Hee Haw

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Hee Haw

This long-running (1969-92) television series kept the comedy-variety genre alive into the 1990s with its mix of down-home humor and musical performances from top country and western acts. Hee Haw was one of the first shows to draw a southern rural audience to network television. Sketches set in fictional "Kornfield Kounty" affectionately parodied the lives of farmers, moonshiners, and small town dwellers. Hosts Roy Clark and Buck Owens were established country stars who brought musical credibility to the comedic proceedings. The series garnered consistently high ratings, both during its CBS run and as one of the pioneer successes in first-run syndication.Hee Haw had the longest run of original syndicated episodes of any television series.

This quintessential show of the South was actually the product of three Canadians and a New York City-born Italian-American. In 1967 producer Sam Lovullo (the New Yorker) was working on CBS' The Jonathan Winters Show when writers John Ayleswoth and Frank Peppiatt were brought on board. The Jonathan Winters Show was a comedy-variety series with an audience composed mostly of urban northeasterners. Lovullo noticed that ratings, particularly in the South, rose significantly when the musical guests were country and western stars like Roy Clark and Jimmy Dean. At the same time, CBS was seeing ratings success with rural situation comedies like The Beverly Hillbillies and Green Acres. A rural variety show seemed a logical move for the network. Aylesworth and Peppiatt created the concept. Their personal manager and fellow Canadian Bernie Brillstein came up with the name Hee Haw. When CBS canceled The Jonathan Winters Show after the 1968-69 season they sent Lovullo, Ayleswoth, and Peppiatt to Nashville, Tennessee, to produce the new show in the country music capital of America.

Hosts Clark and Owens were natural choices. Roy Clark was a virtuoso on guitar and banjo. His amiable comedic personality had been previously showcased on The Jonathan Winters Show and The Beverly Hillbillies. Buck Owens was one of Nashville's premiere songwriter-performers. At the time of Hee Haw's creation he was hosting a regionally syndicated television variety series and looking for a vehicle with which to reach the national audience. He too had appeared on The Jonathan Winters Show. Owens and Clark's wide-ranging abilities helped blend together the series' mix of country music and broad sketches.

The cast included a number of comedians and musicians with a country background and style. Writer-actor Archie Campbell, twins Jim and Jon Hager, Louis "Grandpa" Jones, Lulu Roman, David "Stringbean" Akeman, and former real-life moonshiner Junior Samples were among the original group to populate sketches like "The General Store" and "The Kornfield." In 1970 the show acquired perhaps its most prized catch: comedienne Minnie Pearl. Her trademark gingham dresses, hat with price tag attached, and gently humorous anecdotes on rural life became staples of the show. In later years, George "Goober" Lindsay (of The Andy Griffith Show), Misty Rowe, actor Slim Pickens, and even Jonathan Winters would spend time in Hee Haw's ensemble.

The show debuted June 15, 1969. It was an instant ratings success. The traditional music and "down-home" humor struck a chord with audiences weary of social unrest and uninterested in seeing television taboos shattered by comedians like the Smothers Brothers. Though originally a summer replacement series, Hee Haw was added to CBS' prime time line-up in December 1969. Its impact was already clear. Earlier that year, on the weekend of August 15-17, half a million rock fans, hippies, and war protesters made Woodstock the counterculture event of the twentieth century; the rest of America made Hee Haw the number one show of the weekend.

During its run Hee Haw's guest list was a virtual who's who of country music in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Merle Haggard, George Jones, Tammy Wynette, Ray Charles, Waylon Jennings, Charlie Rich, Ronnie Milsap, Johnny Cash, and Boxcar Willie all graced the Hee Haw stage. Singers like Garth Brooks, Randy Travis, and Vince Gill, who would see great success in the country music boom of the 1990s, made some of their first national television appearances on Hee Haw. Even non-country performers visited the Korn field: pop vocalists Sammy Davis, Jr. and Phil Harris, baseball legends Mickey Mantle, Johnny Bench, and Roger Marris, and actors Ernest Borgnine, Leslie Nielsen, and John Ritter all made appearances.

CBS canceled Hee Haw after the 1971-72 season. The network had tired of its rural image; also axed that year were The Beverly Hillbillies; Green Acres; Gomer Pyle, USMC; and Mayberry RFD. The producers wasted no time in finding a new home for the show. Hee Haw debuted in first-run syndication September 18, 1971. Most markets aired it Saturdays at 7:00 p.m., a time slot ceded to local stations as a result of the Federal Communications Commission's Prime Time Access Rule, which forbade off-network reruns on affiliates from 6:00-8:00 p.m. These stations needed programming, and Hee Haw was a pre-packaged, proven hit.

Hee Haw was so popular it spawned a spin-off in the fall of 1978. Hee Haw Honeys starred regulars Misty Rowe, Gailard Sartain, Lulu Roman, and Kenny Price, and young actress Kathie Lee Johnson, who would become better known by her married name, Kathie Lee Gifford. Their characters—Misty, Willie Billie, Lulu, Kenny, and Kathie Honey—are a Nashville family who own a country nightclub. Like its parent show Hee Haw Honeys featured musical guests and cornpone humor. It failed to match the older show's success, lasting only 26 episodes.

Hee Haw remained relatively unchanged until 1991. Slipping ratings inspired Gaylord Entertainment, the owners of the show, to revamp the format. Much of the cast was replaced. The old "Korn field" set was gone, and a new bright, modern stage appeared. The look was reminiscent of the 1980s pop music series Solid Gold. Longtime viewers felt angry and betrayed. Ratings fell precipitously, and the series was canceled. The last original Hee Haw aired May 30, 1992.

Though production ended, the series was far from gone. Reruns of the classic episodes began airing on the Nashville Network. Hee Haw quickly became one of the cable network's most popular offerings. A live stage version at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville brought the Korn field briefly back to life. Hee Haw is still treasured by fans of traditional country music and down-home, simple good times.

—David Hixson

Further Reading:

Beck, Ken. "Hee Haw Is Back—Packaged for the 90s." The Courier-Journal. January 9, 1997.

Bessman, Jim. "Hee Haw Returns on TV, Video, and in New Book." Billboard. November 23, 1996.

Lovullo, Sam, and Marc Eliot. Life in the Kornfield: My 25 Years at Hee Haw. New York, Boulevard Books, 1996.

Moses, Edward. " Hee Haw Gives Boot to Hillbilly Look: TV Show Faces 90s, Aging Market; Slow Sales Force Format Updating." Billboard. August 31, 1991.

Wohland, Chris. " Hee Haw Goes to Town: In Its 24th Season, the Country Variety Show Is Shucking the Cornfield for a New Suburban Image." The Atlanta Journal & Constitution. June 5, 1992.

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Hee Haw

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