I can’t think of Barney Fife without also thinking of Kurt Cobain — and vice versa. According to Courtney Love, Cobain loved The Andy Griffith Show reruns; and I like to think that whatever humanity was left in Cobain when he made his final bloody statement in Seattle back in 1994 was put there by the goings-on by Andy and Barney in Mayberry, a black-and-white world where everything was destined to turn out okay. Back in the day when comedy wasn’t cruel.
Even the best sitcoms run their course, some sooner than others. M*A*S*H was never as good after its first three or four seasons, after the departure of both McLean Stevenson as Col. Henry Blake and, more significantly, producer Larry Gelbart, who adapted Robert Altman’s film for television. In the case of The Andy Griffith Show, the first five seasons, the black-and-white years, are the best ones, with Jim Fritzell and Everett Greenbaum writing many of the most memorable episodes (as they would do for, not coincidentally, M*A*S*H, a decade later). More importantly, those are the seasons that featured Don Knotts as Deputy Barney Fife, and the performances that netted him five Emmy Awards for Best Supporting Actor. After he departed the show, it was never the same, never as good. He was given great lines, and he made them greater. As good as was the material he was provided, he improved it. He was a walking, talking sight gag.
On Friday night Don Knotts forever left this sitcom called Life. In the years since leaving The Andy Griffith Show he turned in many performances that were nothing but weak carbon copies of his Barney Fife persona. Forgive him, though, for he was born to be Barney.