Paul Henning, who died this week at the age of 92, was one of the most underrated comic writers of our time. Henning began working in Hollywood in 1950 as a writer for the excellent George Burns and Gracie Allen Show. A hallmark of that pioneering TV comedy series was its cheerful absurdity–it went further in that direction than any other TV show of the time except possibly The Jack Benny Program. George would talk directly to the camera, 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 TV shows 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 those for two feature film satirical comedies, Lover Come Back and Bedtime Story.
However, the achievement for which he will be best—and justly—rememembered is the three 1960s sitcoms he created and produced: The Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction, and Green Acres. These three programs tracked the change of the United States from a rural nation to an urban one, and they considered 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 twig social enemies; it is clear that he was just looking at the world around him and finding it immensely funny. Anyone watching the program will do so as well, if in possession of any kind of a sense of humor. The show is being rerun on TVLand at present, I believe, and is well worth watching.
Petticoat Junction (1962-1970, canceled, along with Henning’s other shows, in a CBS purge of programs deemed as too rural and insufficiently swingin’ for late-’60s younguns—even though all three shows were still pulling very high ratings), 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, on the town make for some interesting social 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.
The capstone of Henning’s career, and his claim to greatness, is Green Acres (1965-1971). Telling the story of New York attorney Oliver Wendell Douglas, who moves his wealth- and status-conscious wife with him to live in blessed simplicity in Hooterville, Kansas, the program is, in my view, the funniest situation comedy on television ever. (Funniest show overall, in my opinion, was SCTV Comedy Network, for those who may be wondering.) I believe that Green Acres is currently running on TVLand. The first season is available on DVD.
Green Acres is simply pure comedy. Whatever was funny, went in, and whatever wasn’t, didn’t. From Fred Ziffel’s sarcasm to Lisa’s cluelessness to Oliver’s stubbornness to Mr. Haney’s greed to Hank Kimball’s indecisiveness 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 result in endless comic conflicts. Of course, much of this plays out in a highly satirical form that spoke not only to late-1960s culture but also has meaning today, but 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.
If you want to see the roots of Henning’s humor in Green Acres and his other programs, look to Ben Jonson, Moliere, and the like. Henning is not nearly on their level, of course, but he compares favorably to second-tier comic geniuses such as Holberg. His kind of humor is always refreshing and delightful, and I dearly wish there were more comic writers like him working today.