Wednesday, 13 March 2019

The Vast Wasteland of Beverly Hills

On May 9, 1961, FCC Commissioner Newton Minow declared that television was a vast wasteland. A year later, the number one show wasn’t a live drama. It wasn’t a series of concerts at Carnegie Hall. It wasn’t an examination of the world through the cameras of the National Geographic Society.

It was The Beverly Hillbillies.

The wasteland was intact.

Critics were either unimpressed or wrote off the show as fluff. But viewers didn’t.

The question was—why? Don’t television watchers want something enlightening, elucidating, enriching, something other than a vast wasteland?

The answer that critics don’t want to accept is “no.” No, people don’t want that. If they did, there never would have been a Jersey Shore. There wouldn’t have been a Beverly Hillbillies for that matter, either.

Let’s go back to 1963, the Hillbillies’ second season as people tried to divine why the show attracted such a huge audience. This story appeared in papers around the beginning of November 1963.
So How Come the Hillbillies?

So how come “Beverly Hillbillies” can be the nation's favorite television series, picking up this season where it left off last year?
This is the question being asked most often these days, now that the first big ratings of the new year are out.
The question usually is asked with an air of bewilderment, and accompanied by an incredulous expression and a shaking of the head.
It's as if to say the republic is doomed; and we are faced with the decline and fall of the American civilization. What nation that makes Hillbillies its favorite television series can survive?
Then come the theories.
Beverly Hillbillies is a satire of the usual television situation comedy, a magnificent spoof that should stamp out the format forever. Proposed here last season, the theory mercilessly was demolished by producer Paul Henning, who reported:
"Oh no. We're just having fun. It's not a satire. We just want to provide some escapist entertainment."
“Beverly Hillbillies” represents a return to the age of innocence, a reminder of the nostalgia for the past we think was ours.
“Beverly Hillbillies” is corn and America loves corn.
“Beverly Hillbillies,” with its characters of an affectionate innocence, enables every television viewer to feel benevolently superior.
The log cabin myth translated to television.
The American dream that every son can grow up to be a Beverly Hillbilly.
The unconscious yearning for a simple life in which the simple, good folk triumph over the complexities of the modern civilization.
The translation of the American idiom that is best reflected in its folk simplicity, as witnessed by the current rage for the basic honesty of folk music, to the television screen.
All right, all right. . . .
Let us study a recent survey made to determine not the basic popularity of a series but, instead, how many persons are familiar with a program and say it is one of their favorites. Compiled by the Home Testing Institute, Inc., and titled TVQ (for Television Quality), the rating has some interesting observations. Beverly Hillbillies, it turns out, is second in the top 10, to Bonanza. In other words, Bonanza may not be the top-rated program on television but its the favorite program. (Figure that one out.)
The TVQ rating then breaks down the rating to age groups and it should come as no surprise to discover that “Beverly Hillbillies” is, by far, the top-rated show among children 6 to 11 years of age. It also is popular with youngsters in the 12-to-17 age group.
In television homes throughout the nation, the younger viewers are asking, demanding, whining, sniveling for parents to turn to CBS Wednesdays to see the funny Hillbillies and ratings go up. No force on earth can resist that kind of pressure. Besides, the show is funny, no matter what you say. It's funny.
The Associated Press chatted to the show’s creator, Paul Henning, about why people wanted to see the hill folk every week more often than dad-blamed revenooers snooping around for a still. This is from June 15, 1963. There’s a short profile of Henning as well, though it bypasses his local radio work that went back at least to 1934.
Hillbillies Creator Hails From Truman's Town

AP Movie-TV Writer
HOLLYWOOD (AP)-When the Beverly Hillbillies failed to pick up any Emmies at the recent Television Academy Awards, the show's creator, Paul Henning, wasn't surprised.
"I thought we wouldn't win any, though I believed Irene Ryan might have had a chance as best actress," said the writer-producer. "Everyone in television is so worried these days about public opinion that they would vote for shows that elevate the industry's image."
He has no time to fret about a lost statuette or two. He's too busy fathering the season's most successful show and siring a new one to star Bea Benedaret, Petticoat Junction.
The success of The Beverly Hillbillies has amazed experts and stunned intellectuals. But it's no mystery to Henning.
"I think we stuck to what we set out to do: Make a funny show," he said, "Success in this business is 99 per cent and we had it in many ways—the selection of a perfect cast, especially.
"Also, our timing was good. The country was ready for a show like The Hillbillies, where it might not have been two years ago. I think it is the kind of humor that appeals to the broad area of America that lies outside the three major city areas. The urban people also enjoy it, but they don't want to admit it. "A government official who tours all over the country put his finger on it. He wrote us and said in the South and in small towns, people watch The Hillbillies with the shades up. In the cities they watch it, but keep the shades down."
The Beverly Hillbillies marks the emergence into public recognition of one of Hollywood's ace comedy craftsmen. As you might guess, the source of his humor is the American heartland. He was born and grew up in Independence, Mo.
Yes, he knew Harry Truman.
"I used to work in the drug store when Harry was a circuit judge," recalled Henning. "He would come in with his cronies, a lot of them his pals from the war, and they'd match nickles to see who would pay for the sodas.
"He owned a Stafford automobile which was made in Kansas City, Kan., and my brother used to repair it for him. Harry still remembers that."
Henning studied at the Kansas City, Mo., School of Law, but he found singing on radio more appealing.
He broke into bigtime radio in 1937 when he sent a script to the Fibber McGee and Molly show in Chicago. Head writer Don Quinn hired him.
He moved on to Hollywood and labored for Rudy Vallee, Burns and Allen, Dennis Day and Bob Cummings before striking oil with the Hillbillies.
Henning is medium sized, with a pleasant face thinning, butch-cut hair and a modest midwest manner. No Hayseed, he can write almost anything in the comedy line, including sophisticated comedy movies like "Lover Come Back," for which he and Stanley Shapiro won an Oscar nomination.
"Funny thing," he reflected, "When I was working on the pilot for 'The Beverly Hillbillies,' I was also working with Stanley on 'King of the Mountain,' which David Niven and Marlon Brando are doing. I had to stop and ask, 'Who Am I?' "
The show, in my estimation, started out slowly with too many “confusion” jokes (how many times can you mistake a doorbell for something else?) and, in the last few seasons, relied too heavily on multi-episode stories that, frankly, weren’t too compelling. I think the show had used up all its ideas. But it was fun and even cartoony for a while. And a show with a cat that swims and Louis Nye being over the top can’t be all bad. Even Mr. Minow should have understood that.


  1. Something I found interesting when I watched the entirety of The Hillbillies' final season last year - There are no stand-alone episodes. All the storylines, from "the frogman" to "grunion invasion" to "women's lib" to "Audubon Getty Crockett" all flow into each other seamlessly . Whether by accident or by design, Henning developed what I believe must be the first, or among the first, season-long story arc for a sitcom. One unfortunate byproduct that you notice when you binge-watch these shows, however: There's a LOT of exposition and flashbacks to keep viewers who might have missed or forgotten an episode up to speed.

    The "King of the Mountain" mentioned above was released as Bedtime Story (1964). Remade in 1988 with Steve Martin and Michael Caine as Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.

  2. The doorbell bit did get old after about five or six episodes. I enjoyed seasons one and two when the ideas were fresh. I remember later in the series when the Clampetts went to England, that was a multi episode arc.I just saw the swimming cat episode. Master trainer Frank Inn was as close to what I call an Animal Whisperer than anyone. And yes, who could forget Louis Nye. His character was kind of similar to some of his Steve Allen Show characters.

  3. The "vast wasteland" speech did said "The Twilight Zone" was one of the good things on TV (next to the news).

  4. Watched it then. Watched it in reruns and I watch it currently on DVD, the newest official sets. The Clampetts are the kind of people I would like to have as friends. Honest, loyal and unassuming.