An array of wacky, rural characters popped up on television in the early 1960's. Critics were quick to berate these shows for their country humor, but TV viewers were hooked.
In 1962, Paul Henning introduced us to The Beverly Hillbillies. This backwoods clan was headed by widower Jed Clampett, who along with his faithful old dog, Duke, went hunting for some food, shot wrong, and hit an oil mine. A 25 million dollar oil mine. Cousin Pearl convinces Jed to move his family to the place of swimming pools and movie stars. And so Jed (Buddy Ebsen), his daughter Elly May (Donna Douglas), his nephew, Jethro (Max Baer), and Granny (Irene Ryan) pack up their beat up flat bed truck and make the journey west.
Of course in the land of the TV sitcom when the Clampetts arrive in Beverly Hills, they happen to move right next door to a greedy banker, Milburn Drysdale (Raymond Bailey), who takes the family under his wings, with the goal of getting their money in his bank. Nancy Kulp played his long-suffering secretary, "Miss Jane" Hathaway. The show followed the antics of the family in contrast of country and city life. Jed always remained true, though, to his backwoods wisdom, making for silly, yet entertaining stories. Its instant success put the show on the top 12 Nielson list for the next 6 years. And its spawned a spin-off: Petticoat Junction.
In 1963, Paul Henning developed a spin off based around actress, Bea Benaderet, who guested on the Hillbillies as Jed's cousin Pearl. In this show, set in a farming town between Hooterville, and the more refined town of Pixley, the only way to reach it is on the Hooterville Cannonball, a train. Expert cook, Kate Bradley (Benaderet) ,along with her daughters, blond boy crazy, Billie Jo, brunette, intellectual, Bobbie Jo, and red headed, tomboy, Betty Jo, Kate runs the Shady Rest Hotel. "Uncle Joe" Carson, who also lives in the hotel, considers himself the General Manager, but seems to disappear when a problem arises. There were many cast changes throughout its short run, which lasted until 1970 - 2 years after Benaderets death from cancer.
Green Acres (1965- 1971) was a spin off of Petticoat Junction, and was set in the town of Hooterville. The sitcom tells the story of Oliver Wendall Douglas, a successful New York lawyer, who decides to get close to nature. He buys a 160- acre run down farm, and drags his sophisticated, extravagant wife, Lisa, along with him. At first, Lisa, wants no part of this farming community, but grows to love and accept the people of the town- whereas Oliver never really learns to like the people much.
In these funny rural comedies, their enduring legacy among TV viewers, young and old, lies in their ability to appeal to a wide range of sectors, liberals and conservative alike. These shows took the idea of American materialism and the obsession with such, and deliberately poked fun at it. We all need to be able to laugh sometimes, and the themes are enduring. We can laugh today as hard as the viewers did forty years ago.
Lisa Stanley is a freelance writer and mother of two, based in Florida.
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