February 27, 2006

The gender mysteries of Don Knotts.

Virginia Heffernan has a nice piece about the late Don Knotts:
He was wonderfully unthreatening to other male comics, all of whom could think of themselves as one step closer to leading men than Mr. Knotts was. It's hard to think of an actor, in fact, who got more helping hands than Mr. Knotts in his early days. Male actors were forever offering him parts, trying to get him to join their acts. Sharing the stage with this skinny, spazzy guy could only make them look more commanding....

In the nervous man, he reveled in the discomfort that most comics tend to pass off as indignation or savoir-faire. As Barney, he satirized swagger and self-importance. Finally, on "Three's Company" in the late 70's and 80's, he sent up the comedian's hypersexuality, which is often his pride. Mr. Knotts, over and over, was willing to play the desperate, pathetic low-man-on-every-pole. He did it so well — never forsaking his persona and trying to seize the lead, as nearly all major comedians do these days — that his talent for abasement became a source, paradoxically, of great authority. By revealing but never indulging these pretenses, he enlightened everyone he worked with, and his audiences.
I like the way the man's extreme sexual unattractiveness opened up a portal for him. Not only did he receive opportunities from other men (who believed that he couldn't be more loved than them) but he accessed wisdom (about the ridiculousness of men who believe too much in their own masculine greatness). Come on! Someone needs to do a Gender Studies seminar on Don Knotts.

52 comments:

Dave said...

"the ridiculousness of men who believe too much in their own masculine greatness"

Ouch.

But true.

Goesh said...

There must be something to it - I can't see Barney as being anything traditionally male. He was too hyper to even be a pallid bookworm hiding in the stacks late at night. I suspect many men would have laughed at him being a substitute in a dwarf throwing contest as well. Laughter is not always to easy to analyze.

chuck b. said...
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chuck b. said...

I saw a drag show of a complete, made-up episode of Three's Company wherein all the characters were performed by actors of the opposite gender. The Mr. Furley was hi-freakin'-larious.

As I recall it involved Jack needing to get a tattoo on his ass removed, and the COMIC MISUNDERSTANDING of everyone else somehow thinking he was going to the hospital for a sex change. (Everyone except for the Suzanne Somers replacement character who was a nurse or something. She knew.) Anyhow, the actor/ess playing Mr. Furley really hammed it up with the outsized ascot and those wierd facial tics he used to make.

Citizen Grim said...

the man's extreme sexual unattractiveness opened up a portal for him

dear lord, may that phrase never be used to describe me...

paulfrommpls said...

There was one episode where Barney had to deal with two truck farmers who set up without a license outside of town. They were a couple tough guys - one of them played by that ubiquitous blond fellow who appeared as several tough guys on the show over the years (and also played Sgt. Carter's rival Sgt. Hacker on Gomer Pyle).

Anyway, Barney had to confront his inherent wimpiness head-on: first giving into it, staring into the abyss of his own lack of manhood as he retreated from open mockery, and then returning and conquering the limitations: first with Andy's secret help, which devasted him when he found out as I remember, but then alone.

Very painful and redemptive show with only a few laughs, really.

Incidentaly, the physical resemblance between Don Knotts and the 1950's Frank Sinatra is uncanny.

MPH said...

How about his near perfect performance in Pleasantville?

paulfrommpls said...

http://www.hanacoast.ws/malestars/pictures/341429/donknotts.jpg

http://www.biggeststars.com/f/frank-sinatra-photo-3.html

Doug Rivers said...

Loved Don Knotts but mehinks you have made way too much of this. Why couldn't men just want to help another human being. Why, rather than seeing Knotts as some sort of reinforement to their own shallow vanities, could not co-workers and other stars merely have wanted to help a man whose appearance and mannerisms would otherwise make finding a job in showbiz a daunting challenge. Most of the men I know would have admired his courage. I guess they wouldn't have realized that was just a cover for their own male shortcomings.

gcruse said...

I'd forgotten the horror of Three's Company. Don can be forgiven his participation in the insipid spitoonery of that mewling melodrama. If you ever saw "Man About the House," the British series off which 3's C was ripped, you'd know what a surrender to fear of sexuality the American offshoot portrayed.

Robert Schwartz said...

I would be very surpprised if they had not already done that. Of course, it really is kind of discouraging. At the rates they charge for tuition these days, it would not go over well in my house if one of my children said: "I am taking a seminar on the Gender Mysteries of Don Knotts next semester."

SippicanCottage said...
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paulfrommpls said...

Just a memory: one time, when an episode centered on jealousy between him and Thelma Lou, the kicker at the end of the show featured Barney's one last attempt to make Thelma Lou jealous. He saw her and Andy approaching the office; he pretended to be on the phone as they walked in, his back turned to the door, facing the camera, making fake sweet-talk to Juanita at the Diner.

There was a flash of Thelma Lou anger, but then - the phone rang! Barney caught, his face caved in, his eyes all wide, the phone still to his ear. Andy, big grin: "Barn', would you mind gettin' that? You're closer."

AllenS said...

I heard on the radio this morning that his full name was Jesse Don Knotts. Somehow, that just doesn't work, does it?

Ann Althouse said...

Sippican: "...he's alone in the sherrif's office, pomading his insane shock of Shemp Howard hair into a glistening pompadour in a little mirror, referring over and over again to a picture of a movie star he got from a magazine. He tries to form his silly putty face into the cool expression of the heartthrob, and the juxtaposition is hilarious, and tender at the same time. The picture is of Rock Hudson. There's two Gender Studies Courses in that one, easy. Or maybe not. It's best not to vivisect humor, after all; the patient always dies during the procedure, and the joke is lost anyway."

I see three Gender Studies topics there. You're omitting the fascinating gender mysteries of Shemp Howard.

As to killing all the fun: Isn't that the essential methodology of Gender Studies?

Old Dad said...

I've got a non gender based theory.

Don Knotts was funny as hell, and good for ratings. He helped make Andy Griffith rich.

Just a theory.

I bet he got a lot of tail, too.

bullybrown said...

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Ana Maria said...

"Loved Don Knotts but mehinks you have made way too much of this....Most of them men I know would have admired his courage. I guess they wouldn't have realized that was just a cover for their own male shortcomings." --Doug Rivers



I agree. My little boy is just turned four, and he loves Barney. Some people simply have abundant natural charm and Don Knotts was one of them.

Parker Smith said...

Let me be the first to note the manifold implications of the fact that, as Barney, he was armed - but had only one bullet, and that was kept in his pocket.

Discuss.

johannclimacus said...

"[H]e accessed wisdom (about the ridiculousness of men who believe too much in their own masculine greatness)..."

I don't think that describes the Barney role. On that show, Andy played the "dominant" masculine role, but it was not a domineering role. Andy was kindly but strong, and he had integrity beyond doubt, but was understanding of the foibles of others (especially Barney.) He was about fairness and justice, but he saw the goodness in everyone, and he seemed to think discipline or punishment was more for the character building of the offender than it was for vengeance. Barney was the classic schoolground schlemiel, undoubtedly the target of bullies then, and now in an authority position that he could use to try to create a more masculine image for himself. But he doesn't understand that masculinity is not about swagger or petty authority, but about inner conviction and knowledge of universal truths (like the law in the Andy Griffith Show.) So, he ends up being the fool in most every episode, learning lessons about his foolishness that never seemed to last till the next episode. Andy teased him, sure, but not cruelly and only when Barney was beyond reason. Andy merely let Barney trip himself up, and then was always there, patient, understanding and consoling, trying to help him build up his genuine masculinity. Barney didn't "believe too much in his masculine greatness." He didn't believe in his masculinity at all, because he didn't understand what masculinity is. He just made sad and ridiculous attempts to impersonate something he didn't understand or embody. That was the joke (and occasional pathos) of the character. Asserting that immature macho-ness is "believing in masculine greatness" merely reduces masculinity to empty assertions of undeserved authority. Although this is certainly one of the many common fallacies of contemporary feminism, it misunderstands masculinity as much as Barney did, and ironically in precisely the same way.

SippicanCottage said...
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Semanticleo said...

Apparently he was quite successful
with the women admirers as well.

His amorous liasons are legend in
Hollywood. Rumor has it that his
fall-guy persona allowed many females
to 'fall' under the spell of his
sexual prowess.

I wonder which side of gender issues
is most at play on that subject?

SippicanCottage said...
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vbspurs said...

Ugly people often have that effect, comedically -- that is, one has a gratuitous liking for them, and even tenderness.

In this regard, he was the Imogene Coca of male comedians.

So scrunched up, so brittle, but so transparent, that it was hard not to laugh at his hokey comic byplays.

Try as I might, I can't think of one truly outstandingly handsome comedian though.

Perhaps Coca's partner-in-yucks, Sid Caesar, came closest.

Finally, I wonder how many people watched the Biography Channel's segment on him, some years back?

Seems that, IRL, he was quite the Casanova, and in fact, had a messy love life with women young enough to be his grandchildren.

But hey, RIP.

Cheers,
Victoria

Hucbald said...

I'm 48, so I grew up during Knot's prime and dearly loved the fellow. Not only in the Andy Griffith show, but also in the animated movie "The Incredible Mr. Limpet" and basically everything else he ever appeared in. I think one of the attributes which made him a viable role model was his tacet acceptance of who he was - who God made him - and so those of us not in the "in" cliques could still say to ourselves, "Hey, that's cool." He was definatelt a "What you see is what you get" kind of guy, and there aren't enough of those around, IMO.

vbspurs said...

Apparently he was quite successful
with the women admirers as well.


Ah! Should've read past comment 10.

Cheers,
Victoria

37921 said...

Barney made the Andy Griffith show. When he left, it wasn't worth watching anymore.

Eddie said...

Barney is a Kantian ethicist, while Andy is an Aristotelian. Chew on that one.

Cutler said...

"I've got a non gender based theory.

Don Knotts was funny as hell, and good for ratings. He helped make Andy Griffith rich.

Just a theory."


Second that.

Meanwhile I'll sit here safe in my contrived macho masculine greatness.

Hamsun56 said...

Johannclimacus: Very well put - best blog post I've read in a long while!

Saganashkee said...

I hate to show how old I must be, but my first encounter with Don Knotts was as the super nervous "Man on the Street" on the Steve Allen show. It was worth turning on the Allen show just to see pop-eyed nervous Don Knotts answering questions with a quick "yep" and "nope". It must of been the highlight of the show because that is all that I can clearly remember of Steve Allen.

Allan said...

On Hollywood Squares, Knots was asked, "You have trouble sleeping most nights. Are you a man or a woman?"

Knotts says, "That's what's keeping me up!"

Aaron's cc: said...

College course on Don Knotts? Love the observations here, and his character acting, but why should parents paying tuition be threatened with the OPTION of such a course on the curriculum?

Maybe if there is a constitutional amendment requiring that the tuition fees come out of the student's future paycheck...

When I'm king, I'll eliminate humanities department tenures and enact laws that deny tenure to anyone who hasn't worked at least a decade in the private sector.

No more cradle-to-grave academics.

Ann Althouse said...

johannclimacus said...
""[H]e accessed wisdom (about the ridiculousness of men who believe too much in their own masculine greatness)..."

"I don't think that describes the Barney role. On that show, Andy played the "dominant" masculine role, but it was not a domineering role. Andy was kindly but strong, and he had integrity beyond doubt, but was understanding of the foibles of others (especially Barney.)..."

This is one of the topics we discuss in great depth in the proposed seminar. Barney and Andy are different manifestations of the masculine. They complement each other. Barney is deficient in many ways and tries to compensate, tapping into ideas about the masculine, and pointing up the deficiencies in the cultural norms of masculinity by rigidly enforcing formal rules and threatening to inflict punishments. Andy shows the way to new manhood, by incorporating many elements traditionally associated with the female. His softness, flexibility, and concern for interpersonal relationships are all qualities the culture has assigned to the female. Andy taps these qualities to construct a superior masculine identity. Thus, the show implicitly critiques gender norms.

TheEsquireClub said...

This is a nice article and a relevant post, although, like SippicanCottage, I would suggest that a closer study of the source material would reveal quite a bit more about the depth of BPF's masculinity. I would especially recommend "My Fair Ernest T." as a most relevant case study. Barney had his problems with some of the male hierarchies (see “The Clubmen” and “The Cow Thief”), but with the ladies? Come on! You’re not talking to a boob, you know!

johannclimacus said...

I think Eddie above means Andy is an Aristotelian because of his "practical wisdom" approach to enforcing the law. I think that is a good observation. I'm not so sure about calling Barney a Kantian, though. I suppose the point would be that Barney cannot see the big picture forest for the categorically imperative trees---obsessing about enforcing some meaningless technicality, for example, while remaining blind to the larger "practical" context that Andy/Aristotle would grasp. But that just begs one of the main questions raised by Kantian ethics, namely how broadly to draw the "category" within which one must define one's actions and take the correspondingly "imperative" action.

Barney just draws his categories too narrowly, which underscores his masculine deficiencies. Therefore his "imperatives" are drawn too absurdly, and comically, narrow.The masculine see broader, more widely applicable universals. The less developed the masculine, the more narrowly it can see these universals. That fits the underdevelped masculine center of the Barney character. It's why he tries so hard, but fails to be a "man," which really just means an archetypal representation of the masculine principle.

johannclimacus said...

Ann, I don't think Andy and Barney represent "different manifestations of the masculine." I think they represent higher and lower, respectively, stages in the development of the masculine in men. What you are calling "deficiencies in the cultural norms of masculinity by rigidly enforcing formal rules and threatening to inflict punishments" is two things, I think.

First, it is a recognition of an immature masculine that sees only structure and not the universals that underlie the structure. Empty form without principle. Second, it is an assertion that this empty structure is all the masculine is, or at least the only way it has been manifested (as"cultural norm") by men. This common assertion derives from the general, historical discrediting of the masculine representation of the universal and the true that started with Kant. The masculine (not male,) which was shown to be an insufficient vehicle for understanding truth beyond the limits of the masculine polarity of consciousness, was then left as an empty shell of structure, no longer the legitimate path to the infinite, but now merely a body of senseless and illegitimate structure (tyranny.)

In feminist doctrine, men are the stand-ins for the masculine, and all the seemingly empty tyranny of the now discredited masculine-as-sole-vehicle-to-truth is imputed to men. We are supposed to be Barneys, empty swaggering tyrants who can make no legitimate claim to embodying the law in any higher sense. Whether men in fact embody, as a matter of "cultural norm," such an underdeveloped view of the masculine,obviously (I should think) depends on the individual.

Andy isn't a new version of the masculine, and I also don't think he is a feminized man, as Ann asserts. He is a more developed, more realized, man embodying higher levels of the masculine, then the developmentally arrested Barney. "man" doesn't equal "petty tyrant," and "woman" doesn't equal "concern for interpersonal relationships," etc. Those are simply gender stereotypes.

Andy represents a higher form of the masculine because he has a higher (more comprehensive) understanding of the universal principles that should be applied to the situation, as opposed to Barney's comically narrow understanding.

The feminine is a whole 'nother deal.

AST said...

1. Bullybrown's post is spam, off topic and tendentious. It doesn't belong here.

2. I hate seminars. They imply that their subjects are more important than they are, especially when they include things like "gender studies" approaches. PoMo baloney. I don't understand the urge to hold conferences and seminars on blogging either. Is it really that difficult to understand?

Don Knotts created one of the most memorable, if not lovable, characters in television history. His work needs no spin. May he rest in peace.

SippicanCottage said...
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SippicanCottage said...
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vbspurs said...

rney is a Kantian ethicist, while Andy is an Aristotelian.

So Barney was an extremist, and Andy was always seeking after balance?

What happens if I'm more like Andy/Aristotle, but have the nervous energy of Barney/Kant?

Please don't say Hegel.
Please don't say Hegel.
Please don't say Hegel.

Chew on that one.

Ouch! Mine had a bone in it.

RSwan said...

Did anybody else read bullybrown's comment and think Barney Fife?

OddD said...

Thus, the show implicitly critiques gender norms.

Anyone else think Ann is having way too much fun here?

vbspurs said...

When I'm king, I'll eliminate humanities department tenures and enact laws that deny tenure to anyone who hasn't worked at least a decade in the private sector.

No more cradle-to-grave academics.


Oy.

Academia ├╝ber-critic that I am, I found this remark all too similar to Brian William's cutesy interjections about politics during the Opening Ceremonies.

We're here to talk about Don Knotts, QEPD, not about Ward Churchills' hangups!

Anyway, a course on Don Knotts is no worse than many another I've seen being flogged out there.

Cheers,
Victoria

SippicanCottage said...
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Susan said...

In watching the TV tributes, I noticed that the younger Don Knotts was, of course, strikingly goofy and unattractive looking, but the old, retired Don Knotts looked like a normal old man.

Charlie Eklund said...

Bravo, Sippican...bravo!

vbspurs said...

Bravo, Sippican...bravo!

Seconded!

Cheers,
Victoria

SippicanCottage said...
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Joe said...

if you liked Don Knotts - you will love these Best of Barney Video clips... my favorite is Barney haggling with Ellen Corby from Barney's First Car.

http://www.liketelevision.com/blog/archives/000389.html

Ernst Blofeld said...

BTW, nobody has been giving props to the writers on Andy Griffith. I've only caught episodes as I can, but it's always pretty impressive compared to today's sitcoms. Leisurely pace, they always let the characters play the comedy as opposed to the gag being front and center.

in_the_middle said...

when i was 10 i wrote a letter to KWGN channel 2 in denver saying that i hated andy griffith and wanted them to put something better on. in color.

to this day, i cannot stand that show. it was so painfully boring, and still is. it only reminds me of how glad i live in color. i'm sure they didn't back then. :)