asked by Sam to venture to Mayberry and help out on the vast Jones estate. The wacky complications ensue when Mario invites his affectionate sister Sophia (Letitia Roman) and non-English speaking father (Bruno Della Santina) along for the ride—and it’s not hard to guess what kind of culture-clash craziness erupts from this arrangement (Papa Vincente cracks up the tractor, Sam’s housekeeper [Almira Sessions] ups and quits, etc.). Sam decides to evict the family Vincente from his bucolic environs and banish them to a similar ranch in Mt. Pilot (owned by an Italian family who would provide a more suitable surroundings)—but he becomes overcome with a mixture of emotion and guilt at a town meeting where Mayberry’s denizens are clutching the Vincentes to their communal bosom, and decides that maybe he can make the arrangement work after all.

So does Mayberry R.F.D. become a show in which a North Carolina farmer and his son must bridge the cultural gap between them and an Italian family unaccustomed to small-town ways? No, it does not—the Vincentes disappear before the first official installment of R.F.D. and for all intents and purposes are never heard from again. But the series does manage to tie up an important loose end or two, and when Mayberry Mondays officially begins next week…you’ll understand in more detail my cryptic statement.


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3 comments:

Stacia said...

I would bet part of the high ratings for the show was due to the rather weak competition in that time slot. Danny Thomas' show didn't do well, if I recall. (I only know this because I had a huge discussion with someone on Usenet ages ago which ended when we realized we had conflated Danny Thomas with Danny Kaye. Multiple times. Not my proudest moment.)

Also, for some reason I have seen the last episode of Andy Griffith but no episodes of Mayberry RFD, so I assumed the show did include the Italian characters. I'm sort of disappointed that it didn't.

Jeff Overturf said...

I watched RFD dutifully as a small boy...I don't remember a thing about it now. I'm going to start enjoying Mondays.

Rick Brooks said...

Good luck with Mayberry Mondays, Ivan! I never saw much of the show, so it'll all be fresh to me.

I'm intrigued by that list of bootlegged shows on Wikipedia. I wonder if that's legit? The book cited sounds interesting, but I couldn't find anything else about it on Google.