HeeHawcoverGrade: B/B-
Entire family: Yes
1969-71, 369 min. (5 episodes), Color
Not rated (would be G despite some innuendo)
Time Life
Aspect ratio: 1.33:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono
Bonus features: B-
“Pfft You Was Gone” clip

The hay-day (sorry, bad pun) of rural comedy on American TV was between 1960, when The Andy Griffith Show debuted, and 1971, when all of them were put out to pasture. The novelty of The Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction, Gomer Pyle: USMC, Green Acres, and Mayberry R.F.D. had worn off, so it was no surprise that in 1971 CBS also cancelled Hee Haw—a country version of Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.

But like the Grand Ole Opry, this corny variety show, which debuted in 1969 and featured a group of talented regulars and some of the top country stars of the time, had a life of its own. It became an institution, going into syndication and lasting nearly another 20 years.

Hee Haw managed to have it both ways, featuring characters and jokes that celebrated rural life, but also poked fun of rural stereotypes. You’ll see nostalgic, folksy segments that lament the loss of cracker barrel philosophers, with Archie Campbell playing a barber and regaling customers with stories, Grandpa Jones and Junior Samples doing the same at Gordie’s General Store, or Stringbean reading a letter from home. Always it was a tall tale modernized or a long simmering lead-in to a corny punch line. Yet there were also recurring segments featuring not-too-bright farmer’s daughters in short-shorts or the country equivalent of mini-dresses, and a recurring sketch about barefooted moonshiners in overalls lying in the front yard next to a jug and a bloodhound. In fact, Junior Samples, with his slow-witted and deliberately speaking persona, was the anti-sophisticate, and darned proud of it. Put Junior in a Shakespeare sketch (as they often did) or making a used car commercial and it was instant laughs.

Hee_HawLaugh-In was hosted by a comic duo. Hee Haw’s hosts were musicians first and comedians second, which fit the corny concept just fine. Roy Clark, best known for his instrumental work on banjo, guitar, and mandolin, first appeared on the Grand Ole Opry at the age of 17. Buck Owens was a popular country singer and band leader whose best-known songs were “Act Naturally,” “Together Again,” and “Tiger by the Tail.” The pair appeared to have fun together and provided the perfect anchor for a boatload of sketches and musical numbers. Buck and Roy started each show with a rendition of “Hee Haw” and at some point did a vaudeville-style routine called “Pickin’ and Grinnin’” that strung jokes together with musical riffs. They also did at least one solo per episode.

Though the humor could be adult, the show was obviously intended for families because kids were included in some sketches and the show relied on animated farm animals to add to the laughs. One minute the audience could be enjoying some serious guitar-playing from Clark, and the next minute a chorus line of pigs would be dancing across the screen while he’s playing, lightening the mood. 

I saw Laugh-In recently and I have to say that except for the nostalgia factor the catch phrases and rapid-fire gags really don’t hold up as well as Hee Haw. I guess it’s because corny jokes never go out of style. They’ll always produce groans from adults and giggles from the kids. The cornfield and fencerow jokes will get the most repeat play, but even ones that surface during the crackerbarrel storytelling will tickle those with sensitive funny bones.

Did you know the only man was who got his work done by Friday?
Robinson Crusoe

I crossed an owl and a firefly.
What’d you get?
I don’t know, but it sleeps with the light on.

At Gordie’s store: What killed him?
Liquor and women.
Once he got too old for both he just lay down and died.

His wife used to be a pretty good banjo player too, but now she just stays home and picks on him.

Did you have any luck frog huntin’ last night?
I’ll say I did. I fired the gun only twice and two hundred of ‘em croaked.

HeeHawscreenUnlike Laugh-In, the emphasis was on variety, and that meant some serious performances from some seriously big-name country-western talents. This three-DVD Hee Haw Collection from Time Life features five complete episodes from the CBS years and three highlight compilations. Among the guests are Tammy Wynette (“Ways to Love a Man”), Merle Haggard (“Okie from Muskogee”), Conway Twitty (“Hello Darlin’”), Loretta Lynn (“I Wanna Be Free”), Donna Fargo (“Funny Face”), Charlie Rich (“I Take It on Home”), Tennessee Ernie Ford (“I’ll Fly Away”), Dottie West (“Silver Threads and Golden Needles”), and Hank Williams, Jr. (“Cajun Baby”).

Hee Haw was intended for rural audiences and fans of country music, and that’s still the audience for this classic show. If you don’t like country, you won’t hee-haw much. But it’s hard even for hardcore urbanites not to grin when Archie Campbell and Gordie Tapp assume an “American Gothic” pose and sing a verse about a woman who left, with the punchline chorus, “Where, oh where, are you tonight? Why did you leave me here all alone? I searched the world over and I thought I’d found true love, You met another and PFFT! you was gone.”

The Hee Haw Collection will be available in stores on September 8. Fans can order an 11-episode, eight DVD collection from Time Life.

Language: Clean as a whistle
Violence: Nothing to see here
Adult situations: Some adult humor hiding among the corny jokes, mostly innuendo
Takeaway: Corny humor trumps topical humor, at least when it comes to staying funny.