Question: This may be more complicated (okay, boring) a question than you normally answer, but I was wondering about Hee Haw. I forget which one, but I seem to remember it being a network show. So how come it was on my local UHF station for all those years? I know UHF reveals my age here. Thank you, oh wise one. — Rick G., Tullahoma, Tenn.
Televisionary: I reckon that's the first time I've seen "complicated" and "Hee Haw" in the same sentence, Rick. But then, that show was full of surprises.
As opposed to the syndicated reruns of network shows you see on your local stations (and yes, I grew up watching UHF, too — way back in the days when you needed two dials and two kinds of antennae to watch the tube), Hee Haw was a first-run syndicated show for most of its 24-year lifespan. But it did indeed debut on CBS in June 1969, and quickly became a surprise hit for the network.
Now, the term "surprise" really comes into play here because just about everyone hated the show, which TV Guide critic Cleveland Amory, in one of the more merciful reviews written about it, called an "outhouse Laugh-In." The Boston Herald Traveler's Eleanor Roberts described it as "so bad it's an insult to the intelligence of a nursery school dropout," while The Houston Chronicle's Ann Hodges deemed it to be "possibly the worst show I've ever seen." In a letter to a Nashville paper, one viewer said it was "the most degrading thing I ever saw" and an Akron viewer called it "the most vile program on television."
All of which meant, of course, that the rest of the viewing audience loved the danged thing. Thrown onto the schedule as a replacement for the banished Smothers Brothers, Hee Haw dominated the summer ratings and earned a permanent spot on the schedule, settling comfortably into the ratings top 20. Unlike the sophisticated political Smothers humor, the typical Hee Haw joke went like so:
"That lady singer last night sure did have a large repertoire." "Yeah, but her dress covered most of it."
Or: "I'm sorry I ran over your hog, Grandpa, but you know I'll replace it." "You know you're not near fat enough."
You're not laughing? Despite the show's success, the CBS execs weren't, either. So a little more than a year after it launched, Hee Haw was wished into the cornfield, along with CBS's other hit rural comedies — The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, Petticoat Junction — by programming legend Fred Silverman in one of the industry's earliest nods to the quest for a more desirable, urban demographic. And to his credit, executive producer Nick Vanoff started shopping it around. "I mortgaged my house, got up every morning for a year at 5:30 am, threw up, and started calling stations across the country," he told TV Guide in 1973. Whatever he said, he said it well. Two years later, his show was on more than 200 stations nationwide, claiming 25 to 30 percent of the viewership in most markets.
The big question here is... why? "You don't have to be up on current events, nor have watched the Huntley-Brinkley show that day to enjoy it," host Buck Owens, who was already a wealthy country musician and businessman when he started co-hosting the show with Roy Clark, observed. "Anybody can grasp this material," Clark, an accomplished musician himself, added. "Sophisticated people see the show as a tremendous put-on and satire; and country people take it right at face value."
And what a face — or series of faces — it was. At one end of the spectrum, you had the gals (Lisa Todd, LuLu Roman, Cathy Baker and former Petticoat trouper Gunilla Hutton, among others), several of whom complemented a filmy Daisy Mae dress quite well. At the other, you had 300-pound Junior Samples, a former moonshiner and stock-car racer from Cumming, Ga., who became a star quite by accident. (After making up a story at a stock-car meet about catching a world-record-setting fish, Samples was recorded by a Game Commission official sent to investigate. That recording was played on the radio, which led to a 45-rpm record version and then a Junior Samples storytelling album that was a huge hit in 1967, all of which brought him to the Hee Haw producers' attention.)
The whole package added up to a show that, by the time it ceased production in 1993, lasted nearly a quarter-century longer than any pundits or executives thought it would — or should. And how many network offerings can say that? At one point, ABC even offered the show a spot on its schedule, but the producers declined. As one anonymous musician on the show put it in 1983, "[I]f New York and L.A. aren't smart enough to pay attention to what Hee Haw is doing, they ought to just get on out of the business."
Not to put too fine a point on it, but Clark himself found out firsthand that his show was a hit in the very cities the suits who cancelled it hoped to conquer. "Because of the show, people recognize me now, even in swanky New York restaurants," he recalled in 1973. "I was in one recently when the headwaiter — a Hungarian fellow dressed in a tuxedo — came over to the table, leaned down, and said to me: 'Meeester Clark... As we say in my country — Heeeeee Haaaaaw!'"