Sunday, June 6, 2004

Rural Comedies of the Sixties

Before anything else I should mention that today is the 60th anniversary of D-Day and the Invasion of Normandy. I think it goes without saying that we owe the men who served on D-Day, in the single largest invasion ever performed, a great deal of gratitude!

Today my mind has turned back to the shows I grew up with, namely the rural comedies of the Sixties. I don't know that it can truly be said that there was a cycle or trend towards rural comedies in that decade, as it seems to me that they were almost entirely on CBS and at least three of them were produced by Paul Henning! Regardless, I spent many hours watching these shows as a child. My parents were both raised in the country, as I was, so I suppose that they naturally gravitated to this particular genre. Indeed, as a child of a rural area, I could look at various characters on the shows and say, "I know someone like that! (yes, there are actually people like Barney Fife out there)."

I have no idea what the first rural comedy was on television. I know that one of the earliest was The Real McCoys. The Real McCoys debuted in 1957 and ran until 1963. The show centred on the McCoys, a family from the hills of West Virginia who move to a ranch in San Fernando Valley in California. I have no memory whatsoever of this show. It went off the air the year I was born and apparently our local stations did not show it in reruns. I did see a few episodes here and there as an adult and it seems to be a pleasant enough show.

A show I remember very well from my childhood is The Andy Griffith Show. Indeed, it would be surprising if I did not remember it. Even if I hadn't caught a single episode in its initial network run, there is little way I believe anyone of my generation could not have seen several episodes in rerun over the years! I am guessing it must be the most successful rural comedy of all time. It ran from 1960 to 1968, at which point it was the number one show on the air. The series ended only because Andy Griffith wanted to move onto other projects.

On The Andy Griffith Show, Griffith played Andy Taylor, the sheriff in the small town of Mayberry, North Carolina. A widower, Andy had a young son named Opie. Andy's Aunt Bea stayed with the two of them, keeping the house while Andy went about his duties. Andy's deputy was his cousin, Barney Fife (played by Don Knotts). Barney is possibly one of the greatest TV characters of all time. Nervous, highstrung, and with a tendency to go too much by the book, he was always in danger of being the town laughingstock.

Despite the show's title, however, it would be a mistake to assume that The Andy Griffith Show centred on Andy Taylor. Not only was it one of television's earliest rural comedies, it was also one of its earliest ensemble comedies (along with The Dick Van Dyke Show). The series actually centred upon the town of Mayberry and its residents. There was Otis, the town drunk, who let himself in and out of jail. There was Floyd, the town barber and one of the town's resident gossips. There was Gomer Pyle, the none too bright gas station attendant (who went on to get a show of his own). And the list doesn't end there. The Andy Griffith Show had a large cast of recurring characters, many of whom played pivotal roles in various episodes over the years.

The Andy Griffith Show was successful enough that it produced two spinoffs. The first was Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.. After only a season on The Andy Griffith Show, the character of Gomer Pyle was spun off into his own series, in which the none too bright gas station attendant joined the Marines. There Pyle found his nemesis in Sgt. Carter. Carter would grow to like Pyle, although he was often frustrated by Pyle's naivete. I enjoyed Gomer Pyle as a child, but as an adult I've found the show to be lacking. After a while the episodes seem to have been written according to a formula. Gomer tries to help someone, gets in trouble, and by the end of the episode everything is fine. While I still watch The Andy Griffith Show and find myself laughing out loud, I often find myself a bit bored with Gomer Pyle.

When The Andy Griffith Show left the air, it was still one of the top rated shows. In its place was another spinoff (or perhaps it might be more accurately be described as a continuation of the series), Mayberry R.F.D.. Mayberry R.F.D. featured Ken Berry as Sam Jones, a local farmer who is elected to the Mayberry city council. Like Andy, he was a widower with a young son (in this case, Mike). Initially, Andy's Aunt Bea stayed with Sam as his housekeeper. When Frances Bavier left the show, Bea was replaced by Sam's cousin Alice (played by Alice Ghostley). Besides Bea, some of the regulars from The Andy Griffith Show continued on Mayberry R.F.D.: handyman Emmett Clark, county clerk Howard Sprague, and Gomer's cousin Goober Pyle. On Mayberry R.F.D., however, Mayberry seemed much smaller to me, as there weren't nearly as many continuing characters. It is perhaps for this reason that the show also seemed to be weaker overall than The Andy Griffith Show. Regardless, Mayberry R.F.D. was a hit. It was one of the top rated shows when it left the air, cancelled because CBS wanted a more urban audience.

Perhaps the second most successful rural comedy to emerge from the Sixties was created by a veteran of The Real McCoys. Paul Henning had written several episodes of the sitcom before creating his own sitcom with a hillbilly theme. The Beverly Hillbillies centred on the Clampetts, a hillbilly family who strike oil and move to Beverly Hills. Once there the Clampetts stick to the ways of the hills rather than conforming to Beverly Hills expectations. The series starred movie veteran Buddy Ebsen as Jed, the head of the family and perhaps the only sane person on the show. His daughter was Elly May, a tomboy who loved animals and refused to behave as city folk think a young woman should. His mother in law and Elly's grandmother was Granny, a spry old woman who refused to accept that the South had lost the war and who brewed her own moonshine. Accompanying was the son of Jed's cousin Pearl, Jethro Bodine, a rube who made Gomer Pyle look like Albert Einstein. The Clampetts' money was kept in the Commerce Bank of Beverly Hills, whose president, Milburn Drysdale, was motivated totally by greed. His secretary, Jane Hathaway, tended to be overly intellectual and a bit man hungry.

When it first debuted, The Beverly Hillbillies was attacked by many critics as being one of the worst shows of all time. They felt that the comedy was low brow and stupid. Today the series still has its detractors, who claim that the series makes fun of country people. I have to disagree with both the TV critics of the Sixties and the show's detractors of the 21st century. First, The Beverly Hillbillies was not only one of the funniest shows of all time, it was also rather brilliant in its execution. On one hand, the series was Capraesque in that it took common people and placed them in the unusual situation of living amongst the high and mighty. Jed Clampett can then be seen as the Sixties equivalent of Mr. Deeds or Mr. Smith. On the other hand, it was a paen to nonconformity. Many people, even hillbillies, would have acclimated to Beverly Hills society. Within years they would have been driving fancy cars and going to expensive parties. The Clampetts don't. This is perhaps due to Jed more than anything else. Despite being a millionaire, Jed is still a simple, honest man who does not believe in putting on airs. The Beverly Hillbillies can then be seen as the story of one common man's victory over the corrupting forces of conformity, greed, and classism. Second, it must be pointed out that on The Beverly Hillbillies there is only one, single person who is sane, intelligent, and honest: Jed Clampett. In other words, the only sane, intelligent, and honest person on the whole show is from the country! It would seem to me, then, that rather than making fun of countryfolk, the show is actually saying that we are the only sane, intelligent, and honest people in American society! Perhaps city folk should take offence to the series instead...

Regardless of its detractors, The Beverly Hillbillies proved to be a smashing success. Episodes of the series still rank among the fifty most watched shows of al time. As far as the rural comedies of the Sixties, it may only be surpassed by The Andy Griffith Show in the success of its syndication run.

Henning also created Petticoat Junction. Petticoat Junction centred on Kate Bradley, who ran the Shady Rest Hotel in the small town of Hooterville. Kate had three daughters, Billie Jo (the blonde), Bobbie Jo (the brunette), and Betty Jo (the redhead). Helping out at the hotel (well, when he wasn't lazing around) was Uncle Joe. While the comedy on The Beverly Hillbillies tended to be very broad, the comedy on Petticoat Junction tended to be a bit more laid back. Like The Beverly Hillbillies, it proved to be very successful. Unfortunately, success would not last for the series. Lead actress Bea Benaderet died of lung cancer in 1968. Thereafter, the ratings slid until Petticoat Junction was cancelled in 1970.

It is difficult to say whether Green Acres should be considered a spinoff of Petticoat Junction or not. Regardless, the series was also set in Hooterville and characters from Petticoat Junction would appear on Green Acres (in fact, Frank Cady as storekeep Sam Drucker is the only actor to appear as a recurring character on three sitcoms at the same time: The Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction, and Green Acres). Green Acres was The Beverly Hillbillies in reverse. Lawyer Oliver Wendell Douglass (Eddie Albert) moved to the country with his wife Lisa (Eva Gabor) to fulfill his dream of being a farmer. Like Jed, Oliver is the only sane individual on the entire show. His wife still wants to return to the city and insists on making pets of every animal on the farm. His handyman, Eb, is not particularly bright. Like The Beverly Hillbillies, the comedy tended to be fairly broad. And like The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres had its share of detractors over the years. While I don't think the series is as inspired as The Beverly Hillbillies, I do think Green Acres was very funny at times.

Most of the rural comedies were still very successful as the Sixties came to close. Unfortunately, television was changing. Madison Avenue advertisers had decided that the most attractive audience for any show was one that was young and urban. Unfortunately, the rural comedies appealed primarily to rural audiences. In 1971, then, CBS decided to cancel every single rural comedy, regardless of how high their ratings might be. Mayberry R.F.D., The Beverly Hillbillies, and Green Acres were still top rated shows at the time. Sadly, following the cancellation of these comedies, there have been very few shows devoted to rural people (The Waltons and Evening Shadeare notable exceptions). It seems the networks and advertisers have forgotten that it isn't just city folk who buy new cars, soap, and breakfast cereals....

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