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Magazine | Okiecentric

Return to Kornfield Kounty: Why Hee Haw Still Matters

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Posted 02.27.12

THE COUNTER-COUNTERCULTURE

It’s been nearly two decades since the world said goodbye to Hee Haw. The show ran from 1969 to 1992. At the height of its popularity, the show was a fixture in over 15 million homes. Throughout the 70s and 80s, Hee Haw was to American television what Paul Harvey was to radio: a dependable voice in the traffic of popular culture. It’s common practice in television programming to follow the current trends and provide content that complements the time. Both Star Trek and Lost in Space appeared at the zenith of the space race, while Jack Bauer and 24 debuted in the post-9/11 world. Yet Hee Haw, with its country twang and family-friendly humor, stood out in the sea of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll that dominated the era. Hee Haw was unlike anything else on television, with one exception.

On September 9, 1967, near the end of the “Summer of Love”, Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In debuted on NBC. Originally intended as a one-time special, the program struck such a chord that it was rushed into production as a regular series. Less than six months later, on January 22, 1968, the show was in weekly rotation. With its unapologetically political agenda and finger placed firmly on the zeitgeist, Laugh-In quickly transitioned from a funny and entertaining program to something “important” in the eyes of viewers and pundits nationwide. Nowhere was this growing influence more apparent than on September 16, when Richard Nixon made a cameo appearance less than two months before the 1968 Presidential Election. Looking out of place and pandering the way only true politicians can, his utterance of the catchphrase “Sock it to me” is now in the canon of memorable television moments, if only for his stylistic alteration which changed the statement into a question. In the midst of this radical change in the cultural landscape, two Canadians were watching closely and plotting their next move.

John Aylesworth and Frank Peppiatt met in 1950 in Toronto while working as copywriters at the MacLaren Advertising agency. The two quickly formed a close friendship and soon realized their talents might be better-suited elsewhere, and that “elsewhere” was radio. In the early 1950’s the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, or CBC for short, was transitioning into the new realm of television. When the time came to debut their first comedy show for television, the CBC turned to Peppiatt and Aylesworth. The duo would go on to perform skits and become Canada’s first TV comedy team. This two-host variety format would serve them well in later years, but by the late 50’s, both men were growing tired of performing. Missing the writing side of the business, the two parted ways. On the recommendation of his good friend and fellow Canadian, Norman Jewison, Aylesworth relocated to New York City for a job onYour Hit Parade at CBS. In a strange bit of serendipity, Peppiatt also ended up in the Big Apple, working on a variety series for Steve Lawrence and his wife. But, just a year after cutting their creative ties, in the spring of 1959 Peppiatt and Aylesworth were together again. The brass at CBS tasked the team at Your Hit Parade to create something for Andy Williams—a variety show. It was Norman Jewison, a savvy director and future Oscar nominee (Moonstruck, Fiddler on the Roof), who initiated the reunion. The Andy Williams Show was a smash. The boys were back together and the future was wide open.

A multitude of show and specials came and went as Peppiatt and Aylesworth’s stock continued to climb. Crooners including Bing Crosby and Perry Como were among the headliners they had the opportunity to work with. But it was the duo’s first contact with the “country” side of showbiz that would go on to have the biggest impact. In today’s world, the name “Jimmy Dean” rarely evokes more than a Pavlovian response to the thought of breakfast sausage. But, 50 years ago, Jimmy Dean was a bona fide star, having attained fame as both a television host and the singer of hits like “Big Bad John.” After Perry Como’s retirement, Peppiatt and Aylesworth accepted an offer in 1963 to write for The Jimmy Dean Show.

Brought in to surround this “country boy” with their signature brand of northern sophistication, Peppiatt and Aylesworth were expected to create a well-rounded show with something for everyone. With guests ranging from opera stars to political comedians, the show certainly wasn’t going for a purely “country” vibe. This didn’t sit well with Dean, who was unfamiliar with many of his own guests and lobbied hard for the likes of Buck Owens and Roger Miller. Dean was adamant that these country stars would have wide appeal and tried his best to find ways to spotlight their talent. When Dean was tapped to be the very first guest host for The Tonight Show, one of his first orders of business was to bring on a young musician named Roy Clark whom he’d known since Dean’s days hosting a local variety show in Washington D.C. The appearance marked Clark’s first exposure to a national audience. But Dean was never fully able to convince the network. The tension between management and Dean proved too much for Peppiatt and Aylesworth. Just five weeks in, they left the show. By 1966 it was off the air completely.

In the nomadic tradition they’d been practicing for years, Peppiatt and Aylesworth returned to working on specials for Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland and Groucho Marx among others. Just as they’d made the transition from writer to performer while working in Canada years earlier, the time soon came for another role change. Jonathan Winters, the noted comedian and monologist, hadn’t had his own television show since the late 50’s. His crazy brand of humor, a heady mix of the absurd and the intellectual, certainly wasn’t for everyone. His fans were devoted in their praise of his unpredictable antics, perhaps displayed best through his LP’s. But his detractors–and there were many–found him more confusing than funny. In 1967, CBS gambled on Winters and recruited Peppiatt and Aylesworth to guide the ship. Only this time, their services as writers weren’t needed. For the first time in their career together, the duo would be producing. They hoped for the best and tried to introduce Winters to a mass audience, but in the end their efforts proved unsuccessful.

Mike Dann, then-president of CBS’ entertainment division, flew to Los Angeles from New York to deliver a somber message. The plug was being pulled. In his memoir about the show, The Corn Was Green, published just months before his death this year, Aylesworth recalls the conversation with Dann that changed everything. “It’s not that it isn’t a good show, fellas,” Dann said. “We’re very happy with what you’ve done with it. The problem is that Jonathan is just too special for a mass audience.” This revelation was nothing new. Praising their work and tenacity, Dann closed one door and opened another. “Instead of working for other people all the time, why don’t you create a show of your own?” It wasn’t as if the idea hadn’t crossed their minds. “If you can come up with a good idea, I’d be happy to give it a shot. I’ll be in town for the next two weeks. Think about it.”

The stage was set.

ON, OFF, ON AGAIN

With a golden opportunity to finally do something of their own making, Peppiatt and Aylesworth, working with their manager, Bernie Brillstein, began to lay the groundwork for what would eventually become Hee Haw. Country music was selling better than ever and non-variety shows like Green Acres and The Beverly Hillbillies were performing well in the ratings. When the time came to pitch the idea to Dann and others at CBS, the response was generally positive, but mostly in the abstract. There was no good time slot for such a show in the current lineup. Not to mention the fact that a movie star was waiting in the wings. None other than Doris Day was making her move to television and she was in need of producers. No longer interested in working on yet another show built around one person, Peppiatt and Aylesworth passed.

In the late 60’s, few television programs were as controversial as The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Openly and vocally opposed to the war in Vietnam, the brothers, Tommy in particular, had been making the brass at CBS nervous for quite some time. A battle ensued over what should and shouldn’t be censored. The network requested pre-screening of all Smothers Brothers shows in order to vet what they deemed “inappropriate.” The brothers resisted. On April 4, 1969, the show was abruptly cancelled. In need of a quick summer replacement, all eyes turned to Hee Haw. Not only was it ready to go, there was little danger of any further controversy.

“The first thing you need to know,” says Sam Lovullo, associate producer of Hee Haw. “Roy and Buck got along.”

Rumors swirled that Clark and Owens, representing the comedic and musical parts of the show, feuded and were never close. Lovullo is also quick to point out that Hee Hawwas not a replacement for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. “We weren’t replacing the Smothers. We were actually replacing Glen Campbell’s show, which aired in the summer when the Smothers were off.” The first episode of Hee Haw made its CBS debut on June 15, 1969. Guests for the first show were Loretta Lynn and Charley Pride. The media’s response to the show wasn’t entirely welcoming in those early days.

We were criticized an awful lot,” says Lovullo. “Those first couple of episodes, (the media) really picked on it.” Proving true the old adage that there is no such thing as bad publicity, this piling up only helped the show. “This helped, because people wanted to find out how bad (the show) really was.” Lovullo is both adamant and tickled as he reflects on this time. “Turns out, some people actually liked us.”

Country music, though quite popular and growing more so by the year, didn’t have a great amount of exposure on national network television. While Hee Haw was in its infancy, Johnny Cash was starting his own show over on ABC. Though it certainly had many country elements, including Cash himself, The Johnny Cash Show was more of the moment, featuring the likes of Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson and Neil Young. In some circles within the country music establishment, Hee Haw was viewed as a mockery.

“I’m embarrassed to say this,” says Lovullo. “But some of the biggest names wouldn’t appear on the show. They just didn’t want to wear straw hats and overalls.” There’s no arguing that the show didn’t try to take itself too seriously. This lack of pretense, this unwillingness to comment on the topics of the day, made Hee Haw an escape of sorts in a turbulent time. Every week, viewers across the country could take an hour-long trip to “Kornfield Kounty”, the imaginary setting of the show. Sam Lovullo readily acknowledges the conscious attempt to create something borderline fantastical. “We made it a cartoon show. It wasn’t the real world.”

Hee Haw’s profile and audience continued to grow through over 50 episodes between 1969-1971. After struggling to find a proper balance, the show finally settled on being 50% comedy and 50% music. And the crew, viewed as outsiders in the capitol of country music, began to be accepted.

“It took a couple of years,” says Lovullo. “But eventually we were accepted in Nashville and the south.”

Just as the show came in during a time when many sitcoms were rural in their settings, the show was caught up in a purge. In what John Aylesworth referred to as “The Great CBS Country Massacre,” in spring of 1971 CBS cancelled The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, Mayberry R.F.D and Hee Haw. Some producers might be daunted by such a move, and, while Peppiatt and Aylesworth were concerned, they worked with Lovullo and others to transition the show into syndication. The second coming of Hee Haw premiered on September 18, 1971 and would remain on the air until its last episode in 1992. After over a decade of playing the game and moving from show to show, Peppiatt and Aylesworth had finally created something that would endure.

EVERYTHING IS OK

Throughout its run, Hee Haw was infused with Oklahomans. Though not a native Oklahoman, Roy Clark has made Tulsa his home for several decades. There is an elementary school named in his honor and he is widely accepted as “one of us.” The banjo-picking funnyman has been on the musical scene since his first big hit in 1963 with “Tips of My Fingers.” In 2009, Clark was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Just this year, Roy Clark signed on with manager Jim Halsey, another Oklahoman and industry icon. The event made news across the country. Jim Halsey had previously been Clark’s manager when he started on Hee Haw and throughout his legendary tour with the Oak Ridge Boys in 1976 as the first country music act to perform in the U.S.S.R. In the early days of Hee Haw, when Buck Owens and Clark were fighting over name placement in the credits and other trivial details, it was Halsey who worked as mediator. Clark, 77, still tours frequently and knows that Hee Haw will be his biggest legacy. “Hee Haw won’t go away.” said Clark. “Everywhere I go, people talk about it.” While the show was separated into two sections, music and comedy, with Clark in charge of the comedy and Owens handling the music, Clark was a genuine double threat. But making people laugh was a specialty. “It brings a smile to so many faces.” said Clark. Though mostly apolitical throughout its quarter-century run, Hee Haw oozed a kind of populism, a mood and movement also steeped in Oklahoma history. “The viewers were sort of part-owners of the show,” said Clark.

Other Oklahomans made the cast, including Tulsa’s own Gailard Sartain, hot off his classic turn on local television as “Dr. Mazeppa Pompazoidi.” Perhaps you’ve heard of it. But the biggest impact Oklahoma had on Hee Haw came from the performers, the amazing roster of musicians and singers offered up by the Sooner State. Merle Haggard, Wanda Jackson, Reba McEntire and Vince Gill are among the luminaries to grace the Hee Haw stage numerous times. In the last few seasons of the show, as the light began to fade, country music’s biggest name lent the show some of his undeniable star power. Between 1990 and 1992, Garth Brooks appeared on the show four times. In 1992, Sam Lovullo was trying to get a hold of Brooks to ask him to appear on the final show. His attempts were unsuccessful. As the show neared airtime, Brooks showed up. “I was surprised to see him,” says Lovullo. “But he just came up to me and said ‘I’m here, Sam. Give me my overalls.’” At the height of his popularity, Brooks put his career on hold for a moment in order to help bid farewell to a show that had been on the air since he was a child.

Hee Haw is an institution,” says Lovullo.

John Aylesworth died this year at the age of 81. Frank Peppiatt, Roy Clark, Sam Lovullo and many other cast and crewmembers are still carrying the Hee Haw torch. When asked if he sees or hears the influence of Hee Haw and traditional country music in today’s performers, Lovullo is upbeat and optimistic.

“I feel good about it,” he says. “Whatever country music was back then, there are people still doing that today. The instrumentation has changed, not the songs.” In search of a specific performer that embodies the Hee Haw ideals, the answer comes quickly. “You look at someone like Brad Paisley,” says Lovullo. “He gets it. He has created this whole movement.” Paisley, arguably the biggest male star in modern country music, has long professed his love for Hee Haw and Roy Clark in particular. In a recent concert stop at Tulsa’s BOK Center, Paisley brought Clark onstage for a duet on guitar. “I learned to play guitar with a Roy Clark songbook, so I blame all of this on him” said Paisley to the crowd.

When Hee Haw went off the air, reruns began almost immediately. In the years since, there has been nothing to take its place. Its story is our story. Where else could a bunch of Canadians and Californians go to Nashville, Tennessee and create one of the most indelible portraits of the American south?

With its traditional roots and mainstream appeal, Hee Haw stands as a prophetic example of what American country music has become.

Note: This article was originally published January 15, 2011

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