"Television depends on characters and on people liking those characters and wanting them to visit in their house again. It's an easy thing to click a switch and change channels, so you have to hope that your characters become friends of the people watching. Our characters did."
About This Interview
In his four-and-a-half-hour Archive interview, Paul Henning (1911-2005) describes working as a writer in radio - for Fibber McGee and Molly and for The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show. He talks of transitioning to the televised version of The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show and how writing for television differed from writing for radio. He recalls writing for The Ray Bolger Show and The Rudy Vallee Show, and getting a chance to produce and create a program with The Dennis Day Show. Henning then details creating/producing the three rural comedies for which he's best known: The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres and Petticoat Junction. He describes casting the shows, which programs he had the most involvement with and how he felt when the shows were cancelled. Bob Claster conducted the interview on September 3, 1997 in Toluca Lake, CA.
Throughout 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.
When 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.
But 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.
The 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.
Meanwhile, 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.
Then 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.
In 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.
Despite 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, political conscience.
Yet 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.
Special "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.
PAUL HENNING. Born in Independence, Missouri, U.S.A., 16 September 1911. Died 25 March 2005. 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)