Hee Haw: The inside story on the show that won't go away

 

By JIMMIE TRAMEL World Scene Writer 

The television show “Hee Haw” debuted on CBS in 1969 and was canceled in 1971.

That wasn’t the end.

It was barely the beginning of the end.

“Hee Haw” remained in production until the 1990s. And, in 2015, it’s still a show that won’t go away.

  • RFD-TV airs “Hee Haw” reruns three times per week.
  • “Moonshine: That Hee Haw Musical,” featuring an original score by Grammy-nominee Brandy Clark and Grammy-winner Shane McAnally, is scheduled for a Sept. 2 launch at Dallas Theater Center.
  • TimeLife’s infomercials for “Hee Haw” DVDs were scheduled to air more than 150 times on various DirecTV channels during a recent week-plus span. Someone’s buying.
  • When Blake Shelton hosted another long-running comedy show (“Saturday Night Live”) on Jan. 24, his “monologue” was a send-up of “Hee Haw.”

“Hee Haw” represented comfort food for legions of TV viewers, Shelton included.


Former University of Tulsa football coach Dave Rader, when asked if “Hee Haw” was part of his background, said, “Oh yeah. We would sit there and eat hamburgers and watch it. My folks loved country music and it reminded them, especially my mom, of listening to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio.”

Why won’t the show go away? “Because it’s the last thing that was such a big hit that didn’t hurt people,” Hee Haw co-host Roy Clark said.

“We weren’t selling anything. We were just having a good time. And that feeling — there are people who say ‘I wish my kids, I wish my generation, had a chance to see it.’ (The shows are) available on reruns. But like Bob Hope said one time, I can watch the reruns on there and watch my hairline recede.”

With tour guide help from Clark (a Tulsa resident since the 1970s), let’s explore Kornfield Kounty.

Almost anyone was a candidate to pop up in the cornfield of “Hee Haw.” In this photo, cast member Roni Stoneman is joined by Dennis Weaver.

Almost anyone was a candidate to pop up in the cornfield of “Hee Haw.” In this photo, cast member Roni Stoneman is joined by Dennis Weaver.

Canadian country

“Hee Haw,” a show which seemed uniquely American, was dreamed up by Canadians John Aylesworth and Frank Peppiatt.

They were inspired to co-create “Hee Haw” after “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In” became must-see TV in the 1960s. “Laugh-In” debuted at No. 21 in 1968 (look that up in your Funk and Wagnalls) and was the nation’s top-ranked series each of the next two years.

Prime-time rural-themed shows were popular, too. Why not create a country version of Laugh-In and sprinkle in music?

Clark had met Aylesworth and Peppiatt while guesting on “The Jonathan Winters Show.” They made the “country Laugh-In” pitch to Clark because they needed a TV-comfy performer to co-host the show with Buck Owens.

Clark agreed because, in show business, “you say yes to everything and a lot of it never happens.”

Time passed. Then Clark’s manager, Jim Halsey, called and said they are ready to do that show. “What show?” Clark asked.

Clark was told the working title for the show was “Hee Haw” — a donkey sound effect — but someone would come up with a more clever title before it hit the air.

“But you look back on it and you say what (name) could have been better than Hee Haw?” Clark said.

Big Bird found his way from Sesame Street to Kornfield Kounty so he could join Slim Pickens, Roy Clark and Buck Owens on “Hee Haw.

Pickin' and Grinnin'

“Hee Haw” got a hoof in a network door because CBS needed a midseason replacement for “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” in 1969. “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” was a top 20 program in 1967 and 1968, but the series was a problem child for CBS because of, among other things, its skewering of the Vietnam War.

Kornfield Kounty, the fictional “Hee Haw” locale, was as far away from controversy as you could get.

“Hee Haw” debuted on June 15, 1969, and was an instant ratings-grabber. CBS promoted the show to its “regular” lineup and it was a top 20 program during the 1969-70 and the 1970-71 seasons, Aylesworth and Peppiatt told reporters they had never visited the rural south or midwest before creating “Hee Haw,” which lasted 25 seasons — 19 seasons more than “Laugh-In” and more than 20 seasons after CBS declared rural programming dead.

Laughter was the best medicine ever prescribed by “Hee Haw” doctor Archie Campbell.

Gloom, despair and agony

The headline-grabbing TV news in mid-March of 1971 was the cancellation of “The Ed Sullivan Show,” a CBS staple for 23 years. And this: CBS junked its entire lineup of rural comedies. Among casualties were “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “Green Acres,” “Mayberry RFD” and, of course, “Hee Haw.” The idea was to aim for a different demographic, never mind ratings.

“You would think somebody would say I may not like the image, but I sure like the paycheck,” Clark said.

“That’s the thing that got me. I never understood why, in business, that you would deliberately take something off that had good vibes. People were writing in. All the mail we received, it was just something that would make your heart beat faster when you would read how (“Hee Haw”) affected different people and their families. Babies were named after us.”

Clark didn’t worry that “Hee Haw” was kaput. Cast members were told the show would go on. Producers struck a syndication deal and found a larger audience. “Hee Haw” became the No. 1 TV show carried nationally on a non-network basis. In 1972, it was carried weekly on 205 stations.

“Actually the transition from network to syndication was actually the best thing that could have happened,” Clark said.

Among syndication-era newspaper headlines: “Hee Haw Strikes Back.”

George “Goober” Lindsey and Gailard Sartain appear in a “Goober and Gailard around town” segment of “Hee Haw.”

Searched the world for true love

A “Hee Haw” detractor once described the show as too bucolic. Bucolic? “I had to look it up,” Clark said.

Though America embraced the show, critics did not.

New York Times: “Hee Haw is ghastly, and Nashville should not hesitate to bring suit.”

Boston Globe: “Hee Haw made its debut last night — and shouldn’t have.”

TV “Answer Man” Richard K. Shull: “The popularity of the show indicates there are a lot of closet rubes out there in America.”

The humor of “Hee Haw” was described as “hayseed” and “cornball.” Cast members wore bib overalls and they popped up in cornfields or lounged around moonshine shacks. The show was never intended to be sophisticated. Said a TV listing for the show in 1970: “Merle Haggard and Bonnie Owens join a flop-eared mule and a chorus of dancing piglets on Hee Haw tonight.”

Corny was part of the charm, according to Clark, and bib overalls weren’t fiction if, like him, you were born and raised in a town like Meherrin, Virginia. Clark wrote in his autobiography that he had one pair of shoes when he was a kid, and he went barefoot when possible so he wouldn’t wear out his shoes before winter.

Cast member George Lindsey once said Southerners have historically relied on a sense of humor to deal with poverty.

“You have to have something to laugh at when you don’t have anything,” he said.

In answering a question about the show’s criticisms, Clark said this: “There were some that said if you hung in long enough, the world would catch on, and they have. The only thing that kept us from going bigger worldwide was the language barrier. All the corn that we did on “Hee Haw,” it was hard to translate into their slang.”

Jonathan Winters sits in Archie Campbell’s barber chair during an episode of “Hee Haw.”

Fresher than Grandpa’s supper

Cast and crew met twice a year (June and October) in Nashville to knock out 13 episodes at a time.

“That’s another reason why the show stayed on so long,” Clark said. “We didn’t burn out. We were fresh. So when you go through the 13 shows, that was it until the next time. That way you went out and did your concerts and things and you were ready to go again.”

Episodes were not taped one at a time. Instead, multiple skits and bits were taped. Episodes were pieced together during the editing process.

“We didn’t have rehearsals,” Clark said. “We went in and worked off of cue cards, and if you blew it, you just did it over again.”

The cast

Aylesworth and Peppiatt, recalling the show’s origins during a 1972 interview, said they didn’t know much about country humor. But they enlisted the help of another Canadian, Gordie Tapp, who became a cast member and who suggested the hiring of experienced country comedian Archie Campbell. Another Canadian import was Don Harron, who did “Hee Haw” newscasts as Charlie Farquharson.

Other original cast members included Cathy Baker, Jennifer Bishop, Jim Hager, Jon Hager, Gunilla Hutton, Grandpa Jones, Claude Phelps, Don Rich, Jimmy Riddle, Jeannine Riley, Junior Samples, Diana Scott, Lulu Roman, Stringbean, Mary Taylor and Sheb Wooley.

Minnie Pearl and Lisa Todd came aboard in 1970. Kornfield Kounty gained more than 40 other residents during “Hee Haw’s” run, including Tulsa’s Gailard Sartain.

Who made Clark laugh behind the scenes? Grandpa Jones. “He can just say hello. He’s just one of those (types). ... I love humor and I love to see anybody doing it, but there are some that don’t try. They could be a plumber or a farmer but there’s something about them that when they tell you a story, it’s funny.”

Clark, during a recent career retrospective in Muskogee, was asked to name his favorite female cast member. He said Roman. Later, he was asked if it would get him in trouble if he had to identify the prettiest girl on the show.

“Ooh. Yes it would,” he said before answering. “Linda Thompson, I was partial to. Her outlook was very down to earth. Beautiful girl.”

Thompson had a relationship with Elvis Presley before marrying Bruce Jenner in 1981. Jenner made a guest appearance that year.

Conway Twitty

The guests

Filming in Nashville gave “Hee Haw” access to country music legends.

The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows said this when summarizing the show: “Although the humor was purposefully cornball, the music on Hee Haw was first-rate country material.”

Loretta Lynn and Charley Pride appeared on the debut episode. Every major country star you can imagine followed in their footsteps, all the way up through Garth Brooks. Roger Miller once vowed he would never go on the show, telling Clark that “Hee Haw,” in perpetuating stereotypes, had set country music back 20 years. Miller eventually relented and, during a joint performance, was reminded of the vow by Clark.

The exposure “Hee Haw” provided artists was invaluable. Clark said pop singers and Broadway performers wanted to be on the show.

You never knew who might pop up in the cornfield. Clark watched Sammy Davis Jr. perform in Reno and invited the Rat Pack-er to sing on “Hee Haw.” Oral Roberts and Hugh Hefner appeared on the show, albeit not in the same episode.

Among other guests: Orville Redenbacher, Regis Philbin, Richard Petty, Louis Nye, Ernest Borgnine, Minnesota Fats, Rip Taylor, Vic Damone, Tommy Lasorda, Paul Williams, Billy Barty, Scatman Crothers, Ed McMahon, Oscar the Grouch, Ray Charles, Dennis Weaver, Paul Anka, Henny Youngman, Ethel Merman, Foster Brooks, Sen. Robert Byrd, Johnny Bench, Billy Carter, George Gobel, Terry Bradshaw, Dizzy Dean and Mickey Mantle.

Bradshaw, who moonlighted as a country singer during his quarterbacking days, warbled “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” in 1976. Bench appeared on the show in 1973 and 1978. He and Clark bonded away from the show.

Said Clark, “I’ve got a picture of Johnny and his dad and me and my dad on a quail hunt together. And Johnny sent me a card when we got back and it said ‘Thank God for daddies.’ ”

Never hear us repeating gossip

Every show has behind-the-scenes scandals, right? Was moonshine as scandalous as “Hee Haw” ever got?

The question was pitched to Clark and it gave him a reason to talk about Junior Samples, a regular feller who gained fame after he lied during a radio interview about a fish he caught.

“He’s the only one I ever know to come out of the hills of Georgia and not only did he not learn something, he digressed,” Clark said, adding that anything he says about Samples is said out of love.

Clark said Samples worked at a still when he was a child and owned his own still by the time he was a teen. At one time, Samples had $65,000 worth of moonshine hidden under a tarp in the woods, according to Clark. Samples had gotten into trouble with the law and was one strike away from doing hard time.

“Well, that scared him and that’s when he straightened up,” Clark said. “But that was about the only thing to do to make a living down in that part of Georgia where he was from.”

According to rural legend, Samples once created a pamphlet on how to make moonshine out of anything that would ferment. “You could take a rug or linoleum or anything,” Clark said.

After a marathon day on the set, Clark mentioned he might need a drink afterward. Samples said he had something stashed under his car seat and he recommended that Clark “chase it” with pork and beans.

“Fortunately the pork and beans overrode it,” Clark said. “By the time you tasted the whiskey part it was too late.”

“Hee Haw” veteran Rodney Lay said he once sent Clark a gallon jug of powerful moonshine whiskey for Christmas. Director Sam Lovullo called the following June and asked Lay about it because Clark had apparently shared the gallon jug with others on the show.

Lovullo told Lay he had a crew that was drunk and said folks were lying around in the straw laughing instead of doing their lines. Lovullo told Lay it cost about $2,000 a minute to tape “Hee Haw” and he had lost a whole day.

“Well, Sam, that’s probably the most expensive bottle of moonshine in the history of the world,” Lay said.

Lovullo’s response: “That’s not funny.”

End of the dirt road

Owens left “Hee Haw” in 1986. The show carried on without him, but big changes arrived in 1992. The majority of the cast was let go in favor of fresh faces.

“They had tried to upgrade it for a younger audience, so instead of hay bales and all that, they had neon lights, and things that (once) happened on the front porch of the moonshine cabin now happened at a bus stop and it was young kids doing it,” Clark said. “It was obvious they were scratching, but everything has to run its time.”

The urban cowboy version of “Hee Haw” went over like New Coke and that was the last year complete new episodes were produced. “Hee Haw” returned the next year (it’s 25th) as “Hee Haw Silver,” with Clark and others introducing classic reruns.

“Hee Haw” never went back into production after that. “Nurse Goodbody has treated her last patient,” the Associated Press wrote. “The Empty Arms Hotel has accepted its final guest.”

Lindsay told a reporter he was in mourning because it was like he had lost an old friend.

Lost and found

“Hee Haw” found eternal life in reruns. Episodes were shown on the Nashville Network and CMT before landing at RFD-TV in 2008. “Hee Haw” reaches 48 million homes on RFD-TV and drives viewers to the rural-centric network as one of its highest-rated programs.

One year before RFD-TV began its partnership with “Hee Haw,” cast members reunited for a Clark tribute show in 2007. Tapp emceed the show and told a story about how a woman was breast-feeding an infant next to him during a plane ride to Tulsa. She told Tapp it helped her baby deal with the discomfort of air travel. Smiling, Tapp said this to the crowd: “I was thinking ‘All these years I’ve been chewing gum.’ ”

Clark drew applause when “Hee Haw” recollections struck a chord with people who attended his recent career retrospective at the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame in Muskogee. It was obvious they “hearted” a show made for families — and made by what seemed to be a family.

“The togetherness, the love for each other, was exactly what made ‘Hee Haw’ work,” Clark said. “There was an underlying love that everyone cared for someone else.”

Clark said “Hee Haw” helped raise a lot of young people who became parents. He said he hopes it gets passed on to the next generation.

Really, this is what he was saying: Ya’ll come back now, you hear?

Jimmie Tramel 918-581-8389

jimmie.tramel@tulsaworld.com