Saturday, 21 September 2013

American Rural Comedies of the Sixties Part Four

In the Fifties network executives had been convinced that American television viewers were not interested in comedies about rural life. They were proved wrong when The Real McCoys debuted in 1957. The show turned out to be a hit and paved the way for all rural comedies to come. It was in 1960 that The Andy Griffith Show debuted. It was the top rated new show of the 1960-1961 season and never ranked below #7 in the yearly Nielsen ratings for its entire run. While the success of The Real McCoys proved viewers would watch rural comedies, the success of The Andy Griffith Show kicked off an entire cycle towards rural comedies that would last throughout the Sixties.

As big as The Andy Griffith Show was, its success was dwarfed by The Beverly Hillbillies. It became the fastest rising show in the ratings ever, becoming the #1 show in the yearly Nielsen ratings in its very first season. In its second season, in the weeks following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, ratings for The Beverly Hillbillies grew to such proportions that eight of its episodes still number among the most watched programmes of all time and one episode ("The Giant Jack Rabbit") remains the most watched half hour episode of any television show ever.

Such success did not go ignored, so that CBS asked the creator and producer of The Beverly Hillbillies Paul Henning to create another show, which they would purchase without even having to see a pilot. That show would be Petticoat Junction. The idea for Petticoat Junction came from stories Paul Henning's wife Ruth had told him about the Burris Hotel owned by her grandparents, located near the railroad station in Eldon, Missouri that she would visit when she was a child.

 At the same time that it occurred to Paul Henning that he could base the show on the hotel that Mrs. Henning's grandparents had owned, he also knew he wanted to create a vehicle for Bea Benaderet. Paul Henning had worked with Miss Benaderet all the way back to their days in radio. She had played the Burns' neighbour Blanche Morton on both the radio version and the television version of The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show. In addition to her long running role on The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, Bea Benaderet had a long resume of several other roles. On both radio and on television she played switchboard operator Gertrude on The Jack Benny Programme. She also did a large amount of voice work in animated cartoons. She did a number of voices for Warner Brothers cartoons, most notably Granny in the "Sylvester and Tweety" shorts. On television she was the voice of Betty Rubble on The Flintstones. In addition to The Burns and Allen Show, Bea Benaderet had also worked with Paul Henning on The Beverly Hillbillies on which she played Cousin Pearl. Mr. Henning admired Miss Benaderet, but noted that she had spent her long career playing second bananas in sitcoms. He thought it was time she had her own show.

Petticoat Junction was one of two rural sitcoms that debuted during the 1963-1964 season, and it debuted on 24 September 1963. The show was set at the Shady Rest Hotel, located along the railroad tracks just outside of the small town of Hooterville (whose population was given as 48 at one point). The Shady Rest was owned and operated by widow Kate Bradley (played by Bea Benaderet), who had three beautiful, young daughters: blonde Billie Jo, brunette Bobbie Jo, and redhead Betty Jo (played throughout the show's run by Linda Kaye, Paul and Ruth Henning's daughter). Kate's Uncle Joe Carson (played by Edgar Buchanan) helped with the day to day running with the hotel, although given his laziness he helped as little as he possibly could.

Located near the Shady Rest and also along the railroad was the general store run by Sam Drucker (played by Frank Cady). The steam locomotive that ran along the railroad, the Hooterville Cannonball, was run by its engineer Charley Pratt (Smiley Burnette) and conductor, Floyd Smoot (Rufe Davis), who almost never worried about keeping it on time. It was not unusual for the Hooterville Cannonball to make unscheduled stops to pick up passengers along the way. Kate's daughters would often go swimming in the Cannonball's water tower, draping their petticoats over its sides (hence the name of the show, "Petticoat Junction").

While the casts of Paul Henning's other shows (The Beverly Hillbillies and Green Acres) were relatively stable, Petticoat Junction underwent a number of cast changes throughout its run. In fact, it actually underwent a cast change before it even began shooting. It was originally announced that Sharon Tate would play the role of Billie Jo and promotional photos with her in the role were even shot. The part would be recast before Miss Tate even stepped in front of a film camera, however, after head of Filmways Martin Ransohoff met her and decided she was destined for greater things than a television sitcom. The role of Billie Jo then went to Jeannine Riley, who stayed with the role for two seasons before she decided she wanted to move on with her career. Gunilla Hutton (who would go on to appear on Hee Haw for years) then played Billie Jo for a single season. Finally, Meredith McRae was cast in the role of Billie Jo. She remained with the show until the end of its run. The role of brunette sister Bobbie Jo would also be played by multiple actresses. Pat Woodell played Bobbie Jo for the show's first two seasons before she decided she wanted to pursue her singing career. For the rest of the show's run Bobbie Jo was played by Lori Saunders.

Sadly, Petticoat Junction would have more cast changes than the actresses playing Kate's daughters. In 1967 Smiley Burnette, who played engineer Charley Pratt, died of leukaemia.  Afterwards Floyd (played by Rufe Davis) acted as both conductor and engineer for the Cannonball until 1968 when he was replaced by Byron Foulger who played the Cannonball's new engineer Wendell Gibbs (Mr. Foulger had previously played the recurring role of Mr. Guerney on the show in 1965). Byron Foulger eventually became too ill to continue with the show, at which point Rufe Davis returned as Floyd Smoot for two episodes in the show's final season. Byron Foulger died on 4 April 1970, the day the last original episode of Petticoat Junction aired.

Out of all of its cast changes the show's biggest loss would be that of its star, Bea Benaderet. It was in 1967 that Miss Benaderet was diagnosed with lung cancer. She left the show for a time, with Rosemary DeCamp filling the maternal role of "Aunt Helen" in seven episodes. Bea Benaderet returned to Petticoat Junction for a brief period before her declining health forced her to leave the show permanently. She died on 13 October 1968 at the age of 62. After Miss Benaderet's death June Lockhart joined the show in the role of Dr. Janet Craig, a physician who decided to set up her practice in Hooterville and lived at the Shady Rest.  Miss Lockhart remained with the show until the end of its run.

A major addition to the cast was Mike Minor as pilot Steve Elliot. Steve was a crop duster who crashed near the Shady Rest. Initially a love interest for Billie Jo, he later shifted his attention to Betty Jo. The two later married and hand a daughter, Kathy Jo.

Petticoat Junction was set in the same reality as The Beverly Hillbillies and Green Acres (which would debut in the 1965-1966 season). In fact, the first reference to "Hooterville" actually occurred on The Beverly Hillbillies, in the sixth episode of the show, "Trick or Treat". Not only did characters from Petticoat Junction frequently appear on Green Acres and vice versa (in fact, Frank Cady as Sam Drucker was a regular on both shows), but in the 1968-1969 there would be crossovers with The Beverly Hillbillies in episodes of that show in which the Clampetts went to Hooterville. Afterwards Frank Cady would make a few guest appearances as Sam Drucker on The Beverly Hillbillies. There would be one last crossover episode between the shows, ""The Clampett-Hewes Empire", that aired in the 1970-1971 season.

While Petticoat Junction was set in the same reality as The Beverly Hillbillies, it was in many ways a very different show. While The Beverly Hillbillies operated as an absurdist farce, Petticoat Junction was a more traditional situation comedy. While its humour tended to be extremely broad in its early seasons, episodes of the show tended to centre on the personal crises of characters in much the same way that more traditional sitcoms did. Although Petticoat Junction never entirely lost its broad humour, following the marriage of Betty Jo and Steve it became much more of a domestic comedy, with many episodes centring on the couple.

Petticoat Junction proved to be a hit in its first season, ranking #3 in the Neilsens for the year. The show would never see this level of success again, although it remained in the top twenty shows for the next two seasons in the yearly ratings and in the top twenty five for its fourth season. Unfortunately, events would come together that would ultimately spell the show's end. A move from Tuesday night (where it had been since its debut) to Saturday night in its fifth season, as well as Bea Benaderet's illness and subsequent death would take its toll on the series. In its fifth season Petticoat Junction dropped to #30 in the yearly ratings. In its sixth season Petticoat Junction dropped to #35 in the yearly ratings. With the show apparently in decline, CBS considered cancelling Petticoat Junction towards the end of the 1968-1969 season. Ultimately the network decided to renew the show for one more season so that they would have five years worth of colour episodes available for syndication (the first two seasons had been in black and white). While Petticoat Junction's ratings improved slightly in its seventh season (it rose to #34 in the yearly ratings), CBS cancelled the show at the end of the 1969-1970.

Here it should be pointed out that while Petticoat Junction is often listed among the shows cancelled in the Rural Purge, this was not actually the case. CBS had considered cancelling the show in the 1968-1969 season, perhaps in the belief that it would never recover from the death of its star Bea Benaderet. It was renewed only to give the network more colour episodes of the show for syndication. And while it improved slightly in the ratings, that improvement was probably not enough for CBS to be convinced that the show would ever fully recover.

Petticoat Junction was not the first rural show to debut in the 1963-1964 season. That honour would go to The Farmer's Daughter, which debuted four days earlier than Petticoat Junction, on 20 September 1963 on ABC. The Farmer's Daughter was based on RKO's 1947 film of the same name starring Loretta Young.  The series was produced by Peter Kortner, a veteran of both Studio One and Playhouse 90, for Screen Gems.

In some respects The Farmer's Daughter was faithful to the film upon which it was based.  Katrin "Katy" Holstrum (played by Swedish born Inger Stevens), the product of a Swedish American farming family from Minnesota, went to work as the housekeeper for Congressman Glen Morley (played by William Windom).  Congressman Morley lived with his mother Agatha Morley (played by Cathleen Nesbitt). The series departed from the film in making Congressman Morley a widower with two young sons, 14 year old Steve (played  Mickey Sholdar) and 8 year old Danny (played by  Rory O'Brien).  Much of the show centred on the conflict between Katy's down to earth, rural common sense and Washington, big city culture.

While The Farmer's Daughter was not a smash hit in its first season, it did receive respectable ratings. The show also picked up a few Emmy nominations in its first season, being nominated for Outstanding Continued Performance by an Actress in a Series (Lead), Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Comedy, and Outstanding Writing Achievement in Comedy or Variety. Inger Stevens won a Golden Globe for Best TV Star - Female.

Despite remaining reasonably popular in its second season, The Farmer's Daughter saw its format change in its third season. In the last episode of the second season Katy and Congressman Morely became engaged. They were married during the third season in the 5 November 1965 episode. Unfortunately ratings for the show slipped in its third season. Part of it may have been the change in the show's format, part of it may have been a move from Friday night (where it had aired since it had debuted) to a Monday night time slot. Regardless, The Farmer's Daughter would not see a fourth season.

The 1964-1965 season would see the cycle towards rural comedies continue, with three new rural comedies debut. The cycle towards service comedies that had begun in the 1962-1963 season also continued, so that two of the new rural comedies also happened to be service comedies. This was the case with the first rural comedy to debut in the 1964-1965 season, No Time For Sergeants. According to its closing credits No Time for Sergeants was "from the play by Ira Levin, presented by Maurice Evans, based on the novel by Mac Hyman". This was a fancy way the new TV show had of acknowledging the original novel by Mac Hyman, which Ira Levin adapted as a teleplay for The United States Steel Hour, which Ira Levin expanded into a Broadway play produced by Maurice Evans (the famous Shakespearean actor who would go onto play Samantha Stephens' father Maurice on Bewitched). Of course, the TV show also owed a bit to the 1958 film adaptation directed by Mervyn LeRoy with a screenplay by  John Lee Mahin. The feature film No Time for Sergeants had been produced by Warner Brothers, so it should come as no surprise that the television version was produced by Warner Brothers Television. Best known for Westerns such as Cheyenne and Maverick, as well as detective series such as 77 Sunset Strip, Warner Brothers Television had expanded into producing sitcoms in 1962 with  Room For One More (based on the 1952 Warner Brothers feature film of the same name).

No Time for Sergeants starred Sammy Jackson as Will Stockdale (the role originated by Andy Griffith in the teleplay, Broadway play, and feature film), a country rube from Georgia who is drafted into the United States Air Force. Harry Hilcox played the often exasperated commanding officer Sgt. Orville King (played in the film by  Myron McCormick). Kevin O'Neal played Will's best friend and fellow airman Ben Whitledge (played in the film by Nick Adams).

No Time for Sergeants debuted on ABC on 14 September 1964. It had the misfortune of being scheduled opposite the series starring the man who had originated the role of Will Stockdale, The Andy Griffith Show. Against such competition the show had little hope of survival. The television version of No Time for Sergeants went off the air after one season and 34 episodes.

The second rural comedy to debut during the 1964-1965 season was the comedy drama Kentucky Jones, which premiered on NBC on 19 September 1964. Kentucky Jones had originally been created by Albert Beich and William H. Wright as a vehicle for Jack Carson. A pilot under the title Kentucky Kid had even been shot in 1962 starring Jack Carson in the role Kentucky Jones. Unfortunately, in 1962 Mr. Carson was diagnosed with stomach cancer, from which he later died on 2 January 1963.  A new pilot with Dennis Weaver as Kentucky Jones was made in 1963, and it was this pilot that was bought by NBC. Kentucky Jones was Mr. Weaver's first role since leaving Gunsmoke in the 1963-1964 season.

Kentucky Jones centred on Kenneth Yarborough "K.Y." Jones (nicknamed "Kentucky" because of his initials), a widowed veterinarian, horse trainer, and owner of a 40 acre ranch in Southern California. He was the guardian of a 10 year old Chinese orphan named Dwight Eisenhower "Ike" Wong (played by Ricky Der). Helping out on Dr. Jones' ranch was former jockey Seldom Jackson, played by Harry Morgan (who had starred on both December Bride and Pete and Gladys, and would go onto star on M*A*S*H). Another one of Kentucky's friends was Thomas Wong, played by Keye Luke. Nancy Rennick appeared as social worker Miss Throncroft, who occasionally checks on Ike. Cherylene Lee played Annie Ng, Ike's friend, and Arthur Wong played her father.

Kentucky Jones had the misfortune of being scheduled against one of  the new hit shows of the season, Gilligan's Island, on CBS. Its ratings were then not particularly good. Originally scheduled at 8:30 PM Eastern on Saturday, NBC moved it to 7 PM Eastern on Saturday on 2 January 1965 (essentially switching places with The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo, which had originally been at 7 PM Saturday).  The change in time slot did not help, and Kentucky Jones was cancelled after 26 episodes. It went off the air on 10 April 1965.

While No Time for Sergeants and Kentucky Jones were both failures in the ratings, the third rural comedy to debut in the 1964-1965 season proved to be the highest rated new show of the season. Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C. was a spinoff of the popular Andy Griffith Show. It also owed a good deal to Andy Griffith's first big success, No Time for Sergeants. On Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C. inept filling station attendant Gomer Pyle (played by Jim Nabors) had enlisted in the United States Marine Corps, where both his good nature and his naivete often created problems.

Gomer Pyle was created by writers Everett Greenbaum and Jim Fritzell for The Andy Griffith Show episode "The Bank Job", which aired on 24 December 1962. The character was based on an incompetent filling station attendant Mr. Greenbaum had once encountered. Jim Nabors was cast in the role of Gomer Pyle after Andy Griffith had seen his show at The Horn, a nightclub in Santa Monica, California. Gomer Pyle was only meant to appear once on The Andy Griffith Show, but the character proved popular and as a result he became one of the regulars. It was Aaron Ruben, producer and one of the writers on The Andy Griffith Show, who came up with the idea of Gomer being spun off into his own show, in which he would be a Marine. The pilot for Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C. was shot in 1963 and aired on 18 May 1964 as The Andy Griffith Show's final episode of the 1963-1964 season.

On Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C. Gomer was a Private First Class in the Marine Corps, originally stationed at Camp Wilson in North Carolina, but later at Camp Henderson in California. Frank Sutton played Gomer's often exasperated drill instructor,  Gunnery Sergeant Carter. Sgt. Carter was often frustrated by Gomer's good nature and guilelessness, although at the same time he was extremely protective of him. Ronnie Schell played Gomer's friend Gilbert "Duke" Slater. Originally Duke was a private like Gomer, although he was promoted to corporal later in the show's run. From the 1965-1966 season to the 1967-1968 season, Roy Stuart played Corporal Chuck Boyle. He often served as Sgt. Carter's conscience, often intervening on Gomer's behalf.

Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C. proved to be the smash hit of the 1964-1965 season, coming in #3 in the Nielsen ratings for the year and even beating its parent The Andy Griffith Show (which came in at #4). The show continued to be high rated for the rest of its run, consistently ranking in the top ten for every season it was on the air. When Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C. went off the air in the 1968-1969 season it was not due to ratings, but instead because Jim Nabors wanted to move onto other things. With the 1969-1970 season Jim Nabors received his own variety show, The Jim Nabors Show, which also proved to be a hit. Jim Nabors never returned to The Andy Griffith Show or its successor Mayberry R.F.D. as Gomer Pyle, although he did appear in the role in the reunion movie Return to Mayberry, aired in 1986.

Arguably the 1964-1965 season was the height of the cycle towards rural comedies. No less than seven rural comedies aired during the season. What is more, four of them ranked in the twenty highest rated shows for the year, two of them in the top five. While it had been seven years since the debut of The Real McCoys and four years since the debut of The Andy Griffith Show, the cycle towards rural comedies showed hardly any sign of ending soon.

Friday, 20 September 2013

American Rural Comedies of the Sixties Part Three

The highest rated new show of the 1960-1961 was The Andy Griffith Show, which ranked #4 for the year out of all the shows on American broadcast network television. Coming in at #5 was another rural comedy, The Real McCoys, which had been on the air since the 1957-1958 season. Between the two of them it was a guarantee that more rural comedies would debut on American television. In fact, two would debut during the 1961-1962 season.

Not surprisingly, both of the rural comedies that debuted in the 1961-1962 season resembled The Andy Griffith Show to a small degree. Indeed, both featured widowers with young sons living in small towns. That having been said, they differed from The Andy Griffith Show (and many of the rural comedies that would follow them in the Sixties) in that they were not set in the South or one of the Border States, but in rural New England instead.  Despite the success of The Real McCoys and The Andy Griffith Show, neither show would prove to be a hit.

The first of the two rural comedies to debut in the 1961-1962 season was Ichabod and Me, which debuted on CBS on 26 September 1961. The origins of Ichabod and Me can actually be traced back to episodes of Robert Montgomery Presents, a long running anthology series hosted by actor Robert Montgomery from 1950 to 1957. On 22 October 1956 Robert Montgomery Presents aired the episode "Goodbye, Grey Flannel", written by J. Harvey Howells . It centred on a Madison Avenue advertising executive (Mr. Major) who buys a Vermont apple farm. George Chandler, who had played Uncle Petrie Martin on Lassie, starred as the irascible Ichabod Lewis. "Goodbye, Grey Flannel" proved so popular that Robert Montgomery Presents aired a sequel, "One Smart Apple", on 3 June 1957. George Chandler reprised his role as Ichabod.

It was in 1960 that Joe Connelly and Bob Mosher, now best known as the producers of Leave It to Beaver and The Munsters, produced a pilot based on the Robert Montgomery Presents episodes entitled "Adams' Apples". George Chandler returned as Ichabod (whose last name was now Adams) and Fred Beir played Terence "Terry" Major. Like "Goodbye, Grey Flannel", Mr. Major was once more a New York City ad man who decides to leave the business for life in rural New England (New Hampshire this time). "Adams' Apples" did not sell, although it did air as an episode of General Electric Theatre on 24 April 1960.

Perhaps because The Andy Griffith Show proved to be the smash hit of the 1960-1961 season, a show starring George Chandler as Ichabod Adams would make it to the air. That having been said, it would differ from both the episodes of Robert Montgomery Presents and "Adams' Apples" in many respects. Ichabod and Me starred Robert Sterling (who had played ghost George Kerby on the hit sitcom Topper) as Bob Major, a widowed newspaperman with a young son from New York City who bought the newspaper in the small town of Phippsboro, New Hampshire. Ichabod Adams was the newspaper's former editor and the town's current traffic commissioner, who continued to interfere in the newspaper's business.  Christine White played Ichabod's pretty daughter Abigail, who was also Bob's love interest. Reta Shaw played Bob's Aunt Lavina (who was also his housekeeper) and Jimmy Mathers (the brother of Leave It to Beaver's Jerry Mathers) played Bob's six year old son Benjie. If that sounds familiar, it is because it is more or less the same set up as The Andy Griffith Show (a widower with a young son who has an older aunt who keeps house).

Ichabod and Me was given a  prime slot on the CBS schedule for the 1961-1962 season, scheduled between the top rated Red Skelton Show and The Garry Moore Show. Despite what seemed to be an ideal placement on the network schedule, viewers stayed away from the show in droves. It seems possible the audience agreed with critics, who gave Ichabod and Me largely bad reviews. Cynthia Lowry of the Associated Press wrote that "...the programme ought to produce some irate letters from New England viewers who might feel with some justification that their mores and certainly their speech have been libelled." She ended her review by calling Ichabod and Me, "...a pretty tired, clumsy effort." Variety considered the show "...just another another of run-of-the-mill comedy, typically innocuous in content and wholly bland in its approach." Columnist Janet Kern was somewhat more sympathetic to Ichabod and Me than most critics, but even she dismissed it as "...a mediocre carbon copy of many comedy series, in elements of which this carbon has become dim." Regardless, Ichabod and Me lasted only one season, going off the air on 5 June 1962.

The second rural comedy to debut in the 1961-1962 season was Window on Main Street.  The show emerged largely from the former crew of Father Knows Best. It was created by Roswell Rogers, one of the most frequent writers on  Father Knows Best, and starred  former Father Knows Best star Robert Young. It was also produced by Eugene R. Rodney and Andy White, both of who had served as producers on Mr. Young's previous show.

On the surface Window on Main Street resembled Ichabod and Me, and The Andy Griffith Show for that matter. It centred on author Cameron Garrett Brooks (played by Robert Young) who returned to his hometown of Millsburg after 27 years to write about the people there. He recommenced his friendship with childhood pal Lloyd Ramsey, now the editor of the town newspaper. Constance Moore appeared as Cameron's friend Chris Logan, who had a young son Arney (played by Brad Berwick). A young Tim Matheson occasionally appeared as Cameron's son Roddy Miller. While no state was ever named, Millsburg appeared to be in rural New England.

While on the surface Window on Main Street resembled both Ichabod and Me and The Andy Griffith Show, it was in many respects quite different. While both The Andy Griffith Show and Ichabod and Me were sitcoms, Window on Main Street was perhaps better described as a comedy drama. In fact, in some ways it resembled the semi-anthology shows of the era (Wagon Train, Naked City, Route 66, and the like), with many episodes centred upon a guest star. In one episode Cameron helped a young couple who wanted to elope. Another episode centred on a boy who was the class clown. Yet another episode dealt with a man with a domineering brother. It was rare that Cameron Brooks was the central character in any given episode of Window on Main Street.

While Window on Main Street was largely from the same creative team as Father Knows Best, it would not see the success that show had. The show had the misfortune to scheduled against the top rated Western The Rifleman on ABC and the popular game show The Price is Right on NBC. As a result Window on Main Street suffered low ratings and was cancelled at the end of 1961-1962 season.

Despite the failure of both Ichabod and Me and Window on Main Street, the cycle towards rural comedies would continue in the 1962-1963 season, with three new rural comedies debuting. While The Andy Griffith Show, Ichabod and Me, and Window on Main Street centred on rural folk in rural communities, these three comedies would follow the lead of The Real McCoys in placing rural folk in more urban settings. In other words, the 1962-1963 saw the emergence of the "fish out of water" rural comedies. One of these "fish out of water" rural comedies would become one of the most phenomenally successful television shows of all time.

The 1962-1963 season also saw a cycle towards service comedies come out of nowhere, with four of them debuting during the season (among them the classic McHale's Navy). Among these service comedies was one that was also a rural comedy. Don't Call Me Charlie was the creation of Don McGuire, who had seen a bit of success with the sitcom Hennesey starring Jackie Cooper. The show was originally going to be titled Viva Judson McKay, but studies indicated people then thought the show was going to be about a Mexican revolutionary.

Indeed, Don't Call Me Charlie was not about a Mexican revolutionary, but instead about an Iowa veterinarian named Judson Mckay (played by Josh Peine) who was drafted into the United States Army and assigned to its Veterinary Corps. He then found himself stationed in Paris after saving a bird who belonged to a little girl who was related to Charles De Gaulle. Amiable country bumpkin McKay often found himself in conflict with his commanding officer, Colonel U. Charles Barker (played by John Hubbard), who insisted that people did not call him "Charlie" (hence the title). The show featured Arte Johnson (who would become famous as one of the cast of Rowan and Martin's Laugh In) as Corporal Lefkowitz and Alan Napier as General Steele. Given it centred upon a country boy who was drafted into the military, Don't Call Me Charlie obviously owed something to No Time for Sergeants. It would not be the last rural comedy to do so.

Don McGuire's previous service comedy, Hennesey, was a somewhat respected show, having received good reviews and Emmy nominations in the acting and writing categories. This would not be the case with Don't Call Me Charlie, which received some very bad notices. Rick Du Brow of United Press International was particularly brutal on the show, saying that it "...would best be put out of misery, removed from the air instantly, if not sooner." Audiences may well have agreed with Mr. Du Brow, as Don't Call Me Charlie received miserable ratings, despite very weak competition from an ailing 77 Sunset Strip and the equally low rated Fair Exchange. Debuting on 21 September 1962, it went off the air on 25 January 1963, replaced by the musical variety show The Lively Ones (hosted by Vic Damone).

While Don't Call Me Charlie was a short lived ratings failure, the second rural comedy to debut during the 1962-1963 season would be one of the most successful shows of all time. As most Americans who have watched television in the past fifty years probably know, The Beverly Hillbillies centred on the Clampetts, a hillbilly family who moved to Beverly Hills after their patriarch Jed (played by Buddy Ebsen) found oil on his land. Although referred to collectively as "the Clampetts", they were not a nuclear family of the sort usually seen on television at the time. In addition to Jed there was his tomboy daughter Elly May (played by Donna Douglas), his cantankerous mother in law Granny (played by Irene Ryan), and  the none too bright Jethro Bodine (played by Max Baer, Jr.), the son of Jed's first cousin Pearl. The Beverly Hillbillies largely revolved around the conflict between the older mountain culture of the Clampetts and the more modern California culture of their new home.

The Beverly Hilbillies was created by writer and producer Paul Henning. Mr. Henning was already a seasoned veteran of writing situation comedies. He received his break in radio with a script for Fibber McGee and Molly and ultimately spent 15 years with the show. In radio he went onto The Burns and Allen Show and made the transition with them to television in 1950. On television he went from The Burns and Allen Show to creating and producing his own show, The Bob Cummings Show (also known as Love That Bob).  The show proved to be a success, running for five seasons and remaining in syndication for many years.

Not only did Paul Henning have a great deal of experience writing for radio and television sitcoms, he also had experience with actual mountain folk. Born in Independence, Missouri, as a boy Paul Henning went on camping trips to the Ozarks with the Boy Scouts and encountered real life mountaineers. These encounters led to a fascination with the culture of the hills that would last his lifetime. Indeed, The Beverly Hillbillies was not the first time he had written about rural folk. While working for radio station KMBC in Kansas City, Missouri, Mr. Henning was one of the writers and cast of Happy Hollow, which was described as "a down-home programme featuring traditional music, country humour, and the corn-fed wisdom of 'Uncle Ezra'." On The RCA Victor Show and The Dennis Day Show it was Paul Henning and Stanley Shaprio who created the character of Charley Weaver, a rural persona played by Cliff Arquette whom Mr. Arquette would later adopt for his own. On The Bob Cummings Show (starring fellow Missourian Bob Cummings) there was the recurring character of Grandpa Collins. While Grandpa wasn't a hillbilly, he was definitely from the country and it showed all too well. Paul Henning also wrote two episodes of The Real McCoys, the show that opened the doors for all rural comedies to come.

The Beverly Hillbillies emerged from Paul Henning's experiences with genuine hillfolk and his love of rural humour. It was in the early Sixties that Al Simon, an executive with Filmways (then producing Mister Ed), approached Mr. Henning about writing a pilot for them. That pilot was The Hillbillies of Beverly Hills, soon renamed The Beverly Hillbillies. Despite Paul Henning's considerable experience in writing and producing sitcoms, The Beverly Hillbillies would not have an easy time making it to the air. ABC, the original home of The Real McCoys, passed on the show. CBS bought The Beverly Hillbillies, but scheduled it opposite the popular Perry Como's Kraft Music Hall on NBC and, worse yet, gave it virtually no promotion. Receiving virtually no support from CBS, Filmways mounted its own promotional campaign for The Beverly Hillbillies. The company produced a series of 20 to 60 second spots that started airing in 85 cities six weeks prior to the debut of the show.

The Beverly Hillbillies debuted on 26 September 1962 to some of the worst reviews any television show had received up to that time. Rick Du Brow of UPI said of the show, "The series aimed low and hit its target."  The New York Times called the show "...strained and unfunny." William K. Sarmento in The Lowell Sun said, "...last night’s premiere of The Beverly Hillbillies was an insult to the intelligence of the most moronic viewer," and remarked, "The show is a cross between The Real McCoys and L’il Abner." Like William K. Sarmento Variety considered The Beverly Hillbillies an imitation of The Real McCoys and, adding insult to injury, said that it was "...painful to sit through" and "...improbable and impossible as the characters who people it."  Although it might have seemed so at the time, not all of the reviews were bad. Cynthia Lowry of the Associated Press genuinely liked the show, writing "...it promises to be uninhibited and amusing if the writers remember to add enough branch water to the corn." Cultural critic and writer Gilbert Seldes (who probably had more intellectual clout than any of the critics who hated the show) also appreciated The Beverly Hillbillies, writing essays on the show for both the 15 December 1962 issue of TV Guide and the 5 January 1963 issue of The Saturday Review.

Much to many of the critics' chagrin, The Beverly Hillbillies became the smash hit of the 1962-1963 season. The show started off strong, with a 28 ratings share and continued to rise from there. By its fourth week The Beverly Hillbillies was the top show on the air with a 33.7 ratings share. Ultimately, The Beverly Hillbillies would become the first show in the history of television to be #1 for the year during its very first season (here I must point out that The $64000 Question was a summer replacement before becoming the #1 show for the 1955-1956 season). The Beverly Hillbillies would remain #1 for the 1963-1964 season, setting recording breaking ratings with many of its episodes. Indeed, "The Giant Jackrabbit (aired 8 January 1964) remains the highest rated, half hour episode of a sitcom to this day. What is more, seven other episodes of The Beverly Hillbillies aired in late 1963 and early 1964 remain among the most watched programmes on American television for all time. While The Beverly Hillbillies would not maintain such phenomenal ratings beyond its second season, the show continued to rank in the top twenty programmes for each of its seasons except its last. When it was cancelled in the 1970-1971 season, it was not due to low ratings. Instead it was cancelled by CBS as part of the Rural Purge, a group of cancellations of shows that appealed to largely rural audiences (many of which were still high rated).

Today it is difficult to understand how so many critics at the time could hate a show that would not only become the smash hit of the 1962-1963 season, but would eventually be considered a classic too. Much of it may have been intellectual snobbery on the part of many critics. Rightly or wrongly, rural humour has always been considered lowbrow, so it should not be surprising that many television critics at the time would not take to the show. At the same time, however, it seems possible that audiences simply grasped something about The Beverly Hillbillies that the intellectual snobs among the critics simply did not. Quite simply, The Beverly Hillbillies was a show as never had been seen before. The Beverly Hillbllies was part of a larger cycle (a supercycle?) towards broad comedy that had begun with such shows as Dobie Gillis and Mister Ed. As part of this supercyle towards broad comedy, The Beverly Hillbillies was so broad as to be absurdist in nature. It took the format of most domestic comedies of the Fifties, in which episodes revolved around the personal crisis of one of the characters that would be neatly resolved in a half hour, and threw it entirely out the window. Instead the emphasis on The Beverly Hillbillies was on humour, with no concern given to resolving the characters' personal problems or even to any pretence towards realism. As Giblert Seldes pointed out in his essay on The Beverly Hillbillies, while the typical formula for comedy was "real people in unreal situations", the formula for comedy on The Beverly Hillbillies was "unreal people in unreal situations".  In many respects The Beverly Hillbillies was the forerunner of such other surreal sitcoms of the Sixties as Get Smart and The Monkees.

Of course, The Beverly Hillbillies not only functioned as a peculiarly American, rural farce, but also as social satire. Quite simply, the central conflict of the show was between the honest, hard working Clampetts and the unethical and often hypocritical city folk they live among. This is perhaps seen most clearly in the contrast between Jed Clampett and the President of the Commerce Bank (where they keep their millions) Milburn Drysdale (Raymond Bailey). Jed is honest to a fault and treats everyone as an equal, regardless of their station in life. Although he is a multi-millionaire, money matters little to Jed and one gets the feeling he would not mind too terribly much if he lost all of his millions. On the other hand, to Mr. Drysdale money is everything, and he is willing to do almost anything, no matter how unethical, to keep the Clampetts' money in his bank. The other residents of Beverly Hills are not much better. Mrs. Drysdale (played by Harriet E. McGibbon) is a blue blooded snob who regards the Clampetts as beneath her. Of the city folk, only Mr. Drysdale's secretary, Jane Hathaway (played by Nancy Kulp) is a decent person. She frequently questioned her boss's schemes and sometimes even defied him if she thought he had gone too far. Even though she was educated at Vassar, Miss Jane (as the Clampetts called her) treated the Clampetts as equals and friends.

Functioning as both a farce and a social satire, The Beverly Hillbillies would expand beyond spoofing the upper class of Beverly Hills. And while it  never acknowledged the Vietnam War or the anti-war movement (no sitcoms and not many dramas of the era did), over its several seasons The Beverly Hillbillies did acknowledge the changes in society that were taking place in the Sixties. Over the course of its run, the show dealt with Hollywood, dance crazes, the spy craze, the counterculture (to which it seemed somewhat sympathetic), the student movement, feminism, the then current interest in Eastern religions, environmentalism, and even jogging. While the Clampetts never changed, The Beverly Hillbillies did acknowledge that the world was changing around them.

The Beverly Hillbillies ran for nine seasons (a run that might well have been longer had it not been for the Rural Purge) and its reruns are still run in syndication to this day. It would lead directly to two other rural comedies, Petticoat Junction and Green Acres, all of which shared the same reality. There can be no doubt that its success was largely responsible for extending the lifespan of the Sixties cycle toward rural comedies.

The third rural comedy to debut in the 1962-1963 season would not see nearly the success that The Beverly Hillbillies would. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington debuted on ABC on 29 September 1962. The series was "created for television (as the credit read) by songwriter Hal Stanley (perhaps best known for such Kay Starr songs as 'Half a Photograph") as a vehicle for Fess Parker (then best known for playing Davy Crockett).  It was very loosely based on Frank Capra's1939 film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, so loosely based that one might as well say that Jimmy Stewart and Fess Parker played two completely different characters. Regardless, just as in the film, Mr. Smith found himself elected to a vacant Senate seat following the death of a Senator. In the television series Eugene Smith (played by Fess Parker) was an honest man from an unnamed, but largely rural (and most likely Southern) state. The show also starred Sandra Warner as his wife Pat, Stan Irwin as his chauffeur Arnie, and Red Foley as his Uncle Cooter.

Mr. Smith's constituents often provided the plots for episodes of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. In one episode he tries to help a young soldier who is being court martialed for falling asleep while on sentry duty.  In another episode his friends  Si and Abigail Willis (played by Buster Keaton and Jesslyn Fax) create chaos in Washington when they reveal their secret for producing thousands of minks in a week. As might be expected, a recurring theme on the show was the conflict between honest, intelligent, but often unsophisticated Senator Smith and Washington society.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington featured some big name guest stars during its run, including Kay Starr, Leo Gorcey, Harpo Marx, Doodles Weaver, Buster Keaton, Edward Everett Horton, and Jack Carter. Unfortunately, it did not help the show in the ratings. The show was scheduled against then top rated drama The Defenders on CBS. It went off the air after 24 episodes on 23 March 1963.

While the 1961-1962 saw the failure of two rural situation comedies (Ichabod and Me and Window on Main Street), the phenomenal success of The Beverly Hillbillies guaranteed that yet more rural comedies would debut in the coming seasons. What is more, the success of The Beverly Hillbillies would mark a shift in the nature of rural comedies Both Ichabod and Me and Window on Main Street were moulded in the image of The Andy Griffith Show. After The Beverly Hillbillies many rural comedies would take the different, broader route to humour paved by it. While the cycle towards rural comedies in the Sixties was far from over, it had changed forever

Thursday, 19 September 2013

American Rural Comedies of the Sixties Part Two

For many of American television's early years rural comedies were absent from the airwaves. The situation comedies of the era generally took place in major cities or suburbs of major cities. Quite simply, network executives were convinced that American television viewers were not interested in shows about rural people. All of this changed in 1957 with the debut of The Real Mccoys, a sitcom about a West Virginia hillbilly family who moved to a farm in California. The Real McCoys proved to be a hit, ranking in the top twenty for much of its run. The success of The Real McCoys proved that there was a market for rural comedies.

Despite the success of The Real McCoys, the American broadcast networks did not rush to make more rural comedies right away. It was not until The Real McCoys' fourth season (the 1960-1961 season) that three more rural comedies joined it on network schedules. One of those would become one of the most successful shows of all time in any genre.

The first of the three rural comedies to debut in the 1960-1961 season is now largely forgotten. In many respects Guestward Ho! could be considered The Real McCoys in reverse. Guestward Ho! centred on Bill Hooten, a New York City advertising executive who had tired of life in the big city and as a result moved his family to a dude ranch in New Mexico (the "Guestward Ho" of the title). The series was based on the 1956 book Guestward Ho by Patrick Dennis (perhaps best known for his novel  Auntie Mame: An Irreverent Escapade) and Barbara C. Hooten, which in turn was based on the real life experiences of Mrs. Hooten and her husband Bill Hooten in running a dude ranch in New Mexico.

Guestward Ho! would not take an easy path from the printed page to the television screen. In the 16 January 1957 issue of The New York Times it was announced that CBS had bought the rights to the book. Later in the year, in the 24 December 1957 issue of The New York Times, it was reported that CBS was producing a pilot for Guestward Ho!, starring Jeanne Crain. The 3 February 1958 issue of Billboard listed Guestward Ho!, starring Jeanne Crain, as among the pilots for that coming fall season. In the end CBS dropped its option for Guestward Ho and it never emerged as a series starring Jeanne Crain.

The rights for Guestward Ho! were then bought by Desi Arnaz as a vehicle for Vivian Vance, then as now best known as Ethel Mertz on I Love Lucy. In a UPI article published 14 October 1959 Vivian Vance is quoted in an interview as saying, "Right now I'm hoping to star in my own series. The pilot already has been filmed. It's the story of a couple who open a dude ranch in New Mexico. We've titled it Guestward Ho with Leif Erickson co-starring."  Unfortunately, after so many years playing Lucille Ball's sidekick on I Love Lucy Vivian Vance proved ill suited as a series lead. ABC rejected the pilot and a new pilot was made, with Joanne Dru and Mark Miller as Babs and Bill Wooten. At long last Guestward Ho! became a TV series, debuting on 29 September 1960.

In many respects Guestward Ho! could be considered a forerunner of the later rural comedy Green Acres. Advertising executive Bill Hooten bought the dude ranch Guestward Ho without consulting his wife, who was not particularly eager to move to New Mexico. She agreed to try it out for a year, so the Hootens and their son Brook (played by Flip Mark) moved out west. Added to the mix was a rather capitalistic Native American named Hawkeye (played by J. Carroll Naish), who ran the local trading post. Like Green Acres after it, much of the humour on Guestward Ho! stemmed from the fact that the Hootens were fish out of water.  Unfortunately, for all the effort that it took to bring a show based on the book Guestward Ho to television, the series Guestward Ho! did not last long. It was cancelled after a single season.

The second rural comedy to debut in the 1960-1961 season would prove to be one of the most successful shows of all time. In fact, when its syndication run is figured in, it might well be the most successful sitcom of all time, short of I Love Lucy. The Andy Griffith Show debuted on CBS on 3 October 1960 and has been on television screens ever since.

The genesis for The Andy Griffith Show originated with Sheldon Leonard. Mr. Leonard had a long career playing character roles in films stretching back to the Thirties, with his most famous role being that of Nick in It's a Wonderful Life. In the Fifties he became a television producer, producing the classic show Make Room for Daddy (also known as The Danny Thomas Show). Sheldon Leonard had an idea for a show centred on a fellow who was the newspaper editor, sheriff, and justice of the peace in a small town. He asked one of the writers for Make Room for Daddy, Arthur Stander, to write an episode that would also serve as a backdoor pilot for the prospective series.

It was the William Morris Agency who put Mr. Leonard in touch with Andy Griffith, who was interested in starring in a TV series. Andy Griffith had already had a very successful career, In 1954 he had a hit comedy record with the monologue "What It Was, Was Football". In 1955 he starred in The United States Steel Hour's adaptation of the novel No Time for Sergeants. Afterwards he starred in a Broadway adaptation of the teleplay and then the film adaptation released in 1958. He also starred in the 1957 film Face in the Crowd (arguably his best performance) and the 1957 Broadway musical version of Destry Rides Again.

The backdoor pilot to The Andy Griffith Show, titled "Danny Meets Andy Griffith" aired as an episode of Make Room for Daddy on 15 February 1960. The pilot proved to be a success. As the sponsor of Make Room for Daddy, General Foods had first access to The Andy Griffith Show and decided to sign on as its sponsor immediately. Here it should be pointed out that the pilot, "Danny Meets Andy Griffith", would differ in some respects from The Andy Griffith Show with which viewers are familiar. Of The Andy Griffith Show cast only Andy Griffith as Sheriff Andy Taylor and Ron Howard as his son Opie appear. While Frances Bavier does appear, it is as one of Mayberry's widows rather than Aunt Bee. As in the original concept for the show, in the pilot Andy Taylor is the town's newspaper editor as well as sheriff and justice of the peace. In The Andy Griffith Show Andy was only Mayberry's sheriff and justice of the peace, not its newspaper editor as well. The idea of a drunk who locks himself in jail when he has had a few too many originated with the pilot, but instead of Otis Campbell (played by Hal Smith) the town drunk was Will (played by Frank Cady, now best known as Sam Drucker on Petticoat Junction and Green Acres).

Perhaps the most noticeable difference between "Danny Meets Andy Griffith" is the absence of Andy's deputy,  Barney Fife. Don Knotts had become friends with Andy Griffith when the two of them appeared in the Broadway production of No Time for Sergeants. They later worked together in the film version. When Andy Griffith told Don Knotts about his upcoming television show, it was Mr. Knotts who suggested to Mr. Griffith that Andy would need a deputy. At the time Don Knotts may have been best known as the highstrung, nervous Mr. Morrison in the "man on the street" interviews on The Steve Allen Show. It was the character of Mr. Morrison who provided the basis for Andy's highstrung, nervous, and self important deputy Barney Fife. Over the course of the show Barney would easily become its most popular character.

Originally the character of Sheriff Andy Taylor was portrayed somewhat broadly as a country bumpkin not unlike the church deacon of "What It Was, Was Football" or Will Stockdale of No Time for Sergeants. It was during the first season that it was decided that instead Andy should be the straight man to the many outrageous characters around Mayberry (particularly Deputy Barney Fife). As a result the show began to focus much more on the citizens of Mayberry than it had in its early episodes. Of course, as a result The Andy Griffith Show became a very character driven comedy. While it was not nearly as broad as many of the rural comedies that would follow it (such as The Beverly Hillbillies and Green Acres), it differed a good deal from the gentler domestic comedies of the Fifties, such as The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet and Father Knows Best. In many respects its brand of humour resembled that of its parent show, Make Room for Daddy. The characters (Barney Fife, Floyd the Barber, and Otis Campbell being prime examples) were often very exaggerated, but for the most part situations were kept to a realistic level.

The Andy Grifffith Show debuted on 3 October 1960 and proved to be one of the biggest hits of the season. In its very first season it ranked #4 out of all the shows on the air for the year according to the Nielsen ratings. What is more, during its entire eight year run, the lowest that it ever ranked was #7 for the year in its second season. The Andy Griffith Show was still a success in 1967 when Andy Griffith decided he wanted to pursue a career in film. In fact, for its final season  it was the #1 show on the air, a feat only accomplished by two other shows: I Love Lucy and Seinfeld. Of course, in some ways it is difficult to say The Andy Griffith Show ended so much as it simply continued without Andy Griffith. On 23 September 1968 Mayberry R.F.D. debuted, continuing the adventures of the citizens of Mayberry. Since The Andy Griffith Show left CBS in 1968 it has continued to air in syndication to this day. In addition to many local stations, it currently airs on both TV Land and ME-TV.

While the success of  The Real Mccoys paved the way for rural comedies, it was the success of The Andy Griffith Show that truly kickstarted the cycle towards them in the Sixties. Following the debut of The Andy Griffith Show, there would be at least one rural comedy that debuted each season until 1969 with the exception of the 1966-1967 season.

Like The Andy Griffith Show, the third rural comedy to debut during the 1960-1961 season would also be a groundbreaking show. Indeed, not only was it a rural comedy, but it was the first show in another cycle that dominated the Sixties, one towards fantasy sitcoms. That show was Mister Ed, which centred on Wilbur Post (Alan Young) and his most unusual horse, Mister Ed (played by the palomino Bamboo Harvester and voiced by Rocky Lane). Mister Ed could talk, but would only do so in person to Wilbur. Worse yet, Mister Ed had a mind of his own and a tendency to get into mischief.

Given the show centred on a talking horse, Mister Ed is considered by many as a precursor to the many other fantasy sitcoms of the Sixties, such as My Favourite Martian, Bewitched, and The Addams Family. Beyond being the first fantasy sitcom of the Sixties, Mister Ed was also one of the first shows to debut with James Aubrey as the president of CBS. As such it was also one of the first shows on CBS to exemplify Mr. Aubrey's programming formula of purely escapist entertainment. Mister Ed then paved the way for other escapist television shows that aired on the network during James Aubrey's tenure as president, shows that included The Beverly Hillbillies, Gilligan's Island, and Petticoat Junction. Perhaps because it was meant as purely escapist entertainment and because of its fantastic premise, Mister Ed also marked a shift away from the more gentle humour of the domestic comedies of the Fifties to the broader comedy of the situation comedies of the Sixties. The plots of Mister Ed were closer in spirit to the outrageous, hair brained schemes on I Love Lucy earlier in the decade than they were the morality plays of Father Knows Best later in the decade.

Among all of these things, however, Mister Ed can also be considered a rural comedy. Indeed, an article in the 10 September 1961 issue of the St. Petersburg Times ("Mister Ed Returns Oct. 1) describes Wilbur and his wife living in "...a representative semi-rural suburban community." The original "Mister Ed" stories were set in an actual small town,  Mount Kisco,New York, which as of the 2010 census only has a population of  10,877 people. The television show appears to have been set in a similarly sized community, although located in California (most likely near Los Angeles). While not as large as a farm or ranch, the Posts' home apparently sat on a lot of some acreage. Indeed, their land not only included the house, but the stable in which Mister Ed lived as well. Although Mister Ed was not as rural as such shows as The Andy Griffith Show (according to a sign in the 8th season Mayberry only had  5,360 people) or Petticoat Junction (according to one episode Hooterville's population is only 48, although it seems larger), it was a far cry from such earlier shows of the Fifties as I Love Lucy (set in New York City) or even Leave It to Beaver (set in the decidedly suburban Mayfield).

Mister Ed was based on the short stories of Walter R. Brooks. Mr. Brooks wrote some twenty eight stories about Mister Ed, published in Liberty and The Saturday Evening Post in the Thirties and Forties.  It was director and producer Arthur Lubin (who made the similar "Frances the Talking Mule" films in the Fifties) who thought that Mr. Brooks' stories could provide the basis for a television series. He bought the rights to the stories in 1957 and spent the next several years shopping his idea for a Mister Ed TV series around. Eventually Mister Ed would find a home with Filmways, the production company that would be responsible for many of the rural comedies of the Sixties.

Mister Ed debuted in syndication on 5 January 1961. The show did well enough that it was picked up by CBS, who announced on 22 June 1961 that the show was moving to the network effective with the fall season.  While Mister Ed was never a ratings smash (it never ranked in the top 30 shows for the year), it did moderately well and lasted for six seasons. Following the end of its run it entered syndication where it has remained ever since.

The 1960-1961 television season would prove to be a pivotal year for rural comedies. While the success of The Real McCoys in the 1957-1958 proved that rural comedies were viable on American television, it was arguably the phenomenal success of The Andy Griffith Show that started the cycle towards the genre in the Sixties. Following the debut of The Andy Griffith Show, at least one rural comedy would debut each season until 1969. During many seasons in the Sixties more than one rural comedy would debut. It would seem that the network executives who had dismissed rural comedies in the years before the debut of The Real McCoys were wrong.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

American Rural Comedies of the Sixties Part One

Today the vast majority of American television shows, whether they are dramas or comedies, take place in urban settings. Indeed, some seasons one can be hard pressed to find shows that are set somewhere other than New York City or Los Angeles, California. This has not always been the case, as the decade of the Sixties saw a cycle towards rural comedies. These were comedies set in either small towns or the country, or whose main characters came from the country. In the decade of the Sixties the genre would become particularly associated with CBS. Not only did CBS have more rural comedies than either NBC or ABC, but they had also had the most successful rural comedies of the decade. Indeed, some of the rural comedies aired by CBS in the Sixties rank among the most successful shows of all time.

While CBS became strongly identified with the genre of rural comedies in the Sixties, they were not alone in airing shows in the genre. While they did not have nearly as many as CBS, both NBC and ABC broadcast their own rural comedies during the decade. What is more, while it had by far the most success with the genre, contrary to poplar belief CBS did not start the cycle towards rural comedies in the Sixties. Regardless, the cycle towards rural comedies in the Sixties would prove to be one of the longest and most successful in the history of American television. Starting in the very late Fifties, it lasted into the very late Sixties (very nearly ten years in all) and produced some of the most successful shows of all time.

While the words "rural comedy" probably bring to most people's minds television sitcoms of the Sixties, the genre actually has a long history in media other than television. With regards to film, rural comedies date back to the Silent Era. Indeed, the early career of actor Charles Ray saw him playing a succession of country bumpkins. Silent films such as The Cub (1915), the Mack Sennett feature Down on the Farm (1920), and the Buster Keaton vehicle Our Hospitality (1923) all presented comic portraits of rural life. Rural comedies continued to be popular with the advent of talkies, with films such as Wheeler and Woolsey's Kentucky Kernels (1934), Abbot and Costello's Comin' Round the Mountain, The Egg and I (1947) and the "Ma & Pa Kettle" series of films that were spun off from The Egg and I.

Rural comedy occurred in other media besides film. In fact, two of the most popular comic strips of the 20th Century utilised rural humour. Li'l Abner made its debut in 1934 and ran until 1977. It was so popular it was spun off into a series of animated cartoons, a Broadway musical, and two feature films (one based on the Broadway musical). Barney Google and Snuffy Smith started in 1919 and centred on the title character Barney Google, but shifted to rural humour after the introduction of hillbilly Snuffy Smith in 1934. Snuffy has remained the star of the comic strip for decades and, even though his name remained in the title, Barney Google would not appear in it for years at a time. Radio also featured its share of rural comedies. Among the most popular and longest running shows of Old Time Radio was Lum and Abner, which ran from 1931 to 1954.

Even with regards to to television rural comedies pre-date the late Fifties when the cycle towards rural comedies began. Prior to 1949 at least two pilots were made for a proposed Lum and Abner television series. In 1951 three episodes of a proposed Lum and Abner television series were made. This series did not sell either and the episodes were later compiled into the film Lum and Abner Abroad (1956). What may have been the first rural comedy on television was an adaptation of  The Egg and I. It was a fifteen minute serial that aired on weekdays. It starred Bob Craven and Pat Kirkland in the roles played by Fred MacMurray and Claudette Colbert in the film. Oddly enough, this TV version of The Egg and I included Ma and Pa Kettle (played by Doris Rich and Frank Tweddell), even though the pair were still appearing in the film series at the time.  The Egg and I lasted from  September 3, 1951 to August 1, 1952. Perhaps fittingly enough given the network's later identification with rural comedies, it aired on CBS.

After the demise of The Egg and I rural comedies were absent from American television screens for much of the Fifties. All of this would change in the 1957-1958 season when a comedy about hillbillies would debut that would not only prove to be a hit, but would also mark the beginning of the cycle towards rural shows that predominated the Sixties. The Real McCoys debuted on 3 October 1957 on the American Broadcasting Company. While CBS may have had the most rural comedies and by far the most successful rural comedies, it was then actually ABC that started the cycle.

The Real McCoys was created by Irving Pincus, a television writer who had previously written episodes of the early Fifties show The Adventures of Ellery Queen. Despite the continued success of the "Ma & Pa Kettle" films at cinemas, Mr. Pincus did not have an easy time selling The Real McCoys. In an article in the 28 December 1958 issue of The Milwaukee Journal, Mr. Pincus said of network executives that "Most of them said it had no audience identification." Eventually NBC took a year long option on the show and apparently a pilot was even delivered to the network (according to the 22 December 1956 issue of Billboard). Unfortunately, in the end NBC let their option on the show lapse and did not buy the series. Fortunately, the William Morris Agency took an interest in the prospective show and eventually it was sold to ABC.

The Real McCoys centred on the McCoys, a family of hillbillies from fictional Smokey Corners, West Virginia, who moved to California after inheriting a farm there. It starred Walter Brennan as the head of the family, the irascible Grandpa Amos who had difficulty to adjusting to life outside the hills. Richard Crenna (who had just finished up a stint on Our Miss Brooks) played his grandson Luke, who brought his new bride Kate (Kathleen Nolan) with them to California. The family was rounded out by Luke's teenage sister and his eleven year old brother Little Luke (Michael Winkelman). As to why both brothers were named "Luke", it seems their parents were so excited by the birth of Little Luke that they forgot they already had a son named "Luke". The cast was rounded out by the McCoys' farmhand Pepino Garcia (Tony Martinez).

While The Real McCoys would be the show that would start the cycle towards rural comedies in the Sixties, in some ways it differed quite a bit from the broader rural comedies that would follow it. In some respects it was closer to such contemporary domestic comedies as Leave It to Beaver or Father Knows Best than it was the later The Beverly Hillbillies or Green Acres. Like the domestic comedies of the era, each episode would see a minor crisis in the family (Kate's mother visits with her fiancé and he runs afoul of Amos; Grandpa Amos takes over raising the children from Kate) that is resolved by the end of the episode. The humour tended to be of the gentler sort seen in many of the era's domestic comedies, not the sometimes outrageous comedy sometimes seen in other rural comedies (The Beverly Hillbillies in particular).

The Real McCoys proved the network executives who thought television viewers would not watch shows about rural folk wrong. In its first season it ranked #30 for the year according to the Nielsen ratings. Its second season it became a top ten hit, ranking #8 for the year. For the next few years The Real McCoys remained one of the top rated shows on television, ranking #11 for the 1959-1960 season, #5 for the 1960-1961 season, and #14 for the 1961-1962 season. While the ratings of The Real McCoys proved that television audiences would watch rural comedies, the show may have also had an influence in one other way. While it may not have been the first show to do so, The Real McCoys was one of the earliest sitcoms to have a theme song that explained the show's premise. This would become a hallmark of many rural and other situation comedies of the Sixties.

Unfortunately, such success was not to last. During the fifth season Kathleen Nolan left the show due to a contract dispute. Kate was written out of the show as having died. The show also changed networks. The Real McCoys moved from perennially third rated ABC to CBS. At the time this must have seemed like a very good thing. After all, CBS was the perennially top rated network and had many more affiliates than ABC. Unfortunately, The Real McCoys' fortunes turned sour after its move to CBS. Not only was Kate written out of the series, but the characters of Hassie and Little Luke appeared in only a few episodes during the season. This was explained by Hassie having gone off to college and Little Luke having joined the Army Even with these changes in the cast, it is still possible The Real McCoys could have survived. Sadly, CBS placed the show in what could have been the worst possible time slot on the schedule--opposite Bonanza on NBC (then the 4th rated show on the air) on Sunday nights. Against the juggernaut that was Bonanza the ratings for The Real McCoys plummeted and CBS cancelled the show at the end of the season.

While today The Real McCoys is not nearly as well remembered as many of the rural comedies of the Sixties (indeed, some younger viewers may have never heard of it), the show occupies an important place in the history of American television. As its creator Irving Pincus learned while trying to sell the show, prior to The Real McCoys network executives were convinced that American television viewers had no interest in watching rural comedies. The success that The Real McCoys experienced during its run proved network executives wrong, so much so that other rural comedies debuted in its wake: The Andy Griffith Show in 1960, The Beverly Hillbillies in 1962, and yet others. While The Real McCoys may not be as well remembered as some of the other rural comedies today, it paved the way for every rural comedy to come. The Real McCoys may have been the only rural comedy on the air for a time, but it would not be so for long.