The television comedy writer-producer Paul Henning, who died last week at the age of 92, was one of the most underrated comic writers of our time. His accomplishments included the creation and production of three of the most popular TV comedies in recent memory: The Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction, and Green Acres. Henning has never been a critical darling (quite the contrary actually), and the public did not know his name, but his work bears remembering. It will last because it was both raucously funny and slyly insightful.
Henning began working in Hollywood in 1950 as a writer for the excellent George Burns and Gracie Allen Show. A hallmark of that pioneering series was its cheerful absurdity–it went further in that direction than any of its colleagues, except possibly The Jack Benny Program. George would talk directly to the camera, the narrative would shift realities abruptly, and Gracie would get the pair into the most insane escapades possible. Their dialogue together, with George patiently trying to make sense of Gracie’s bizarre leaps of logic and ridiculous misunderstandings of simple language, is classic comedy. The show remains entertaining even when watched today.
During the rest of the 1950s, Henning went on to write for situation comedies featuring Dennis Day, Ray Bolger, Bob Cummings, and Walter Brennan. He also wrote the script for one of the best early Andy Griffith Show episodes (“Crime-Free Mayberry,” 1961) and the screenplays for two feature film satirical comedies: Lover Come Back and Bedtime Story.
However, those three 1960s sitcoms he created and produced–The Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction, and Green Acres–will remain his best remembered–and justly so. These programs tracked the change of the United States from a rural nation to an urban one, and they displayed what was gained and lost, through zany comedy reminiscent of Robert Benchley and S. J. Perelman.
The concept of The Beverly Hillbillies (1962-1971) is well-known, of course, but what is perhaps insufficiently appreciated is the level of satire the show achieved. It is difficult to say which is more ridiculous: the naive folk culture of the Clampett family, or the insane greed and status consciousness of their Beverly Hills neighbors. No matter, for Henning was not using the show to score political points or flog social enemies; it is clear that he was just looking at the world around him and finding it immensely funny. Anyone watching the program today will do so as well–if he possesses of any kind of a sense of humor.
As with Henning’s other programs, the characters depicted in The Beverly Hillbillies were almost exclusively ridiculous comic types, and Henning’s refusal to dilute the comedy with psychological complexity has prevented critics from embracing his work. However, those characters and story lines caught some of the most important social trends of the decade and exaggerated them to point out their fundamental absurdity. The decline of moral standards in the nation, for example, was reflected clearly in the program, as the morally conservative elders of the family watched the younger generation race after social acceptance by following trends such as the rise of the rock music culture, the power fantasies of the ’60s espionage fiction boom, ghastly fashion trends, and animal rights.
Audiences of the time loved the Hillbillies, and it was one of the highest-rated programs on television throughout its run. The show is being rerun on TVLand at present, and remains well worth watching. It is also available on numerous DVDs.
Petticoat Junction (1962-1970) took place in the bucolic, small town of Hooterville, Kansas. Here the folk culture is the norm, and it is portrayed as charming but often stupid and insane, and the incursions of the modern world, and in particular modern culture, make for some interesting satire. The concept of the program was not nearly as strong as that of The Beverly Hillbillies, but it has the advantage of being rather more pleasant to watch, as the characters are not as disturbed as those of the earlier show. (It was canceled, along with Henning’s other shows, in a CBS purge of programs deemed too rural and insufficiently swingin’ for late-’60s young-uns–even though all three were still pulling very high ratings at the time.)
The capstone of Henning’s career is Green Acres (1965-1971), which is the story of New York attorney Oliver Wendell Douglas, a disenchanted man who moves with his wealth- and status-conscious wife, Lisa, to Hooterville, Kansas, a community of blessed tranquility. The program is, in my view, the funniest situation comedy on television ever. (The funniest show overall, in my estimation, was SCTV Comedy Network, for those who may be wondering.) Green Acres is currently running on TVLand, and the first two seasons are available on DVD.
Green Acres is simply pure comedy. Whatever was funny went in, and whatever was not, did not–from Fred Ziffel’s sarcasm to Lisa’s domestic cluelessness to Oliver’s stubbornness to Mr. Haney’s greed to Hank Kimball’s indecisiveness to Eb’s attention deficit to Arnold Ziffel’s unexpected genius and on and gloriously on. The show’s effect was based on the comedy of humors, of characters whose differing personality types and social backgrounds result in endless comic conflicts. Much of this played out in a highly satirical form that spoke not only to late-1960s culture, but also to today culture. The finest thing about the show is that the satire is organic, arising directly from the characters and situations, not forced upon a structure that cannot handle it.
The roots of Henning’s humor in Green Acres and his other programs are visible in the plays of Ben Jonson, Moliere, and the other great comic authors who created intense satire through the use of extremely simple, stereotyped characterizations–even going back to Aristophanes. Henning is not nearly on their level, of course, but he compares favorably to second-tier comic geniuses such as Ludvig Holberg and the team of Beaumont and Fletcher. Henning’s brand of humor is always refreshing and delightful, and I dearly wish there were more comic writers–and thinkers–like him working today.
–S. T. Karnick is an associate fellow of the Sagamore Institute for Policy Research and editor of The Reform Club.