I just finished reading Jo Mathis's column titled "Oh, for the days of truly funny TV" in the March 7, 2006 issue of The Ann Arbor News. It was a column that spoke for me, and to me. Especially since it ran just days after the sad news that Don Knotts had died.
My close friends and family can tell you that I have long maintained that Barney Fife was hands down, flat out the greatest television character of all time. Without a doubt, he was the funniest. He came from what I, as a baby boomer, consider the 1960's golden age of the television sitcom. The Andy Griffith Show, The Beverly Hillbillies, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Munsters, The Addams Family, Green Acres. (A second golden age occurred in the 1970's with shows like All in the Family, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show, Barney Miller, and Mash. We're still waiting for another golden age.)
Often criticized as dumb, low-brow, or silly the 60's Golden Age shows were far superior to the "reality-based" comedy of shows that came years later like "Home Improvement", "Everybody Loves Raymond", "Roseanne", or "Family Ties." In all of those shows, and countless others like them, when the characters speak I hear writers writing and actors delivering lines, rather than watching make-believe characters coming together to create a place where disbelief is suspended. And sure, some of the jokes are funny. But the dialog never seems believable. It's forced and unnatural. These shows fail to pull me into their world for that half hour. Partly because 'their world' looks pretty much like, well, the world I live in.
I contrast that with a show like Green Acres or my personal favorite, The Andy Griffith Show (the Barney years only of course). As crazy a world as the characters of Green Acres or The Munsters or The Beverly Hillbillies inhabited, for that half hour the characters were blissfully true to themselves and to that goofy world the writers and producers carefully constructed. I don't hear writers writing when I watch these shows. Rather, I get sucked into their comedic fantasy world where I forget about my worries for a short time and just laugh. Barney Fife, Hank Kimball, Jethro Bodine, and Fred Munster made me laugh consistently. Ray Barrone, Alex Keaton, and Tim Taylor rarely. Seinfeld was the only sitcom (arguably a sitcom) of the past twenty years that I would elevate to stand alongside those 1960's (and 70's) golden age shows. Not surprising then that Seinfeld introduced Kramer, my second favorite television character.
I don't pretend, or presume to know the formula for creating a successful sitcom. To quote Barney Fife, "We don't know everything, Andy. There's plenty going on right now in the Twilight Zone that we don't know anything about, and I think we oughta stay clear."
And to quote Kramer, "Giddyup!"
They don't write dialog like that anymore. Don Knotts, you are already missed.