When one is a fan of classic television, most know there are levels of recognition when remembering the shows of yesteryear. There are the deep cuts, the series many of us are familiar with and then there are the ones everyone seems to know. These are the sitcoms we all watched when we stayed home from school. One of these is of course, The Andy Griffith Show.
In truth, I’m not sure when I first visited Mayberry with Andy, Barney and Opie. The legendary sitcom is a pop culture mainstay in the truest sense. While this of course is a positive for the series, it also presents inherent challenges. These characters have become fixtures in our cultural memory and as such, the actors playing them struggle to escape the figures they brought to life.
It is this fact which intrigued me in reading Karen Knott’s book Tied Up in Knotts. Ultimately, with the passage of time, Don Knotts grew almost interchangeable with his character of Barney Fife in the memories of many. As I reflected on Knotts’ legendary career, I found myself echoing this sentiment. While I (of course!) have been more than familiar with Knotts, it’s difficult to see past his most famous character.
In her book Tied Up in Knotts, the comedian’s daughter Karen shines a light on the man behind Barney Fife, granting readers a perspective which few outside of Knotts’ closest friends truly had an insight.
Knotts is no stranger to her Father’s work. A performer and comedian herself, she’s toured with a one woman show extensively (also entitled Tied Up in Knotts) since her Father’s 2006 passing. This knowledge shines through in the book. The portions of the biography detailing The Andy Griffith Show are incredibly strong, combining Knotts’ own very vivid memories with strong interview evidence. The result is a colorful and heartwarming image of this cultural treasure. If you’re a fan of The Andy Griffith Show, this is one you shouldn’t miss.
As an author, Knotts tackles the complexity of presenting her Father’s expansive oral history in a very interesting way. As mentioned, she has more than done her research which is largely comprised of interviews to fill in the blanks not covered by her own memory. As I read, I couldn’t help but envision this book as a documentary. Remember the A&E series Biography? There are portions where the book feels very much like that. Knotts tells her Father’s story in an incredibly visual way, but there were sections where the threads of the story just don’t quite weave together. Ultimately, I found myself wanting more.
As mentioned, fans of The Andy Griffith Show should make sure to pick this one up. It isn’t a surprise that most of the content does revolve around the rural comedy. There’s also a number of remembrances of Knotts’ movies throughout the 1960s. Unfortunately, the book struggles around Knotts’ early career as part of the team on The Steve Allen Show. This was my primary research interest coming to this book and sadly, the content (outside of brief remembrances of comics Louis Nye and Pat Harrington Jr) is largely lacking. This was a great opportunity to write about the early days of television and sadly so many of those able to remember the period are no longer with us.
Throughout the book, it’s surprising just how tricky bringing Don Knotts to the forefront of his own story seems to be. The strength of Karen’s bond with her Father is apparent and the book is certainly at its strongest when she’s writing about these personal memories. Ultimately though, the book is tinged with the hero worship of a daughter looking at her much loved Father. Does Knotts live up to it? It’s impossible to say that he doesn’t, all the accounts in the book make clear that he was an incredibly nice, decent and funny guy. However, there is one ongoing theme to this review, I wanted more.
Ultimately, a real sense exists that you aren’t getting quite a full picture of Don Knotts. As I read, I couldn’t help but wonder about the thoughts going through his head, the feelings he was having and the struggles happening behind the scenes. This is a struggle for any child examining their parents and Don Knotts’ interiority makes it difficult to bring him out as a character in his own narrative. The story, the facts, and the other “characters” are there . In fact, Andy Griffith leaps off the page with incredible clarity. At various points, we certainly get a clear picture of Don Knotts as a father, Don Knotts as a solider and Don Knotts as a comedian, but it seems like an incredible challenge to capture Don Knotts the man.
All in all, I do recommend Tied Up in Knotts, particularly for fans of The Andy Griffith Show universe and certainly fans of Knotts; work. The book is particularly strong as an oral history of the long-running rural comedy and this very particular period in the entertainment industry in general. Unfortunately though, even Knotts’ Daughter struggles under the mighty task of shining a light on her famous Father. She paints a picture of a complicated man existing like a metaphorical iceberg. The book accomplishes a lot in showing that Don Knotts was more than simply Barney Fife; however, there’s so much simmering in him beneath the surface and ultimately, this makes the very act of telling his story incredibly difficult.
Tied Up in Knotts is available now, wherever you get your books!
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Podcaster, film historian, and general lover of all things classic film and television. Studying the contributions of women behind the camera in classic television.
You can find me on Twitter @kpierce624!