the 1960s, Paul Henning was the creative mastermind behind three
of the most successful sitcoms on television: The Beverly Hillbillies
(1962), Petticoat Junction (1963), and Green Acres (1965)--all
of which were narratively interthreaded, and the first of which
was perhaps the most successful network series ever. A perpetual
Midwesterner who spent 30 years in Hollywood in both radio and television,
his basic country mouse/city mouse formula never veered far from
his rural roots. Once those roots were deemed passe´ by the demographics
avatars, his exile from television was both sudden and emphatic.
a radio spec script he'd written on a whim was accepted by The
Fibber McGee and Molly Show, he began a 15-year career
as a series staff writer, culminating with Burns and Allen
on radio and then television, where he became a protege of future
Tonight Show director Fred de Cordova. On TV, he launched
both The Bob Cummings Show (1955-61, all three networks),
wherein a pre-Dobie Gillis Dwayne Hickman assimilates the Southern
California decadence of his starlet-addled bachelor uncle through
a filter of Midwestern verities.
it was The Beverly Hillbillies (1962-71, CBS), with which
he made both his name and fortune. Equal parts Steinbeck and absurdism,
the nouveau riche-out-of-water Clampetts populated the top-rated
program of their premier season, remained in the top ten throughout
the rest of the decade, and had regular weekly episode ratings which
rivaled those of Super Bowls.
Clampett clan initially hailed from an indeterminate backwoods locale
somewhere along (in author David Marc's words) "the fertile crescent
that stretches from Hooterville to Pixley and represents Henning's
sitcomic Yoknapatawpha." As explained in the opening montage and
theme song, Lincolnesque patriarch Jed (Buddy Ebsen) inadvertently
stumbles onto an oil fortune languishing just beneath his worthless
tract of scrub oak and brambles, and pursues his destiny westward
to swank Beverly Hills, in the interest of suitable escorts for
daughter Elly May (Donna Douglas) and employment prospects for wayward
nephew Jethro (Max Baer, Jr.). In tow (in a sight gag from The
Grapes of Wrath, no less) is Granny (Irene Ryan), carried out
to the truck at the last second in her favorite rocker. In this
way, the Clampetts inadvertently echoed the fascination of a rural
population newly wired for television with the purveyors of TV's
content--at least partially accounting for their corresponding popularity.
Henning quickly moved to fashion several spinoffs with characters
in common. Petticoat Junction (1963-70, CBS) featured long-time
Henning player Bea Benaderet as Kate Bradley, proprietress of the
Shady Grove Hotel, a homey inn situated along a railroad spur between
Hooterville and Pixley, with her three budding daughters providing
ample latitude for farmer's daughter jokes. The show was canceled
in 1970 following Benaderet's death from cancer.
into this homespun idyll, he dropped Green Acres (1965-71,
CBS), a flat-out assault on Cartesian logic, Newtonian physics,
and Harvard-centrist positivism. Lawyer Oliver Wendell Douglas (Eddie
Albert) and his socialite wife Lisa (Eva Gabor) come to Hooterville
in search of the greening of America and a lofty Jeffersonian idealism.
What they discover instead is a virtual parallel universe of unfettered
surrealism, rife with gifted pigs, square chicken eggs, and abiogenetic
hotcakes--a universe which Lisa intuits immediately, and by which
Oliver is constantly bewildered.
their later stages, these three worlds were increasingly interwoven,
so that by the time of the holiday episodes where the arriviste
Clampetts return to Hooterville to visit kith and kin, including
the laconic Bradleys, and intersect with the proto-revisionist Douglases--using
Sam Drucker's General Store as their narrative spindle--television
had perhaps reached its self-reflexive pinnacle.
high ratings, both The Beverly Hillbillies and Green Acres
were canceled in 1971 by CBS President James Aubrey (once nicknamed
"the smiling cobra") in the same purge which claimed Mayberry
RFD, a toothless Jackie Gleason, and Red Skelton (despite a
final season on NBC). The push to cultivate a consumer base of advertising-friendly
18- to 34-year-olds was the same one which ushered in M*A*S*H,
All in the Family, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and, ostensibly,
viewed in retrospect, such shows perhaps perfectly mirrored the
times. A pervasive argument against television has always been that
its hermetic nature removes it from a social context: Idealized
heroes or families and their better mousetrap worlds seem all but
impervious to the greater ills of the day. Nowhere is this more
evident or egregious (so the argument goes) than in 1960s sitcoms,
where a watershed decade elicited programming which seemed downright
extraordinary in its mindlessness. But who better than garrulous
nags, crusty aliens, maternal jalopies, suburban witches, subservient
genies, gay Marines or bungling Nazis to dramatize the rend in the
social fabric, or typify the contradictions of the age? If so, no
one was more adept at manipulating this conceit--nor pushed the
envelope of casual surrealism further--than Henning. Not for nothing
did button-down visionary Oliver Douglas, whose plans for Cornell
School of Agriculture were dashed by his father's insistence on
a Harvard Law degree, lose his first law office job for growing
mushrooms in his desk drawer.
"Return Of" TV movies were created for both The Beverly Hillbillies
(1981) and Green Acres (1990), and a Beverly Hillbillies
feature film followed in 1992, but none of these, charitably speaking,
managed to rise to the challenge.
Photo courtesy of Paul Henning
HENNING. Born in Independence, Missouri, U.S.A., 16 September
1911. Graduated Kansas City School of Law, 1932. Married: Ruth Margaret
Barth, 1939, children: Carol Alice, Linda Kay, Paul Anthony. Began
career as staff member at radio station KMBC Kansas City, 1933-37;
writer and co-writer of radio programs 1937-50; writer-producer
of television programs 1950-72; writer of feature films, 1961-88.
1950-58 The George Burns-Gracie Allen Show
1952 The Dennis Day Show
1953 The Ray Bolger Show
1954-59 The Bob Cummings Show (also producer) 1962-72 The
Beverly Hillbillies (also creator and producer)
1963-72 Petticoat Junction (creator, producer)
1965-71 Green Acres (executive producer)
Lover Come Back, 1961; Bedtime Story, 1962; Dirty
Rotten Scoundrels (co-writer), 1988.
Fibber McGee and Molly (writer)
1939 The Joe E. Brown Show
1940-41 The Rudy Vallee Show
The George Burns-Gracie Allen Show (writer)
Marc, David. Comic Visions: Television Comedy and American Culture.
Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1989.
Demographic Vistas: Television in American Culture. Philadelphia,
Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1984.
Marc, David, and Robert J. Thompson. Prime Time, Prime Movers:
From I Love Lucy to L.A. Law, America's Greatest TV Shows and the
People Who Created Them. Boston: Little Brown, 1992.
David. America on the Rerun: TV Shows That Never Die. Secaucus,
New Jersey: Carol, 1993.
Domestic Settings; Green