Wednesday, September 18, 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.

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