Today, when many Americans think of the “good old days”—when neighbors knew each other and the world seemed safer and simpler—they often conjure visions of the 1950s and early 1960s, as expressed in old TV comedies like The Andy Griffith Show.
But those times were not really simple: Americans were then gripped by Cold War fears and the Red Scare, and buffeted by new economic pressures. The entertainers who most successfully created sunny visions for anxious Americans of that era—our “good old days”—responded to tough times with cheerful portrayals of their own, earlier “good old days.” In other words, the mid-century period many Americans pine nostalgically for now was itself defined by a profound cultural nostalgia. Rural television comedies of the time, set in a not-so-real version of the American South, are a perfect example.
When producer Sheldon Leonard created The Andy Griffith Show in 1960, he hit upon a new way to offer succor to the stressed-out masses. With a syrupy drawl and toothy grin, Sheriff Andy Taylor offered up the law-and-order masculinity so popular in Westerns while also oozing down-home, folksy charm. Add to the mix a freckled urchin of a son, Opie; motherly Aunt Bee; and the bumbling deputy Barney Fife, and CBS had a wholesome hit with a refreshing lack of controversy. Misunderstandings abounded, but there was a never a problem that couldn’t be solved with a little common sense, a heart-to-heart conversation, or maybe an impromptu sing-along on the front porch.
The Andy Griffith Show earned high ratings, so CBS kept it on the air, and ordered other comedies like it throughout the 1960s. The worlds depicted in these shows did not resemble the reality that most Americans lived in at the time. Many popular shows in this genre, including Petticoat Junction and The Beverly Hillbillies, featured multigenerational families living under one roof. Most Americans lived in suburban and urban areas, almost all of the denizens of rural comedy lived in places that were, well, rural.
Critics complained that the programs were too simplistic. Still, they performed well throughout the country, from the South to the Northwest, in the city and in the country. When most of CBS’s rural comedies finally left the airwaves in 1971, they were still consistent members of Nielsen’s top 10 performers.
How did these shows about rural rubes become such a beloved part of imagined American life in the 1960s and beyond? For one, fantasies the programs served up were wholesome and steeped in nostalgia—and many fans professed that they loved these shows exactly because they portrayed a (purportedly) simpler time. The disconnect was the whole point.
While the worlds of these rural comedies were contemporary, the major issues of the time never surfaced. There was no violence and no sexuality; only family and community. Such a time never existed—rural America has always been plagued by social and economic strife—but the programs portrayed the relationships between family, friends, and neighbors so authentically that the setting around them seemed real as well. Viewers, then and now, believed the highly curated world of rural comedy was an accurate representation of a world that they knew in their youth. Considering that this was a past viewed through the lens of childhood, perhaps it was.
These programs offered an escape from the fears and anxieties that were common in the 1960s. Women, having taken a robust role in public life during World War II, were now expected to leave the workplace entirely and devote themselves to house and home for their ever-growing families. Many bristled in their newly circumscribed roles, and turned to anxiety medications like meprobamate, marketed as Miltown, to alleviate their frustration. Concerns about Soviet infiltration and espionage led to widespread fears of enemies lurking among friends and neighbors. Families stockpiled canned goods and purchased bomb shelters for the backyard. Children ducked for bomb drills.
Beyond the escapism they provided, these shows had multiple levels of appeal for different demographic populations. White Southerners looked at rural comedy and saw a positive version of themselves, without the criticism of racism that had come to permeate news coverage of the South as civil rights became a national issue.
People in other areas of the nation saw something less flattering but equally comforting. For many city dwellers, rural comedy was their only connection to the South. It confirmed stereotypes—so many of the characters were slow-drawled, slow-witted rubes—and yet it presented a South that was funny, warm, and likable.
That likability came at a cost; TV producers gave short shrift to crucial aspects of real life that might have been healthy for viewers to see. One omission, often pointed out by media historians, was accurate and intimate portrayals of family life. Green Acres was the only show among them to feature a married couple, and single characters were involved in chaste, casual romances. In The Andy Griffith Show, the only married person is Otis, who (perhaps significantly) is the town drunk. Some have pointed out that marriage—and to a lesser extent, romance in general—might have been downplayed on these shows in order to limit both sensuality and familial conflict.
An even more significant omission is that of race. The rural areas of North Carolina and Missouri where many of these comedies took place had significant nonwhite populations in real life, but one would never know it from watching the programs. And although most rural comedies ran until 1970 or 1971, none of them featured a significant character of color, except the occasional guest star, even as integration became fashionable for other popular programs.
Aaron Ruben, who produced both The Andy Griffith Show and Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., explained, “black people meant conflict and our shows are supposed to represent utopia.” He was, of course, talking about the tastes of white viewers, looking for charm and old-fashioned values, signs that the times hadn’t changed quite as much as the nightly news might indicate.
Ruben would have had no reason to go beyond that—at the time, Nielsen was not putting its viewership-tracking boxes in African-American homes, so their opinions didn’t count. The only viewers considered worth courting at that time sought out racial homogeneity. Rural comedies, in this historical and cultural context, shouldn’t seem quite so innocent to our modern eyes.
Still, one aspect of these programs seems to stand the test of time. Ask virtually any American about The Andy Griffith Show, The Beverly Hillbillies, or any other 1960s rural comedy, and they will almost invariably respond to the show’s powerful nostalgia—even today. It reminds them of being a kid, of watching the show with grandparents, and of the good old days that have long-lived in American minds and on their screens, if nowhere else.