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How Ted Koppel’s trip to ‘Mayberry’ turned into one of 2021’s most striking moments of TV

The veteran newsman and “CBS Sunday Morning” contributor explains how a seeming puff piece about “The Andy Griffith Show” turned into an unsettling snapshot of an angry America

Ted Koppel, right, interviews Randy Collins, the president of the Greater Mount Airy Chamber of Commerce, for a piece on “CBS Sunday Morning.” (CBS Sunday Morning)
8 min

At the height of the coronavirus pandemic lockdowns, veteran journalist Ted Koppel was working out on the treadmill when he came across an episode of “The Andy Griffith Show” — it caught his attention because of something he heard earlier that day while listening to WMAL, a Virginia-based conservative talk radio station. A listener had called in to explain that they used to live in the Washington area, but couldn’t stand how “woke” it had become, so they fled to the South. They said something along the lines of, “We moved down here to the Carolinas, and boy, life is just wonderful. People are so lovely. They’re so neighborly. Everything is so nice.”

Koppel, 81, started thinking about how “The Andy Griffith Show” was also set in the Carolinas, in the fictional town of Mayberry, N.C. After his workout, he went online and discovered that the CBS comedy was an even bigger hit than he remembered; the series, starring Griffith as the good-natured sheriff and Ron Howard as his adorable young son, was one of the most-watched shows from its debut in 1960 until it went off the air in 1968. And, more intriguingly, while Mayberry was not real, the city of Mount Airy, N.C., claims to be the prototype on which it was based, and still draws thousands of tourists every year looking to relive their beloved show.

So Koppel, the former ABC “Nightline” host and now a senior contributor to “CBS Sunday Morning,” called his producer, Dustin Stephens, and suggested that they travel down to Mount Airy. Koppel was curious: What made the show so popular? And what was it about this community that makes people want to come visit decades later?

What started with those general questions wound up evolving into one of the most striking TV segments of the year, as Koppel was visibly taken aback by the fierce nostalgia for a time and place that literally never existed — and how it connects to the misinformation that has infiltrated America’s politics.

“People looking back at that program seem to confuse the program with what reality was like in those days, wishing that we could only restore some of the good feelings, some of the kindness, some of the decency,” Koppel said in an interview. “But what they’re really reflecting on is not what was going on in a particular North Carolina community. What they’re reflecting on is what was going on in the creative minds of a bunch of scriptwriters out in Hollywood.”

On a base level, Koppel understands why people connect — and cling to — the show about a friendly small town where any minor issue was resolved in 30 minutes with commercial breaks. It’s the same reason people now repeatedly binge-watch “The Office” and “Friends” and “Seinfeld”: When life is a nightmare, TV comedy is an excellent escape.

Similarly, “The Andy Griffith Show,” a viewing experience that Koppel compared to “chomping down on a marshmallow,” was an antidote to everything going on in the world at the time, which never showed up on the sunny series: Tens of thousands of American troops killed in Vietnam War. Race riots throughout the country. Assassinations.

“If there’s any period that matches our current period in terms of how terrible things were and how difficult things were, the 1960s were it,” Koppel said.

Koppel’s 13-minute segment, which filmed in June and aired in September on “CBS Sunday Morning,” starts out looking like a pleasant feature about Mount Airy embracing its role as a stand-in for Mayberry, even though its only connection to “The Andy Griffith Show” is that Mount Airy was the real-life Griffith’s hometown. (It is debated whether Mount Airy was the inspiration for Mayberry, as many fans claim.) Randy Collins, president of the Greater Mount Airy Chamber of Commerce, explains to Koppel the origins of re-creating Mayberry: When the North Carolina tobacco and textile industries faltered, business owners needed another way to bring in revenue.

Kicking off with the cheerful, whistled theme song, cameras show the Andy Griffith Museum and a vintage police car and other replica hot spots from the series, including Wally’s Filling Station, the Snappy Lunch and Floyd’s Barber Shop — all packed with tourists. The piece takes its first hint of a darker, more serious turn as Koppel interviews one man who says our “godless society” could use a dose of the good old days. “Back when neighbors were neighbors, and they provided for everybody else,” the man explained.

“What you’re saying is true of certain people,” Koppel tells him. “If you were Black in the ‘60s, things were not all that good.”

“That’s true,” the man admits. (The segment notes that in the entirety of the show’s eight-season run, only one Black actor had a speaking role.)

Koppel also interviews a Black family who had lived in Mount Airy for decades, and as of the early 1970s, were turned away from eating in certain restaurants. Yet the siblings had all returned to their hometown. “Somehow Mount Airy becomes more complex with each conversation,” Koppel said, adding that the town “is a place where fantasy and reality intersect.”

This segues into the segment’s defining scene, on a tourist trolley: Koppel decides to “wave the political thermometer across the forehead of Mount Airy” and asks how many people there thought the 2020 presidential election was a fair one. Only two out of about a dozen people raise their hands.

“I think there was a lot of voter fraud,” one tourist says. “I think it’s more the mail-in ballots. You don’t know how much of those were duplicated, triplicated, the whole bit.”

“Look how many dead people voted for Biden,” another adds, referring to a false and debunked conspiracy theory.

The discussion continues as one person claims the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol was a “staged” event with “BLM people.” (“I don’t understand why they’re focusing so much on that one issue, when there are so many cities being burned down every day by protesters.”) Others chime in to call the media the enemy of the people and profess their love for Donald Trump.

Koppel and his producers just let the scene speak for itself. At one point, a tour guide jumps in: “This conversation about politics and division is what people come here to get away from. We don’t care what color you are. We don’t even care what your politics are. We just want to be good neighbors and treat everybody alike. And that’s why they’re coming here.” The tourists yell “Amen!” and applaud. “That’s what America should be,” one says. Koppel’s voice-over concludes the segment: “And when the script was written in Hollywood, that’s the way it was.”

After it aired, Koppel heard lots of positive feedback from those who loved that he dug deeper; although some residents in Mount Airy and viewers in Southern states took issue with how the town was portrayed. Koppel had a phone conversation with Collins, the Chamber of Commerce president; and while Collins was very nice and didn’t “actively complain” (Mount Airy did get an enormous infusion of publicity with millions of “CBS Sunday Morning” viewers), Koppel got the impression that plenty of folks in town did.

“Speaking nationally, people either loved it or hated it,” Koppel said, though he pushed back on viewers who called it a “hit job.” “To the degree that it was critical, it was not critical of the show. It was not critical of the community. It was simply saying, 'You do need to understand that what you’re looking at here is not the original community that the show was — the show was not shot here. It wasn’t about this place.’”

Ultimately, Koppel emphasized that was the point: It’s fine if you want to escape reality on television. But conflating it with the real world can produce damaging results. One part that stuck out in his mind from the segment was one of the tourists at the end who said, “I just hope when this airs it won’t show Southerners as a bunch of dumb idiots.”

“That truly was never the intent,” Koppel said. “It was just — to the extent that people go to Disneyland and confuse Disneyland with reality, they need to be reminded of the fact that it’s a place that was created to sell tickets to a lot of rides and to make money. ... There’s nothing evil about that. There’s nothing wrong with that. But people shouldn’t be hurt if somebody reminds them that they’re not dealing with reality.”

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