“The Andy Griffith Show Christmas Special”
Christmas Night on CBS!
Television columns around the country lit up this month with news that CBS, the network that launched The Andy Griffith Show, will air two original episodes of the celebrated series on Christmas night.
“The Andy Griffith Show Christmas Special” will feature the program’s lone Christmas-themed episode, “The Christmas Story,” paired with perhaps the most popular of all Griffith episodes, “The Pickle Story.” Opening and closing credits will be combined to create a single, seamless, hour-long episode, airing at 8 p.m. Eastern Time. And, for better or worse, these classic, black-and-white Griffith episodes will be broadcast in color.
This feels like a big deal. Can you think of the last time CBS broadcast an episode of the Griffith Show?
Part of the Griffith Show‘s fame derives from its staying power on television; as far as I know, it has never been off the air. Over the decades, Mayberry has found a home not just on CBS but on early “superstations” TBS and WGN and, more recently, on cable networks TV Land and MeTV, along with literally scores of local stations across the nation. At one point in the early 1990s, the show aired on more than a hundred stations.
But what about CBS? I asked Richard Kelly, author of the beloved 1981 book The Andy Griffith Show, if he could recall when the venerable network last aired a episode of the original series. “I couldn’t tell you,” he said, but he and I agreed that CBS and Griffith probably parted ways around 1970. Around that time, federal regulators blocked CBS from airing reruns of its old shows. That ruling prompted CBS to spin off Viacom, which grew into a corporate giant by selling rights to old CBS shows, including the Griffith Show.
(Disclosure: My new book, Andy and Don: The Making of a Friendship and a Classic American TV Show, was published by Simon & Schuster, which is owned by CBS.)
Over the decades, as the Griffith Show gradually ascended in renown, CBS lost some of its grip over the program’s legacy. The blockbuster 1986 television film Return to Mayberry aired on rival NBC, although CBS hosted a pair of subsequent reunion shows. Videotapes and DVDs of Griffith have issued from several different studios. Significantly, CBS now plans to rerelease the entire eight-season series under its own banner in February.
Perhaps all this is about CBS reasserting itself as the network responsible for the most beloved television sitcom of the 1960s.
“They’re the ones who canceled the show,” Kelly joked. “Maybe this is repentance for that, and an acknowledgement of the fact that all these viewers watch it on cable.”
A few words about the episodes to be aired Christmas night:
“The Christmas Story” first broadcast on December 19, 1960. It’s my favorite episode from the first season of the Griffith Show, aside, perhaps, from the sublime “Manhunt” story of several weeks earlier. This episode also marks the arrival of the great Bob Sweeney, surely the best director ever to set foot in Mayberry, and his pitch-perfect ear for pathos is immediately evident. The script pays homage to Dickens and Seuss: Hard-hearted merchant Ben arrests a moonshiner on Christmas and insists that he go to jail, over Andy’s strenuous protests. In benevolent retaliation, Andy transforms the jail into a joyous Christmas party, even enlisting Barney as an anemic Santa Claus. Repentant Ben is reduced to standing outside the jailhouse window, clinging to the bars, tears pooling in his eyes as he watches through the glass and wordlessly joins the gang in a refrain of “Away in a Manger.”
“The Pickle Story” was first broadcast almost exactly a year later, on December 18, 1961. Legend has it no one on the Desilu set really liked the script when writer Harvey Bullock first presented it. Today it stands as perhaps the quintessential Griffith story, cited as the single favorite episode in a vast survey of fans by The Andy Griffith Show Rerun Watchers Club.
Naturally, given its success, “The Pickle Story” has many fathers, and I could reel off several conflicting theories on who conceived this sweet-and-sour tale. Instead, I will recount my favorite explanation, which I had never heard before I began work on my book. I believe “The Pickle Story” took its inspiration from Don Knotts, who ate so many pickles during his army days that he acquired a bitter hatred for the green gourds and could never eat them again.
“The Pickle Story” celebrates an essential Mayberry virtue: going to comic lengths to protect other people’s feelings. Aunt Bee presents Andy and Barney with a batch of her ghastly homemade pickles. The boys can’t bear to eat them; to protect Bee’s feelings, they secretly swap her pickles for store-bought surrogates. Their plan backfires when Bee elects to enter her pickles in the county fair. Now, Andy and Barney must choose between hurting Bee’s pride and perpetrating fraud.
Mayberry fans, of course, delighted at news of the Christmas special. Television critics were less amused to learn that the classic episodes would be colorized. According to a CBS release, the programs are “newly colorized to match as closely as possible to later episodes of the series,” which was, after all, broadcast in color in the three years following Don Knotts’ departure. “This may not be the gift you want,” wrote Hal Boedeker in the Orlando Sentinel.
I asked Richard Kelly to share his feelings. “I wish they didn’t do that,” he sighed. “The colors aren’t even very sharp. Leave it in black and white. Citizen Kane was in black and white, and it did all right.”
– Daniel de Visé for Classic Movie Hub
Daniel de Visé is Don Knotts’ brother-in-law and author of Andy and Don, a lively and revealing biography, and the definitive work on the legacy of The Andy Griffith Show and two of America’s most enduring stars. The book features extensive unpublished interviews with those closest to both men. De Visé shares a wealth of new information about what really went on behind the scenes, including personal struggles and quarrels. Click below to purchase the book on Amazon.