‘A Cuban In Mayberry’ Travels From America’s Hometown to an All-American Nowhere

Gustavo Perez Firmat's book is a serious examination of why The Andy Griffith Show is still rerunned and revered in the 21st century, even as it slumped to its end with Mayberry R.F.D.

When The Andy Griffith Show premiered on 3 October 1960, many critics denounced it as “dull”, “unimaginative”, and “easy to resist”. It would go on for eight highly-rated seasons, the last of which brought in an average of over 15 million viewers. It was once estimated that The Andy Griffith Show was watched by “about five million people on more than one hundred television stations”. Nearly 60 years after its debut, it still sells well on DVD and Blu-ray.

Gustavo Perez Firmat is one of those DVD-watching fans, and his unique perspective makes A Cuban In Mayberry: Looking Back at America’s Hometown more than just another book about a classic TV series. A college professor and resident of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, only miles away from Griffith’s hometown of Mt. Airy, Firmat sets out to explain why this half-century old sitcom still holds so much appeal for viewers.

The author doesn’t say much about his own personal story — this is mostly a book about a popular TV sitcom, after all — but what he does reveal is heartfelt. Exiled from Cuba at the age of 11, Firmat didn’t watch the show during its original run, but became enamored with it as a adult thanks to Nick at Nite. Whereas Americans watch The Andy Griffith Show because it reminds them of their past or because it is an idealized version of the past in general, he finds himself admitting that, “I found in the townspeople a warmth, a philia, absent from my everyday life” and that “each episode was like an anti-exile pill”. In a particularly memorable passage, he mentions that he now avoids watching The Andy Griffith Show on TV because of the occasionally R-rated, often depressing ads during commercial breaks.

Pointing out that many fans of the show come from similarly close-knit communities in rural areas, he states that there is no exact translation for the word “hometown” in Spanish, but the concept is pretty much the same all over the world. For example, Gustavo’s Aunt Bee was his Tia Mary, and he sees in Barney Fife the “security guards or janitors” in Little Havana who dreamed of “grandiose schemes for toppling Fidel Castro”. Describing himself as a “naturalized Mayberrian”, he admits, “I Love Lucy and The Andy Griffith Show have had a greater impact on my life than any book I’ve ever read or written.”

Throughout the book, black-and-white screenshots taken from various episodes often highlight whatever point the author is trying to make. As a testament to the show’s simplicity, you can see how often the events and plot of an entire episode can be summed up in just one photograph. Still, Firmat, in a collegiate tone, often delves into the “true meaning” of an episode, something which might irk the traditional Andy Griffith Show fan. For example, he states that Mr. McBeevee, a telephone lineman whom Opie befriends in an season three episode, “embodies the suspension of disbelief required of us, invisible visitors to Mayberry”. However, these descriptions can also shine new light on familiar reruns, such as when he posits that the real reason Andy’s character is in such a bad mood in the “Opie’s Job” episode is because he misses Barney. (It was the first episode filmed after Don Knotts left the series in 1965.)

The Andy Griffith Show fans will also enjoy the behind-the-scenes information the author has dug up through reading decades of interviews with various members of the cast. For example, Andy Griffith himself wielded a lot of control over what took place on the show, nixing scripts that would have saw the characters traveling to Rome, London, and Paris. In a special chapter devoted to frequent stand-in “Mr. Schwump”, Firmat divulges that no one involved with the show seems to remember what the uncredited actor’s real name was.

And of course, no examination of a TV show would be complete without a little showbiz gossip, such as when it is suggested that Aunt Bee was written out of the Return to Mayberry TV movie because of Frances Bavier’s many complaints about the show’s writing. Still, his tone of writing is more respectful than anything else, with his harshest criticisms reserved for the last three seasons of the show and its spin-off Mayberry R.F.D, which lacked the charm and quality of writing that “the original 59” had.

Indeed, when The Andy Griffith Show switched to color in 1965, it lost many of the attributes that made it so beloved by fans. The old-fashioned (even by early ’60s standards) ways of the characters disappeared, leading to a more modern feel that came off as corny and unrealistic. Plots based on Andy’s interactions with the people of Mayberry (“Andy the Matchmaker”, “Andy Saves Gomer”, “Andy and the Woman Speeder”, etc.) gave way to the often far-fetched adventures of supporting characters (“Aunt Bee on TV”, “Howard, the Comedian”, “A Trip to Mexico”, etc.).

Integral roles like those of Barney Fife, Thelma Lou, and Floyd the barber were replaced by mediocre characters like Howard Sprague, Flora, and Emmett the fix-it man. When Andy Griffith decided to leave the series in 1968, he stayed on as a producer for Mayberry R.F.D, which mostly focused on Sam the councilman (Ken Berry). Firmat states that, in these episodes, “Mayberry is no longer a Southern town” and that it morphed into “Kenberry, an all-American nowhere”.

Still, decades after the cancellation of Mayberry R.F.D, people adore The Andy Griffith Show. The Return to Mayberry TV reunion ended up being the highest rated TV movie of 1986. There’s not only a chain of Mayberry Ice Cream Restaurants, but also a “Mayberry’s Finest” brand of food products. Countless websites and message boards unite The Andy Griffith Show fans from all over the world. And one of those fans is Gustavo Perez Firmat, who closes his book with a bit of fan fiction entitled “The Lost Boy”, or A Cuban in Mayberry.

Splash image: Still from The Andy Griffith Show

RATING 6 / 10