Tomorrow is the birthday of Paul Laurence Dunbar. Take a minute to read his fine poem below and then click over to Sharon McCoy’s excellent discussion of his poetry: https://humorinamerica.wordpress.com/2011/06/27/poetry-corner-paul-laurence-dunbar-changing-the-joke-to-slip-the-yoke/
After hearing the acclaimed scholar Arnold Rampersad speak on the history of African American poetry as part of the TILTS “Poets & Scholars Institute” at the University of Texas, I was thinking about the poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar and about the role of humor in African-American poetry. It seems to me that more scholarly attention might be paid to humorous poetry–both good and bad.
With this in mind, the “Humor in America” blog has “hired” Caroline Sposto as poetry editor. She will be posting humorous poetry on a regular basis. See her first post here. If you are interested in creating a regular column on a humorous subject–movie reviews, political cartoons, TV shows, or any other relevant subject–you, too, can be “hired” as an editor to contribute to our enterprise, which has no payment apart from a growing reading public.
See below for Paul Laurence Dunbar’s great…
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It is time to jump on the Marc Maron bandwagon. Really. Do it right away because, well, things could go bad at any moment. I know this because I have been following Maron for almost six months now. Six months of unadulterated laughter at a guy who builds his material on the core fact of his life: things could go bad at any moment. Maron is having a good year in the public realm. He is making money and getting praise from critics and new fans alike. And it is all deserved. He is provocative (which means he is funny but pisses people off) and likable (which means that he is funny but people feel sorry for him). Maron has already earned some attention on HA!. For two excellent pieces, see: Matthew Daube on Marc Maron; ABE on Marc Maron.
He is cooking on all burners, putting out wonderful material in the last couple of years: Thinky Pain, an album and concert video on Netflix) and This Has to Be Funny being released in August 2014, Attempting Normal, a book with solid praise thus far, and Maron, the wonderful television show in its second season on IFC and available on Netflix.
Here is a brief scene from the sitcom Maron as he interviews C.M. Punk: Interview with C.M. Punk on Maron
He is an overnight twenty-five-years-in-the-making success. And the time to jump in an enjoy this dynamo is now because, well, who knows what is around the corner? He’s just a guy trying to be an adult, OK? Sometimes it goes well. Sometimes, not so well. Maron has found a way to make his pain pay. (He just got $ 4.99 from me for a premium membership of WTF). The podcast started in 2009 and still runs out of his garage. In spite of this humble setting (or related to it, perhaps), Maron draws in some of the biggest stars of comedy and Hollywood, as well as in the music industry. Here are a few of his guests just from the last few months: Josh Groban, Billy Gibbons, Vince Vaughan, Ivan Reitman, Lena Dunham, Laurie Kilmartin, and Will Ferrel, and so on. WTF is an ideal text for studying the state of American humor. I would consider it a valuable (perhaps essential) forum for anyone interested in studying/learning the craft of American stand up comedy and its interdependence on all facets of American pop culture, especially music.
Over the last several years, Maron via WTF has steadily put together a remarkable collection of interviews of some of the best comic minds of our time, along with a wide array of other artists of varying interests. If you have yet to listen to WTF, well, wtf?
Just this past week, WTF hit its 500 podcast. Here is a link to a list of the episodes and the guests: WTF Episode Guide. The most recent 50 are available free via the the app or online here: WTF Podcast Home
Rolling Stone (Rolling Stone Article) listed Maron as on The 10 Funniest People, Videos and Things of the Coming Year in 2011. In this brief article, Jonah Weiner calls Maron an “acid-tongued rage-prone satirist.” That is just the thing. Maron causes critics to use hyphenated terms to describe him. He is THAT good. Actually, Weiner makes the right call as he talks about WTF as his most important work to date. He calls it a “series of unvarnished shit-shoots with comedians that move from laugh-geek joke autonomy to quasi-therapeutic venting.” Geez, three more hyphenated terms in one sentence. Do you see what Maron can do? I did not know how important hyphens were to Rolling Stone, but I digress. Underneath the god-awful (hyphen!) phrasing of the description is a crucial point.
WTF balances formidable discussions of the craft of humor (what Weimer calls “joke anatomy”–what? no hyphen?) and psychoanalysis, all of which teeters on disaster at any given moment, and all of it thoughtful. Marc Maron is a funny comic writer; he is solid performer in his sitcom; and he is compelling on stage, but he is a master of the interview. He does not know why. In the 500 episode he acknowledges the praise for his interviewing skill but seems baffled by how it came about. It reminds me of the anecdote about Bob Newhart, a master of stammering timing. Newhart, when asked how he managed to so perfectly create the illusion of talking on the phone, for instance, responded that he simply waited the amount of time it would take for someone on the other end of the fictional conversation to say something. Brilliant. Newhart deflects any praise for his skill and pretends that his timing is innate and open to anyone. Nah. Newhart has it; Maron has it, too. It has something to do with talent, but it is also a work in progress. In either case, Maron comes across as genuinely curious about how his guests struggle with craft (whether it is comedy, music, acting, writing, whatever) AND their inner demons. And he gives them the space to explore the humor and challenges of both. He also makes them talk about his own issues. Maron has issues.
In the New York Times (Jan. 2011; NYTimes Article on Maron), calls him “angry probing, neurotic and a vulnerable recovering addict.” Well, American comedy, right? He has been called a mix of Woody Allen and Lenny Bruce, which is both accurate and too easy. As he states in his introduction provided on the WTF website, he prefers the combination one of his fans provided: an Iggy Pop Woody Allen. Yes, American comedy of anxiety with a punk ethos. To give you a taste of this Maron mix, note the following three quotes included in the banner for the “about” section of the WTF website:
–“TV is great because no one knows when to retire and you can watch the full arc of success, sadness and decay.”
–“I’m glad to be part of the war on sadness. I’m a part time employee of the illusion that keeps people stupid.”
–“In most cases the only difference between depression and disappointment is your level of commitment.”
It’s time to jump on the Marc Maron bandwagon with a deep level of commitment. I just paid five bucks for premium access for the next six months. And I am looking into a 20 dollar mug.
Why aren’t there more films about effeminate Elvis impersonators doing Ozzy Osbourne songs with a crack bluegrass band? Co-writer/director/producer (and Nashville music producer) Scott Rouse set out to remedy this omission with his short film, Van Heffer.
The Comedy Central pilot traces the life, career and mysterious death of Sherman Van Heffer (Shane Caldwell) told in the style of the mockumentary pioneered by Rob Reiner, Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer with 1984’s This is Spinal Tap.
Van Heffer is peppered with a virtual who’s who of bluegrass legends playing themselves (Del McCoury, Doc Watson, Ricky Skaggs, Jerry Douglas, Vince Gill) as well as Nashville notables such as Station Inn owner J.T. Gray and Wichita Rutherford, which lend the film its sharp, sarcastic authenticity.
To the best of my knowledge nothing further came of the project with Comedy Central, but the pilot has become a cult classic, and was a hit at the 2006 Nashville Film Festival.
Look for yours truly (with a transitory southern accent) as the record store clerk. The running time is a mere 26 minutes, so there is very little commitment. Much like my acting.
In my previous entries in this series, I have discussed the ways in which Edgar Allan Poe might best be thought of as a literary prankster, a “diddler” or a practical joker, who delighted in “putting one over” on his readers. This flies in the face of the wildly popular depiction of the nineteenth-century poet and littérateur. To his legions of fans and to the multitudes of merchants making commercial hay (and no small amount of money) off of Poe’s mythic image, Poe remains best known and best loved today as dark, brooding, alcoholic, madman-genius. However, to the great disappointment of my own students, all biographical evidence suggests that this image is largely false. Yes, Poe had his occasional problems with the bottle, although in this he was not all that far from the norm in his besotted epoch, and yes, he wrote some stories about madness, mayhem, mystery, and mortality, although he wrote far more burlesques, hoaxes, satires, and spoofs. Above all, Poe was a canny magazinist, an astute judge of the appetites of the reading public, and he used his own literary talents and business acumen to give the people what they wanted.
One of the things that readers desperately wanted, as Poe knew better than most, was a shock, especially in the form of tales combining elements of the bizarre, extravagant, terrifying, and weird. If Poe is best remembered today for his tales of terror, it is in part because he recognized that such tales would be the most popular in his own time. For example, after one publisher objected to the gruesomeness or bad taste of “Berenice” (a rather disturbing tale, it’s true, but well worth the read!), Poe explained that “to be appreciated, you must be read,” and he pointed out that such stories are “invariably sought after with avidity.” What kind of stories are so popular? “The history of all Magazines shows plainly that those which have attained celebrity were indebted for it to articles” whose nature consisted of the following: “the ludicrous heightened into the grotesque: the fearful coloured into the horrible: the witty exaggerated into the burlesque: the singular wrought out into the strange and mystical.” In other words, Poe asserts, excessive, over-the-top stories are what the people demand. So, again, if Poe became a master of horror, it is because Poe knew that horror sells.
How does this relate to my argument that Poe is best viewed as a literary practical joker? Poe’s burlesques, hoaxes, bizarreries, and practical jokes are obviously examples of his perverse sense of humor. But what about those stories that are “clearly” meant to be read as works of horror, mystery, or suspense? It is not for nothing that Poe is widely considered a master of Gothic fiction, right? (My use of the scare-quotes is an obvious giveaway, indicating my skepticism over whether any of Poe’s work could “clearly” be so described.) I would assert that even Poe’s apparently Gothic tales of terror are, on one level or another, also examples of satire, humor, or hoaxing. That is, even in his apparently serious fiction, Poe’s impish, satirical, and critical attitude prevails. This is not to say that we need to re-categorize Poe’s tales of terror as comical pieces, but it is to suggest that the prankster’s spirit infuses all of Poe’s work. As an example, I would like to look at “The Fall of the House of Usher,” one of Poe’s most famous and celebrated works of Gothic horror. Notwithstanding its gloomy atmosphere, mysterious characters, and horrifying climax, the story of Roderick and Madeline Usher’s frightening downfall is thoroughly suffused with playful humor. Continue reading →
Disney‘s new take on a favorite fairy tale is doing scary good at the box office. It pleases me to see this classic retold because it has always been one of my favorites.
In 2010, I published a light, poetic version of of this story with a modern twist, which I chose to resurrect in celebration of the movie.
Sleeping Beauty’s a tale of a princess of yore,
it’s a classic love story we’ve all heard before.
The Frenchman Perrualt was the first to compose,
Brother’s Grimm wrote a version they called ‘Briar Rose.’
Tchaikovsky adapted it into Ballet,
and Walt Disney’s version is well known today.
To be true to my conscience I must now amend,
the outmoded version, so long ago penned.
So forward, turn forward oh time for this tale;
let’s revise with respect to the modern female….
Sleeping Beauty . . . au courant
One upon a time, in a time rather recent.
lived a King and Queen who were fair, kind and decent.
They were loved by their subjects, as well as the press,
for they had no corruption, nor wretched excess.
Yet sadly, as thoroughly as they were blessed,
they continued to flunk their home pregnancy test.
The King switched to boxers, they timed ovulation;
they went for In Vitro, after failed medication.
Then one auspicious day, the Queen bathed in a spring,
and a talking frog uttered this linguistic string:
“You’re pregnant, Your Highness, of that I’ve no doubt.”
The Queen was ecstatic….albeit creeped out.
She studied Lamaze with the King as her coach.
When the time came, the drugs were a better approach.
The new Princess’ birth was a YouTube sensation,
and the King knew it called for a grand celebration.
A party for family, that none would feel slighted,
and they felt they should have local fairies invited.
Now, since fairies bring presents of blessings and wishes,
they would suck up a little and use the gold dishes.
With the four local fairies the guests totaled thirteen,
“But we only own service for twelve,” said the Queen.
Since they now had to cross someone off of their list,
they left out the mean fairy, who’d never be missed.
The party was lovely, the three fairies showed,
and soon after dinner their gifts were bestowed,
on the delicate baby girl christened Aurora,
who slept through it all with an angelic aura.
Good Fairy Flora gave her looks that were choice,
and from Good Fairy Fauna, a beautiful voice.
Then the mean one, Maleficent, crashed the affair.
She saw the good fairies and started to swear.
I’ve edited out the profane and obscene,
but below is, verbatim, the part that was mean:
“Since you won’t let me into to your smug little clique,
I’m cursing this baby, with one finger stick!
At sixteen, one spindle and one tiny jab,
and she’ll end up that night in the morgue on a slab!”
Security moved in to have her ejected,
but she vanished by magic, and thus was protected.
This vile episode was so highly unpleasant,
that fear overwhelmed everyone who was present.
They speedily took to both iPhone and Kindle,
To answer this question: What the hell is a spindle?
No plausible image was on Wikipedia,
so they googled and searched other digital media.
What they finally found was an antique machine,
a contraption that none of them had ever seen.
“What’s up with that?” asked the number one Fairy.
The second one mocked, “Oooooh…isn’t that scary?”
Fairy three, Merryweather said, “Well just in case,
let me put a small counter-curse safeguard in place.”
She picked up her wand, and set down her booze,
and said, “Let this death sentence turn into a snooze!”
In what felt like a wink, many years quickly passed.
Our princesses always do grow up too fast . . .
Then one fateful day, her odd Aunt Kathleen,
had flown in from Boulder for her Sweet Sixteen.
She was weighted with luggage and suffered jet lag,
when she said to Aurora, “There’s hemp in my bag.”
“Weed?” asked the Princess. “Auntie Kat, are you stoned?”
“I said hemp, it’s a fiber, silly girl!” Kathleen moaned.
For an aging flower child, Aunt Kathleen was quite square.
She made macramé belts for the Renaissance Fair.
In the guest room Aunt Kathleen set up for her craft,
and took out an odd gizmo with a wheel and a shaft.
“What’s that thing?” asked the Princess, “What does it do?”
Then she suddenly reached for it out of the blue.
The most minor prick, the tiniest puncture,
pulled the plug, so it seemed at that strange fateful juncture.
It was not just Aurora, as one might suppose.
Throughout the whole Castle, time suddenly froze.
Auntie Kat who’d been lighting her incense and candles,
resembled a statue in Birkenstock sandals.
The King with his coffee met sudden fixation,
while browsing a Robb Report on Aviation.
The Queen, at her mirror saw her frozen reflection,
and feared it was caused by her Botox injection.
Each servant stopped cold as they worked at their chores
and even the Roombas stopped sweeping the floors.
As bad as this seemed, it got even more rotten.
After a news blitz, they all were forgotten.
thus, time shambled on until nobody knew
they were hidden beneath where the Briar Rose grew.
In a tangled outcropping, beside a strip mall
that blighted the blight of the vast urban sprawl.
Then one evening Fate twisted, as only Fate can.
In a Kingdom adjacent, there sat a young man
who was surfing for bondage sites, extra hardcore,
when he stumbled, somehow on an old piece of lore.
The Prince read the story, and whispered, “This rocks!”
It’s uncanny just how opportunity knocks.
A satellite image’s triangulation,
confirmed that the site was an A-1 location.
That Prince didn’t need real estate, so much as cred,
for hard, steady work simply filled him with dread.
He believed that success meant he’d think up a trick,
and then become famous and then get rich real quick.
A chance lifetime, for this sort of slacker.
Off to Walmart for mouthwash and a weed whacker!
Through his weed-whacking quest with a Princess to find,
the dream of Aurora took over his mind.
He imagined the kiss, how her eyelids would flutter,
her blue eyes would open, “My true love!” she would utter.
Then after the rest of the castle woke up,
he would ask for her hand, then she’d sign the pre-nup.
And the story of how they fell head over heels,
would mean movie rights…. merchandise…licensing deals!
Yet despite all this glamour and so much ado,
their unsurpassed, all-perfect love would be true.
She’d be timid in public, a tigress in bed.
She’d delight in the children, and bake homemade bread.
And on every talk show, she’d be quite a hit,
his smart little lady so full of quick a wit.
And he didn’t believe in the old-fashioned roles.
Today’s woman, he knew surely needs her own goals.
Be it politics, bridge or perhaps violin,
he’d give her some spare time to squeeze it all in.
I’ll spare you the epic of defoliation,
it’s dreary enough to bog down this narration.
The Prince found Aurora, suffice it to say.
When he finally kissed that long-longed-for day
her brown eyes flew open.”Who are you?” she cried.
“I’m your Prince Charming!” the stunned Prince replied.
Aurora piped up with her usual spunk,
“Where’s Ashton Kutcher? I get it, we’re punked!”
Next, the Prince praised her beauty, swore his devotion,
and then he proposed with much showy emotion.
but before he could give her a second to speak,
he squeezed her up next to his manly physique.
“Kiss your Prince Charming who rescued your castle!
You owe it to me, I went through a huge hassle!”
The Princess asked, “How can you think of a kiss?
at a moment so horribly messed up as this?
Eons of bed-head have matted my hair,
and I’ve not brushed my teeth for that long! Don’t you care?
You don’t know who I am. You don’t care how I feel,
Yet all you can think of is… closing the deal!”
And the old written record––alas–-ended here,
so the rest of the story is somewhat unclear.
Maybe once knew the end, but forgot,
whether she loved him, or loved him not.
I will wager their tears could be balanced by laughter,
and thus end with the words “…happily ever after.”
The lesson herein is simple, but true:
A wrong choice in marriage is hard to undo.
It’s written in stone and it’s posted on blogs,
Princes can turn to beasts, or at least into frogs.
Fall in love, fall in lust, even fall into bed,
But don’t fall into marriage without a clear head!
— Caroline Zarlengo Sposto
Did Andy influence comedy? No. Because nobody’s doing what he did…Follow your own drumbeat. You didn’t have to go up there and say ‘take my wife, please.’ You could do anything that struck you as entertaining. It gave people freedom to be themselves. – Carl Reiner
What we professional liars hope to serve is truth. I’m afraid the pompous word for that is “art.” – Orson Welles
Art is a lie. – Pablo Picasso
The 1973 Orson Welles film F For Fake strings together several stories, including controversial author Clifford Irving’s biography of noted art forger Elmyr de Hory (whose works were a hoax) as well as his “authorized” biography of the reclusive Howard Hughes (itself a hoax). Welles reminds us that he himself burst into the public consciousness via a hoax – his 1938 radio adaptation of War of the Worlds. The broadcast was presented as a live news report detailing an alien invasion in New Jersey. It was so convincing people reportedly committed suicide in the face of the news that little green men from Mars were overtaking the planet.
F For Fake is not really a documentary or a narrative; nor is…
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“Humor was an antiseptic that cleaned the deepest of personal wounds.” – Sherman Alexie, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven
When I was a college freshman, a beloved English professor first introduced me to author Sherman Alexie. I have had the opportunity to pay it forward and teach Sherman Alexie (most notably his novel Flight) to freshman students for the past 6 years. Here are my top 4 reasons you should be doing the same.
1. He’s funny.
We teach in a modern, text-filled world where laughing out loud and rolling on the floor laughing are common phrases that now appear in our inboxes, piles of essays to grade, and classroom discussions. While this reliance on slang always reminds me to make a note, ‘AVOID SLANG’ in my syllabus, I am pleased to present an author who creates a safe space for readers to ‘lol’ and/or ‘rotfl’ and aim to generate a similar environment in my college classroom.
I usually introduce Alexie with a brief biography and a lot of excitement – I affectionately create an ‘S.A. Opening Day’ complete with an interactive Prezi on the Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian from Wellpinit, Washington. In recent years, I have begun our discussions with clips from Time’s 10 Questions Series and Big Think’s Interview with Sherman Alexie below. While these videos help to promote different works, they also provide a context for young readers to see and hear from the author directly. When I ask for first impressions, students comment on Alexie’s passion about subjects like banned books, Native American history, and novel writing. They applaud his frankness and his ability to tell it like it is. Mostly, though, they talk about his humor. They continue to do so while reading his novel Flight.
2. He’s seriously funny.
In the midst of reading, students always exchange tales of laughter – they dog-ear pages to later share with classmates. Interestingly enough, students also inquire about another side of Alexie’s humor. They begin to question if they should be laughing at some of the outrageous stereotypes, politically incorrect statements, and explicit innuendos – and they dog-ear these pages as well. While they may not be aware of it, Alexie helps students become more active readers and critical thinkers. He helps them to formulate differences between types of humor such as slapstick, dark humor, and satire. Through satirical portrayals, he presents serious issues many of my students face on a daily basis such as alienation, peer pressure, and stereotyping.
In class, students create an ongoing list of ‘seriously funny moments’ from the novel, and explore these instances in their final papers. They use humor as a tool to talk about thoughtful social and cultural issues, an idea garnered from the pages of Alexie’s own work. For their final essays, they answer one or more of the following questions in an effort to explore, expand upon, and showcase their understanding of humor’s impact on society: How do humorists (like Sherman Alexie) use humor to get us to think about the world?; How does the type of humor in Alexie’s work impact, change, progress, and/or regress our worldview?; How, if at all, might this type of humor used in Alexie’s work help us to prioritize our values?; and How, if at all, might the instances of humor in Alexie’s work help us to change American society?
3. His writing is accessible.
I am a big proponent of challenging my students’ abilities – their writing skills, reading comprehension, and critical thinking – in my freshman English course. On the other hand, students often have a different agenda. With such a varied student population with an even more diverse set of skills in each classroom, I find their motivation to learn on a broader spectrum than ever before. Alexie’s writing, through culture references, simple sentence structure, and descriptive language, connects his characters’ thoughts to his readers’ world. Often, lofty diction and complicated sentence construction can alienate young readers. After a semester of trying to challenge their comprehension and deciphering skills, Alexie is a breath of fresh, easy air. Through his writing, he illustrates that language should promote critical thinking about sober, cultural issues plaguing the current American landscape.
His writing is also a great model for students. I often ask them to write and speak what they know – to avoid using the right-click feature found on their computers that allows them to replace their vocabulary with less familiar, obtuse words. I want them to focus on effectively communicating their ideas onto the page, and Alexie acts as a bestselling example.
4. He helps develop empathy in readers.
Call it what you will. Whether it is social consciousness, social awareness, or social understanding, Sherman Alexie has a true gift of facilitating empathy for other human experiences. As my freshman students study, humor, specifically the kind utilized by Alexie, helps to create a shared experience. These shared experiences produce stories, which are often told in the classroom, and build understanding and tolerance across different cultural boundaries. Alexie explores Native American stereotypes – the drunken Indian, the noble savage – and shows their harmful effects on the psyches of young men growing up both on and away from the reservation. He discusses cultural boundaries and often shatters preconceived notions of Native Americans, all in an effort not to acquire sympathy, but instead to illustrate the destructive force of willful ignorance. True understanding of another’s pain, isolation, and successes combats this deliberate cultural obliviousness. His interview with Bill Moyers, “Sherman Alexie on Living Outside Borders” is a poignant example for this discussion.
We spend a great deal of time on historical context as the novel presents it. History is important to Alexie, and it is often the place to begin a discussion on empathy. We discuss historical injustices, legendary battles, and prominent figures, such as Jackson’s dismissal of the Supreme Court ruling for the Cherokee nation, leading to the Trail of Tears, Custer’s Last Stand, and Crazy Horse. My young students grapple with an historical understanding of these cultural experiences, and in weekly reflections, they often discuss with their own values, ignorance, and biases, senses and stories of personal betrayal, alienation, and cultural seclusion. Considering different histories and perspectives aids in the development of a more informed, empathetic, and socially conscious society. While habitually reliant on bland, disingenuous phraseology regarding their emotions, twenty-first century readers learn through Alexie’s affirmation that true emotions and deep, sincere empathy builds lasting, valuable human connections.
© 2014 Tara Friedman
Tara E. Friedman currently teaches English and Professional Writing at Widener University in the outskirts of Philadelphia. She is ABD at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and hopes to complete her dissertation on female resistance and agency in select late nineteenth and twentieth century American novels and graduate in 2014 with her PhD in Literature and Criticism. While she has presented on critical thinking and writing center theory and pedagogy at the CCCC, her other research interests include nineteenth century British novels, the sixties in America, and American humor.
Happy Birthday, Andy Griffith!
Had Andy Griffith lived one day longer, he would have died on the 4th of July. This seems fitting for a man as American as apple pie, yet his simple modesty would never have allowed it. Thus, Andy Griffith passed away last week on July 3, one month into his 86th year, leaving a monumental contribution to American culture behind him.
He was best known as an actor, playing the straight-man, small-town Sheriff Andy Taylor in the eponymous television show he helped create – and with it an entire world. His childhood was rich with storytelling and, especially, music. The eccentric residents of the fictional Mayberry were inspired by the colorful characters that peppered his childhood in Mount Airy, North Carolina. While it is true he grew up dirt poor in the small southern town, even reduced to sleeping in dresser drawers as an infant, Andy Griffith…
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