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Andy Griffith's American Humor

The actor and comedian Andy Griffith died today at the age of 86. He was described in the USA Today report as "beloved," and his relationship with the public did indeed fit that description.

Griffith was best known, of course, for his character of Sheriff Andy Taylor in The Andy Griffith Show, which ran from 1960 to 1968. Sheriff Taylor, a widower with a young son, Opie (Ronny Howard), stood for staunchly conservative values such as law and order, self-discipline and self-reliance, good manners, private charitable action, good government, love for family and loyalty to community, and a simple Christian faith. In his personal life, Griffith was a strong partisan of the Democrat Party and contributed a good deal of money to it.

Griffith also starred as a cranky Southern criminal-defense lawyer in Matlock, from 1986 to 1995. The character's prickly attitude and parsimony brought the actor's trademark homespun humor to the mystery-drama series, and the sharp-witted lawyer conveyed the same appeal to bourgeois values as Sheriff Taylor, in a very different way.

In the 1950s, Griffith reached his first fame as a stand-up comedian, typically taking on the character of a rural southerner mystified by the ways of the modern world. His most acclaimed routine was "What It Was, Was Football," in a which a naive individual tries to describe a football game. It’s quite possibly a classic of American humor. Griffith also showcased his musical abilities on his comedy albums, in film roles, and in music albums, and later on his television shows.

In his comedy recordings, Griffith showed a significant influence of 19th-century Southern humorists, especially in the use of long narratives and pointedly naive characters. His work also, however, included elements of the more Northern and Midwestern tradition of the cracker-barrel philosopher. This may have helped strengthen his national appeal.