Premiere Episode and Laffs (Time/Life-2004)
In the summer of 1969, the American Dream seemed to be approaching its waking stage. The awesome miracle of man’s landing on the moon that July only made the earth’s reality grimmer: the war in Vietnam, protests and violence in the streets, Woodstock and rock music, hippies, the Manson murders, Teddy Kennedy and Chappaquiddick, racial polarization, the recent political assassinations, a surge in crime, women’s liberation and a new code of sexual conduct made America a very different place than it was at the beginning of that decade.
The only thing that refused to give in to this change was prime-time television. Although the country seemed to be coming apart at its seams during the network news broadcasts, there was no evidence of this turbulence after 7:30 p.m. There was a good reason for this: unlike today, “reality” TV was the last thing Americans preferred.
Television entertainment remained constant, dependable and safe; as far removed from logic and living as possible. Lucy may have continued her wacky antics in shorter skirts, but America loved her as always. In addition, the Clampetts still churned their own butter by the cement pond, Sister Betrille took flight at the hint of a breeze, Dean Martin crooned, Johnny Carson chatted, Samantha Stevens twitched, Jeannie blinked, and Gomer Pyle served KP duty. Old dependables like Mayberry RFD, Family Affair and My Three Sons presented an orderly, smiley down-homeness that bathed its fans in living color, but served an ideal that vanished once the TV was turned off.
Small hints at relevance, or any attempt to reflect the changing culture was handled delicately, with oven mitts. NBC’s Laugh-In, for instance, was wild, but not crazy: it was vaudeville in mini-skirts and bell-bottoms. The real try was by CBS, with the controversial Smothers Comedy Brothers Hour (yes, that was its title). The hip variety show, hosted by the folk-singing duo of Tommy and Dick Smothers, was aimed at youth and took pot shots literally, with subtle humor about drug use and a thinly veiled celebration of the newly emerging counterculture. It also jabbed at the Nixon administration, the war in Vietnam, and the absurdity of network censorship. It was daring in its day, but CBS eventually got cold feet and dropped the show by the summer of ’69.
CBS would regain its bravery in 1971, forever changing the face of television with the premiere of All in the Family. It was part of the network’s attempt to find a younger, more urban and sophisticated audience for its advertisers. As a result, Archie Bunker’s loud-mouthed arrival killed almost everything with a tree in it: The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, and Petticoat Junction were all cancelled to make way for the new trend of upscale, educated city dwellers like Mary Tyler Moore and Bob Newhart. Another casualty of this corporate decision was the removal of the very show that replaced The Smothers Brothers only two years before: Hee Haw.
Hee Haw gets no respect, but has an incredible history and astonishing legacy. It’s easy to dismiss a show this square, but it has a sure place in the history of television entertainment. Though basically designed as Laugh-In in a barnyard with its endless parade of corny jokes and country flakes, it manages to hold down a sure and steady weight and a timeless appeal that Laugh-In could never achieve.
Hee Haw was a dubious idea, but an instant hit with viewers when it replaced the Smothers Brothers. It was a soothing salve that smoothed over the torn wound of the former holder of that time slot. Hee Haw may have been a direct result of President Nixon’s infamous speech about the “Silent Majority,” in which he names and acknowledges a large group of unheard-from, middle-class people (mostly in rural and suburban areas who were not the “cultural elite” of New York or LA). These were the ungroovy, the followers of Bob Hope, not George Carlin. We take this idea for granted now, but in the heat of the moment then, it was a revelation.
The Silent Majority, according to Nixon, went to work every day, got their hair cut every week, obeyed the law, attended John Wayne movies and paid their taxes. They did not speak up about politics and did not take to the streets to protest. Still, they were nevertheless appalled by what was going on in the country and longed for a return to law and order, family values and stability.
This was also the same year that country singer Merle Haggard scored a mega-hit with “Okie from Muskogee,” (“we don’t burn no draft cards down on Main Street”), a Silent Majority anthem that celebrated down-home values and short hair. This seed of a philosophy eventually strengthened and grew into the Republican Revolution of the Reagan era. In the meantime, these were the people, by the millions, who watched Hee Haw.
When the show was cancelled by CBS two seasons into its run, it immediately turned to syndication (a rare occurrence at the time). The move was a smart one – it settled in for a long visit both nationwide and around the world for an additional quarter century. To date, it is one of the longest-running syndicated programs in history. And it was one of the few network (and then syndicated) shows to be broadcast not from the “cultural elite” centers of New York or LA but from Nashville (as well it should).
Hee Haw doesn’t exactly give you a swift kick in the britches, but it works hard to entertain you. Its sets are simple (front porch, cornfield, hay wagon), its jokes are simpler (“ya know, my brother’s wife is 40. He didn’t like her, so he traded her in on two 20s.”), and its production values are even simpler still (the canned laughter, for instance, is painfully obvious). The transitions are awkward as well. We see, for instance, a tight close up on Buck Owens reacting to a joke he has obviously not heard at all. Then he wipes the smile off his face, gets serious and turns to the camera and says, “Here’s Charley Pride.”
What isn’t so simple is the confidence and ability of its cast, from super-duper charming co-hosts Roy Clark and Buck Owens down to its hysterical regulars like Junior Samples and Lulu Roman, and its amazing march of musical guests, from Loretta Lynn to Johnny Cash. Even if you are not a fan of country music, you would be surprised at how much this hit parade does not make your skin crawl.
Time Life serves up this collection almost right. This first volume highlights the premiere episode on CBS, but that’s about it. There is an extra that helps you navigate the funny one-liners and musical numbers, but it seems senseless. There are additional volumes available for purchase, but the packaging could have been a bit more comprehensive and air tight. One episode per DVD seems a bit chintzy. Sure, twenty-five years of Hee Haw would take a long time to distribute, but a simple best-of box set – even a greatest hits collection – would have been more like it.
Still, the first episode is a pure delight. You get Roy Clark pickin’ and a grinnin’ (for real – he still has one of the best smiles ever to flash on the small screen, and we will forgive him for the ascot he’s wearing); you get the legendary Buck Owens proving why he is legendary; and you get Loretta Lynn singing the incredibly politically incorrect “Your Squaw Is On the Warpath;” despite the fact that the angry song is about a woman done wrong, she sings it with a happy face.
Also, you are first introduced to the fascinatingly backwoods Junior Samples (a sixth-grade dropout who literally struggles to read the cue cards and cannot say the word “trigonometry,” even after one thousand takes). As the series progresses, Samples finds his footing and his confidence, but here he doesn’t know which way to look and doesn’t get half the jokes he’s given to say. (FYI, here’s the trig joke: Junior: Why did the judge lock up old Stan Hawkins fer?” Roy: “Bigotry. He had three wives.” Junior: “That’s not bigotry, that’s trigonometry.”) It only makes you dig him more.
The brilliant Archie Campbell expounds incredible comic monologues in the characters of a tongue-twisting barber and a cigar-chomping doctor, and Minnie Pearl (wearing her trademark hat with the price tag still attached) does her down-home best with some knee-slapping anecdotes (her brother holds a hot horseshoe and immediately drops it on the ground, not because it’s scalding but because he knows how long it takes to look at a horseshoe). Minnie Pearl is such a special, special guest that attendance is mandatory: the entire cast sits on the porch with her and hears her spin her rambling tales while they laugh uproariously at any little ol’ thing she says.
The show stays country for most of the time, but it does get a little groovy when Buck Owens revives the always-crowd-pleasin’ “Johnny B. Goode” while the hip-as-it-gets Hager twins (male) frug in their suede vests, tambourine and tight pants and Lulu – all three-hundred pounds of her – does a swingin’ watusi. If you think you are going to live your entire life and not witness this, you are making a huge mistake.
The comedy is clean enough for a seven-year old. The closest they get to controversy regards sex (Grandpa Jones: “What do you call a man who doesn’t believe in birth control?” Roy Clark: “A daddy.”), violence (Archie: “Junior, I heerd up thar in Noo York they’s a man gits hit by a car every thirty minutes.” Junior: “Lord, bet he’s getting’ t’ard a that by now.”) and religion: (Archie: “You send that Bible to your boy?” Clem: “Yep, the man in the post office axe me, ‘Is there anything in that package that kin be broken?’ I said, ‘Only the Ten Commandments.’”).
Hee Haw tries unsuccessfully to introduce national catchphrases (examples include: “Hey, Grandpa, what’s for supper?” as well as “Doesn’t that fry your taters?” and “not silly, but merely foolish.”) and although they were quotable enough, they could not keep up with Laugh In (“sock it to me,” “you bet your sweet bippy” and “one ringy dingy.”). The humor is all cornpone, and it’s loaded with starch. It kicks up a temporary dust, like talcum powder, and it keeps you as dry as the delivery of the punchlines. It’s painless – you won’t feel or remember a thing.
For reasons unexplored, “rednecks” are the only minority group in America who are left flapping in the wind without defenders coming to their aid. Unjustly, it seems to be okay to belittle and tease them without reprimand. This seems unfair, but Hee Haw always celebrates and champions its own stereotype. However, watching a bunch of country folk lying around on a hot afternoon, or pickin’ and a grinnin’, or trading gags in a cornfield doesn’t make you feel superior – it makes you feel jealous of the simple life. After all, we can’t play guitar like Owens or pick the banjo with a winning smile like Clark; we can’t convincingly greet everyone like Minnie Pearl (“HOW-DEEEEE!”), and we can’t read a cue card like Junior Samples.
Copyright ©2005 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: January 21, 2005.