Sunday, September 22, 2013

American Rural Comedies of the Sixties Part Five

By the 1965-1966 season the cycle towards rural comedies was five years old. It had been the success of The Real McCoys in 1957 that had opened the doors for rural comedies and it had been the success of  The Andy Griffith Show in 1960 that insured that there would be several more to follow. The 1965-1966 season would be no different, with the debut of two more rural comedies during the season.

The first of the two rural comedies would be one of the hits of the season, and remains one of the most famous rural comedies of all time. This should come as no surprise, as Green Acres was produced by Paul Henning, the creator and producer of both The Beverly Hillbilies and Petticoat Junction. While Green Acres shared the Hooterville setting of Petticoat Junction, however, Paul Henning was not the creator of Green Acres. Instead that honour goes to Jay Sommers. Like Paul Henning, Jay Sommers' career had begun on radio. He worked on radio's most famous hillbiily sitcom Lum and Abner, as well as writing for Milton Berle, Eddie Cantor,and Red Skelton. Like Paul Henning, Jay Sommers also made the move to television. Prior to Green Acres Mr. Sommers worked on such TV shows as The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet and Dennis the Menace, as well as Petticoat Junction.

In fact, Green Acres actually has its roots in a radio show created, written and produced by Jay Sommers, titled Granby's Green Acres. Granby's Green Acres was a spin off of the popular Lucille Ball radio show My Favourite Husband after a fashion. On My Favourite Husband Gale Gordon and Bea Benaderet (who eventually found her way to Petticoat Junction) played banker Rudolph Atterbury and his wife Iris Atterbury.  Granby's Green Acres essentially took the Atterburys, gave them new names, and placed them in a new setting. Quite simply, on Granby's Green Acres Gale Gordon and Bea Benaderet played banker John Granby and Martha Granby, who move to the country to take up farming. Eb (played by Parley Baer) was the Granby's old farmhand. Granby's Green Acres had a very brief run, only lasting from 3 July 1950 to 21 August 1950.

Green Acres centred on New York City lawyer Oliver Wendell Douglas (played by Eddie Albert) who decided to fulfil his dream of becoming a farmer, much to the displeasure of his glamorous wife Lisa (played by Eva Gabor).  Unfortunately, Mr. Douglas bought a run down farm with its derelict house from Hooterville's local con man Mr. Haney (played by Pat Buttram).  The sometimes temperamental Mr. Douglas knew nothing about farming, and his efforts more often than not met with failure. He received little help from his young, glib, but none too bright farmhand Eb Lawson (played by Tom Lester), who regarded himself as the Douglases' adopted son (something with which Mr. Douglas disagreed). He also received little in the way of help from Hooterville's county agent, the scatterbrained Hank Kimball (Alvy Moore). Set in Hooterville, Frank Cady naturally appeared in the regular role of Sam Drucker, owner and operator of the general store. Other characters included the Douglases' neighbours, Fred (played by Hank Patterson) and Doris Ziffel (played by Barbara Pepper in the show's first three seasons and by Fran Ryan in its last two), who treated their pig Arnold as their son (as did everyone else in Hooterville, except Mr. Douglas).

Although set in Hooterville, Green Acres was much closer in spirit to The Beverly Hillbillies than Petticoat Junction. Like The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres was in many respects an absurdist farce. That having been said, it differed from The Beverly Hillbillies in that it was not so much a comedy about culture conflict as it was a comedy about perceptions of reality. Quite simply, there is the reality that Mr. Douglas perceives and the reality that everyone else in Hooterville perceives (even his wife Lisa). For instance, while Mr. Douglas had difficulty accepting Arnold Ziffel as anything other than a very intelligent pig, the other Hootervilians (including his wife Lisa) insist on treating him like a human child, even to the point that he attends school. It must also be pointed out that Mr. Douglas seems to be the only character on Green Acres who is unaware that he is on a  television show. An example of this are those instances where Lisa can hear the theme music and see the credits, while Mr. Douglas is totally unaware of them. Quite simply, not only was Mr. Douglas a "real person in an unreal situation", he was a real person surrounded by unreal people in what can only be described as an unreality.

Like Petticoat Junction, Green Acres was bought without a pilot. And like Petticoat Junction it proved to be a hit. In its first season it ranked #11 in the Nielsen ratings out of all the shows on the air for the year. In its second season its ratings actually improved, as it rose to #6 for the year. Green Acres remained in the top twenty shows for the year for its next two seasons. Green Acres was still receiving respectable ratings in its last season (coming in at #34 for the year) when it was cancelled as part of the Rural Purge during the 1970-1971 season.

The second rural sitcom to debut during the 1965-1966 season was Tammy, based on the 1957 Universal Pictures film Tammy and the Bachelor and its two sequels. Debbie Reynolds had originated the role of Tammy Tyree in Tammy and the Bachelor, with Sandra Dee taking over the role for the two sequels, Tammy Tell Me True (1961) and Tammy and the Doctor (1963). For the television series the role of Tammy went to another Debbie, namely sixteen year old Debbie Watson. Miss Watson had starred in the single season sitcom Karen in the 1964-1965 season and would take Pat Priest's place as Marilyn Munster in the film Munster Go Home (1966), even though Marilyn on The Munsters had been a little bit older.

Tammy was loyal to the film series to a degree. Tammy Tarleton (for some reason her surname was changed from Tyree for the TV show) lived on a houseboat in the bayou with her grandfather Mordechai (played by Denver Pyle) and her Uncle Lucius (Frank McGrath). Tammy worked as a secretary for the rich Brent family, which included patriarch John Brent (Donald Woods) and his son Steven Brent (Jay Sheffield), who provided a love interest for Tammy. Much of the series was based around the conflict between Tammy's bayou roots and the Southern high society in which she sometimes operated as the Brents' secretary.

Tammy debuted 17 September 1965 on ABC. It had the misfortune to be scheduled against The Wild Wild West. Then in its first season, The Wild Wild West would prove to be one of the hits of the season, coming in at 23 in the Nielsen ratings for the season. As to Tammy it lasted only one season and 26 episodes.

The 1966-1967 season would see no new rural comedies debut for the first time since the 1960-1961 season. Despite this, the 1966-1967 season should best be considered a lull in the cycle towards rural comedies rather than the end of the cycle. Indeed, five more rural comedies would debut before the end of the Sixties.

That having been said, some of the rural comedies of the later Sixties would see the genre combined with other sitcoms genres. The mid-Sixties saw a cycle towards what can only be described as "gimmick comedies", the concepts of which could not easily be described in one sentence. The cycle began in the 1965-1966 season with the sitcom Hank and continued in the 1966-1967 season with Occasional Wife. The 1967-1968 season saw the debut of more gimmick comedies, among which was one that can also be considered a rural comedy: Accidental Family.

Accidental Family starred Jerry Van Dyke as widowed comedian Jerry Webster, who could have custody of his 8 year old son Sandy (played by Teddy Quinn) only if he raised him in an environment other than Las Vegas. Fortunately, Jerry owned a farm in the San Fernando Valley. There was only one problem. He could not evict the farm's one tenant, divorceé Sue Kramer (Lois Nettleton), who has a daughter of her own (Tracy, played by Susan Benjamin).  Jerry and Sue struck a deal, whereby Sue would live on the farm and take care of Sandy while Jerry was performing in Las Vegas. The farm's only hand was Ben McGrath (Ben Blue), a former vaudevillian. Larry Mann (played by Marty Warren) was Jerry's agent.

Accidental Family was created by screenwriter Melville Shavelson, who had written the screenplays for such films as Wonder Man (1946), The Seven Little Foys (1955), Houseboat (1958), and  The Five Pennies (1959) among many others. The original title of the show was Everywhere a Chick Chick, but it was changed to Accidental Family in July 1965, two months before its debut.  In the 25 March 1965 issue of The Los Angeles Times entertainment columnist Hal Humphrey described the show as  comedy cross between Green Acres and Family Affair.

Although largely forgotten now, Accidental Family was a historic show. It was the first American sitcom to feature a divorced woman as one of the central characters. As a result it was also one of the first American situation comedies to deal with the issue of divorce. Indeed, in the aforementioned Los Angeles Times article Hal Humpreys reported that Proctor & Gamble had rejected sponsorship of the show "...because it looked immoral to them" (presumably referring to the fact that widower Jerry and divorcee Sue were living under the same roof without being married). Here it should be pointed out that, according to a 7 August 1967 Associated Press article by Cynthia Lowry, Jerry was going to be divorced as well, but  he was changed to a widower because "...sponsors wouldn't touch the show..."

Accidental Family debuted on 15 September 1967. Unfortunately it was scheduled against The CBS Friday Night Movies (which would rank #15 for the season) on CBS and the popular Western The Guns of Will Sonnett on ABC. The fact that it was scheduled following a very low rated sci-fi show titled Star Trek probably did not help matters. Regardless Accidental Family received bottom of the barrel ratings and only lasted half a season. It went off the air on 5 January 1968.

While no rural comedies had debuted in the 1966-1967 season and only Accidental Family had debuted in the 1967-1968 season, the cycle towards rural comedies was hardly over. In fact, the 1968-1969 season would see there rural comedies debut, the most since the 1964-1965 season. Unfortunately, even as those shows there would be forces conspiring that would insure the Sixties would be the last decade to see a plethora of rural shows of any kind, including comedies. 

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