“The Andy Griffith Show“ debuted on network television 61 years ago, and left the airwaves eight years later, more than half a century ago.
Yet the show still holds an iconic place in American society, perhaps in a way that no other show has been able to replicate. Documentary film maker Chris Hudson examines that — and tries to reveal what he believes is the key to the show’s enduring popularity in his film, “The Mayberry Effect.“ The documentary screened Wednesday at the Historic Earle Theatre, and is scheduled for two more showings during Mayberry Days — at 1 p.m. and then 3:30 p.m. on Sunday, at the Earle.
Hudson said taking on such a project was never in his plans when he began thinking about doing the piece that eventually became “The Mayberry Effect.“
“I have worked in television and documentaries for 20 years, and decided to go back and get my masters at Wake Forest University,” he said of the genesis of his project. As part of pursuing his master’s he needed a thesis film project.
”I was looking for an interesting character, an interesting story,” he said. Because of his contacts in the television industry, especially in the regional commercial industry, he had a chance to meet David Browning, who is better known in the Mayberry universe as The Mayberry Deputy. He had been doing some commercials in the Kernersville area when Hudson met him.
”I thought he was a fascinating person, a fascinating character, actor.” After learning Browning was from Bristol, Virginia, he drove to Browning’s home and spent the day with him, trying to stake out how he might approach a documentary on Browning as the Mayberry Deputy.
“This was toward the end of his career, he said he was thinking about retirement. He said he liked the idea but said ‘There’s a bigger picture here.’”
“I grew up watching it (‘The Andy Griffith Show’),” he said. “I grew up in Charlotte, it was always on between 5 and 6 p.m. before dinnertime. I was familiar with the show, the characters. I think it was just part of our life more than anything we thought was extra special at the time.”
In fact, he had rarely been to Mount Airy until starting on the documentary.
“Five years ago was when I started to visit Mount Airy on a regular basis. It’s now become a huge part of my life.”
Hudson said his original concept was simply following some of the tribute artists, chronicle their stories as what he called super fans of the show.
“Once I started spending time with them, reading Mayberry books, talking with Allen Newsome and Jim Clark and others, I realized there was a lot more there…you start to unravel pieces of the puzzle.”
That puzzle, he said, is what made “The Andy Griffith Show“ so popular and timely 61 years ago, a black and white television show debuting when John Kennedy was still running for president, and what keeps it popular today in the internet age.
“I wanted to look at what “The Andy Griffith Show” has done for Mount Airy over the years and how “The Andy Griffith Show” has affected American culture.”
As evidence of that long-term effect on culture, he cited examples of how The Simpsons, Second City TV, Saturday Night Live, and other shows still spoof or make reference to the classic series. He said comedian Jerry Seinfeld has been influenced by the show, as has country music and gospel music.
“That was a big surprise…30, 40, 50 years later how influential this show was on our entertainment industry, on fans, on these people who come to Mayberry Days. They are very nostalgic for a simpler time.”
And that, he believes, is really at the root of enduring loyalty among the show’s fans — nostalgia.
Hudson said he spent quite a bit of time researching nostalgia and its psychological effects on people, eventually finding answers from psychologists in England who could explain the power that nostalgia has over people.
“The idea of nostalgia, it’s an exploration…sometimes we feel like there was a simpler time…sometimes that’s not grounded reality,” he said, noting that life was probably never as simple and easy as portrayed in the series, and his documentary does address how the show steered clear of vexing social issues of the time.
He also said simple is relative. “My kids, in the future, might think now is a simpler time for them,” he said.
Ultimately, he believes the documentary answers some questions about the hold “The Andy Griffith Show” seems to have over its fans and larger society — but not all questions. He purposely took that route, wanting his audience to think a little deeper after seeing his documentary.
“I wanted to ask the questions, let the viewer decide,” he said. “It opens up the door for people of many different backgrounds, different viewpoints, they can explore and watch and learn something about “The Andy Griffith Show” without feeling like it’s slanted in either direction. I think my documentary is open to a much wider audience than just Mayberry fans or just fans of Andy Griffith.”
As for his personal view of why the show is still so popular, and why he believes it may remain so for many years to come?
“You can sit down and watch that show, knowing your kids can watch that show and learn something from it. It’s not offensive, I think it makes people feel good at the end of each show…and I think they want to share that feeling after the fact. I honestly believe “The Andy Griffith Show” is rooted in humanity, the characters, the way Andy Griffith treats Don Knotts and everyone else in town, helping everyone else in Mayberry, and then every once in a while you see how everyone else helps Andy.
“The humanity, the morals and lessons in the show, are and should be sought out after today. That’s why I think people keep landing on ‘The Andy Griffith Show’.”
In addition to the two showings at the Historic Earle Theatre on Sunday, the documentary is available on Prime Video, iTunes, Google Play, YouTube, and other video on demand digital channels. The trailer is accessible at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rFnaX5HKbI4