Don Knotts was that type of performer who knew that he should stick with what worked, and for him, it was broad comedy. He didn't do impressions. Didn't do pratfalls. Didn't work blue. He was a clown, and for generations of TV fans, he was THE clown. His Barney Fife was the epitome of a man who took his job too seriously, and his other characters precisely depicted men stunned by success stumbled upon, often despite their shortcomings.
Fife, for me, was an institution, a name brand that existed before my first memory and popped up throughout my life: Mr. Limpet played constantly in reruns on our static-peppered TV before we got cable. My parents took me to see Private Eyes and The Apple Dumpling Gang at theatre matinees. He replaced the Ropers on "Three's Company," a show I was took young to know was filled with sex jokes. And, of course, in the South especially, he was Barney Fife. Before Nick At Night helped make retro TV cool, Fife was as common a cultural benchmark as Johnny Carson and Jimmy Carter. To announce Knotts's death, Fark.com -- a site infamous for too-cool headline jokes and self-referential comedy -- referred to Fife's unused bullet in the shirt pocket. You couldn't escape Barney. The local NBC affiliate still runs "Andy Griffith" reruns whenever the network can't fill the time. It's the only show I can remember that has run on all four local network affiliates at one time or another.
Now my confession: I hate "The Andy Griffith Show." Never took a liking to it. I didn't like the cartoonish Goober or Gomer or Ernest or Floyd or Otis, and Aunt Bea was nowhere near as cool as Aunt Harriet from "Batman." But Barney was funny. Gene Siskel said you can't convince someone to find something funny or sexy. Either you do or you don't. A whole lotta folks found Barney funny. Knotts's seemed perfectly content to make people laugh with the most accessible humor possible. His Barney remains a character grandparents can show their grandkids without any disclaimers or hesitation. Generations can enjoy him at the same time, and that's an achievement indeed.