The death of actor Frank Cady, who played shopkeeper Sam Drucker on the classic 1960s television show “Green Acres,” gives me an opportunity to write about my all-time favorite American television program.
I humbly submit that “Green Acres” was the funniest, most entertaining, fascinating, eccentric, charming, subversive, bizarre, surreal and engaging program ever broadcast on U.S. television.
I was surprised to learn that Green Acres won high ratings during its six years on prime time (1965-1971). I suspect that the show went over the heads of many (perhaps most) of these faithful viewers.
Green Acres presented an entirely new paradigm for sitcoms – it created a world (Hooterville) that seemed to exist outside of the laws of logic and reality. There has never been a show remotely like it on the tube that I am aware of.
Having discovered the show in reruns (decades after it ran on prime time), I can only assess the show's value and characteristics in retrospect.
Paul Henning, who co-created Green Acres with Jay Sommers, had already developed the wildly successful sitcom “The Beverly Hillbillies” for the CBS network. Henning apparently proposed Green Acres as the “reverse” of the “Hillbillies.”
In that other show, a family of poor hillbillies from rural Tennessee headed by Jed Clampett find oil on their property, become unimaginably wealthy and move to a mansion in Southern California. In Green Acres, a wealthy and glamorous New York City couple, Oliver Wendell Douglas and his wife Lisa. move to a ramshackle farm in Hooterville.
But The Beverly Hillbillies was a fairly conventional show – the “comedy” on this show was generally driven by the Clampetts' complete inability (and/or refusal) to integrate into the lush lifestyles of the Beverly Hills super-rich. Indeed, their sudden huge wealth had no discernible impact on the Clampetts – they lived, talked and behaved as if they had never left their shack back in Tennessee. The Clampetts also misunderstood and/or misinterpreted almost everything they saw and heard.
Green Acres, in contrast, was anything but conventional.
The comedy on Green Acres was essentially driven by the complete lack of rhyme or reason in Hooterville and its homespun denizens.
Indeed, the show was filled with bizarre situations, confusing language, improbable plots, illogical motivations – all of it wrapped up in tight scripts that kept things moving quickly.
On the surface, Hooterville was an old-fashioned American farming village where the residents were hard-working and patriotic. But that was only a veneer – most Hootervillians did not really work that hard, nor did they know much about the outside world. They were also often selfish, lazy, greedy and ignorant.
It was also never clear where Hooterville was located – it might have been in the Midwest (the Pixley airport apparently made a connection in Chicago), or perhaps in the Deep South, or maybe far out west.
But it didn't really matter since Hooterville existed far outside the bounds of logic and reality. (One episode revealed that Hooterville is in the “Kangaroo State” – even though kangaroos were never native to any part of the U.S.)
The centerpiece of the show, Harvard-educated, patrician lawyer Oliver Wendell Douglas, moved to the rural Hooterville valley to escape the “rat race” (i.e, materialism, shallowness, venality, etc.) of Manhattan. But, with his upper-class attitudes and elegant clothes, he never really fit in with his fellow residents of Hooterville, nor did he understand what they were all about.
Ironically, his exotic Hungarian socialite wife Lisa – who was strongly opposed to moving to Hooterville in the first place and longed to return to Park Avenue -- actually fit in perfectly in the bizarre milieu of rural Americana (with her malapropisms, absence of reason and logic, etc.).
Indeed, Oliver Wendell Douglas (pretentiously named after the famed Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.), who espoused the joys of simple country living, failed to get along with any of his neighbors, nor did he ever learn about how to become a good farmer.
Moreover, while Oliver Wendell Douglas had a fraught and adversarial relationship with virtually every other character, Lisa was universally beloved and accepted (despite her total disengagement from the conventions of rural culture).
Perhaps the three most famous running gags on Green Acres was Arnold the talking pig (whom everyone but Oliver Wendell Douglas could understand); the telephone of top of the wooden pole; and Lisa's terrible hotcakes (the only meal she knew how to make). While these two gags were hilarious and created innumerable enjoyable situations, Green Acres had a multitude of other clever and wonderful running gags that paid repeatedly rich dividends over the seasons.
Here are some of my favorite ones:
*The opening credits of the show were visible to some of the characters (suggesting they were aware they were part of a fictional TV program). These credits (“written by,” “produced by”, etc.,) would sometimes appear on Lisa's hotcakes, on towels, on eggs, on newspaper headlines, or simply in mid-air (very Luigi Pirandello!).
*Not only could Arnold the pig could “talk,” but he watched (and understood) TV shows and movies (including even the intellectual cinema of Fellini); wrote and painted; went to school (where he's the top student), open and close doors; and is also regarded as the (human) son of his doting parents, Fred and Doris Ziffel.
*Oliver Wendell Douglas was constantly interrupted when he spoke, rendering him unable to finish complete sentences. Despite being a highly accomplished attorney, he would often become hilariously tongue-tied while talking.
*The incompetent carpenters, the Monroe brothers, were actually brother (Alf) and his “brother” (Ralph), who was actually his sister.
*The local con man/salesman, Mr. Haney (probably my very favorite character on the show) who was relentlessly, even cartoonishly, greedy and went to extraordinarily creative lengths to sell worthless pieces of junk to Mr. Douglas.
*Despite the fact that Oliver Wendell Douglas was generally a well-meaning, hard-working, sober, loyal, patriotic and faithful gentleman, he was constantly accused of being, among other things, a drunkard, a tax cheat, a philanderer, or even a criminal by many of his clueless neighbors.
*Whenever Oliver Wendell Douglas would make a patriotic speech celebrating rural life and American democracy, a fife and drum would play in the background (which, we, the audience, and some of the characters themselves, could hear).
*Hank Kimball, the county agent, was probably the most bizarre character on the show – even by Hooterville's twisted standards, Mr. Kimball was an utterly incomprehensible figure who could neither remember anything nor make a single cogent statement.
*Not only did the natives of Hooterville exist outside of reality, but they also seemed to live in the distant past (perhaps the 1920s). For example, in some episodes, the locals seemed to think Herbert Hoover was still president and that William Jennings Bryan was still alive. They also never heard of the federal income tax and listened to radio programs that had been canceled decades ago.
*Everyone seemed to know about the details of Oliver Wendell Douglas' history and daily life (information they couldn't possibly be aware of).
*The bizarre juxtaposition of Oliver and Lisa's elegant clothes and manners, amidst the searing dismal poverty of their house and farm.
*It was never clear how or where Oliver and Lisa met each other. In one episode, it was claimed they met aboard a transatlantic cruise line; another alleged they met in Hungary during World War II when U.S. soldier Oliver parachuted into enemy territory and came across Lisa, a Hungarian resistance fighter; yet another indicated ... well you get the idea.
*Mr. Haney's first name was either Eustace or Charlton (with a nephew named Heston). Plus, he may or may not have had a wife.
*Sarah, the operator of the Hooterville telephone company, was described as being the mother of Mr. Kimball, but later she was revealed to be the mother of overbearing farmer, Roy Trendell (then Trendell's surname suddenly became Wheeler).
*Eb Dawson, the Douglas' hired hand, not only continually challenged Mr. Douglas' authority and sanity, but also asserted that he was his “son” (in complicity with Lisa).
*Not only could most of Hooterville's residents speak with Arnold the pig, but they also enjoyed communications with virtually all other animals.
There were, of course, many other running gags that I have omitted. However, one general trend was that the show featured a complete lack of continuity (again, turning upside down the conventions of TV comedies).
Interestingly, Green Acres (which was broadcast during the late 1960s, a time of cultural turmoil and social ferment in the U.S.), made references (both explicit and indirect) to some of the major events of those tumultuous times. While the show never mentioned Vietnam (which the censors would likely forbid), Green Acres somehow got around these restrictions by referring to the hippie movement, LBJ, student protests on campus, draft boards, the womens' liberation movement and environmentalism.
But none of this was done in a heavy-handed nor plodding, prosaic way as later shows would.
Indeed, one of my favorite segments of Green Acres featured a governor of the state that Hooterville was located in that was clearly a spoof of Ronald Reagan, then the governor of California. The governor in question, played by real-life former Hollywood actor Lyle Talbot (essentially playing himself) seemed more interested in reminiscing about his film career than running the affairs of government. It is doubtful that most viewers understood the reference to Reagan.
Despite continued high ratings, Green Acres' tenure ended in the early 1970s when CBS apparently sought to “upgrade” its image by getting rid of its “rural comedies” (like Green Acres, as well as The Beverly Hillbillies and Gomer Pyle, USMC), in order to highlight ground-breaking new shows like All in the Family and MASH, among others.
But CBS executives clearly failed to realize that Green Acres – in defiance of its rustic and rural patina – was probably the hippest, coolest show ever on the air, They, like many viewers, never fully appreciated nor 'got' the underlying originality and brilliance of the show.