What It Was, Was: Andy Griffith and Talking and Sports

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We are, for better and worse, not running out of old people. They are living longer lives and the ones you're related to are wondering why you do not call although they know you're very busy, and some of them are doing tai chi in the park and others are watching cable news and then casting votes on the basis of the curdled and outlandish falsehoods they're sold there. But due to the miracles of modern medicine and the fact that they're the only people in the United States guaranteed top-tier health care, our olds are not going anywhere. What we are running out of, though, are people who sound and seem like ambassadors from another time and nation. In Andy Griffith, who died today in North Carolina at the age of 86, we lost another of these.

And we are not necessarily gaining new ones. People are still getting older, of course, but our public figures do so in a way that seems rigorously contemporary and mediated. It is possible, for instance, to imagine an octogenarian Paula Deen—a yowling, vicious, linen-swathed raisin with a terminal case of butterveins—or an ancient Wolf Blitzer—maundering mildly, yogurt-lipped, blow-dried by home health aides to whom he isn't very nice. An old Chris Berman will be a pure, jet-engine nightmare; Sylvester Stallone will be scarier. But these are contemporary creatures, and will seek to remain as such. Anyway, if many of our public figures are not convincing in our time as people from a specific place, or the United States or earth, they will not be compelling ambassadors from our present to whatever future awaits.

Sports, for what it's worth, is as good a place to find distinctive, time-capsule old people as any. College football icon Keith Jackson, for one, is the last person alive who will ever sound like Keith Jackson; Ralph Kiner, who still pops in periodically during afternoon Mets games to tell long stories about Duke Snider, is not someone that any current ballplayer will grow up to be or sound like. A case could be made, too, for Jim Leyland, although everyone has an uncle or has met an uncle who, like Leyland, has been 66 years old for 25 years. But sports, diverse and explicitly concerned/obsessed with its own history and grounded in emulation as it is, should be a good place for this sort of thing. Stephen Jackson, for instance, will be a fascinating old man, especially if he retains the weird late-'90s hip-hop thing he's got going. This isn't to compare Stack Jack to Andy Griffith, exactly—that would be interesting to do, but this isn't doing it—but to the extent that their outlandish wealth doesn't fully bleach them out entirely, oddball athletes like Jackson may be the natural heirs of Griffith's shtick.

Griffith's trick was that his shtick also seemed something like his essence, and the extent to which Griffith retained an essence (or embodied a caricature) of a specific time and place was the better part of his charm, and his charm was the better part of his long career. The world has to move, and contemporary Mayberries are probably as doomed to shriveling or absorption into metastatic sprawl as the original Mayberry was definitely a sentimental artificiality on television. But Andy Griffith's great gift, which was indeed a gift, was that he still seemed like someone who could've lived there, in a place somewhat nicer and slower and less shot full of risk and anxiety, than any town on any map. Sports offers us a similar retreat, or can at its best and least Fox-ed out, and glories in some of the same sunny abstractions. We will continue to lose timeless people, sadly, because people die and things change. These other timeless things seem a little more important, or more necessary, in that context.

Anyway, here's Andy Griffith's comedic monologue "What It Was, Was Football," which he first performed in 1953, with illustrations by Mad Magazine's George Woodbridge. It's a silly story, but Griffith told it very well.

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