It's odd to think that a native of Canada created one of the most quintessentially American programs ever to air on television, one that celebrated the rough-hewn, folksy humor of the rural South and the musical genre that its people loved.
But Frank Peppiatt, who died on Nov. 7 at age 85 in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., proved that you didn't have to be a good ol' boy to be a countrified hit-maker. Hee Haw, the comedy-music variety program that Peppiatt and his partner John Aylesworth created in 1969, ran for two seasons on CBS and then had a remarkable 22-year run in syndication. Its 600 episodes made it one of the most enduring successes in the history of television. "Hee Haw was a show that the two coasts didn't get at all, but the rest of America embraced it," TV historian Tim Brooks told the Los Angeles Times.
Here are five fascinating facts about Peppiatt and the TV classic that he created:
- Hee Haw's producers were city slickers. Peppiatt, wh0 was born in Toronto, and Aylesworth, a fellow Canadian, had never even been to the American South before they dreamed up the series. They got their start in the United States writing for The Andy Williams Show in 1959, and in the late 1960s they produced The Jonathan Winters Show. They got the idea for their "country-variety" show when they watched Winters doing a comedy bit with comedian Cliff Arquette, who had created a country-bumpkin character named Charley Weaver. They then looked at the Nielsen ratings and saw that Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In and The Beverly Hillbillies were two of the top-ranked shows. "We wondered what kind of show would combine both elements," Peppiatt told the Los Angeles Times in 1970.
- CBS cancelled Hee Haw even though it was a huge hit. The show ranked in the Nielsen top 20 back in 1971, but that didn't save it from being axed by CBS, which decided to purge The Beverly Hillbillies, Mayberry R.F.D. and other country-flavored shows from its lineup as well. But Peppiatt and Aylesworth quickly cut a deal to syndicate the show, and it took on a second life that was far longer than the first. When the show's run ended in 1993, it had 3.5 million viewers in 140 local TV markets - an audience bigger than some of today's hit cable TV series.
- Some of Hee Haw's funniest moments never made it on the air. According to a 1993 Associated Press article, in one un-aired segment, Archie Campbell's toupee fell off - shocking most of the people on the set, who didn't know he wore one. In another excised moment, the cameras caught slow-talking comedian Junior Samples falling asleep and snoring on stage.
- The humor was corny, but the music was great. Before the advent of CMT, country's version of MTV, Hee Haw was just about the only place to hear the genre. DVDs of old Hee Haw episodes are still popular sellers, in part because the program showcased such classic country greats as Merle Haggard, George Jones, Conway Twitty, and Tammy Wynette. (It also helped to launch such contemporary stars as Alabama, Garth Brooks, and Reba McEntire. Co-host guitarist-singer Buck Owens, though better known for playing a country rube on the show, was a pioneer of the "Bakersfield sound," a raw, electrified variation of traditional country that inspired artists ranging from Dwight Yoakam to Brad Paisley.
- Hee Haw had one pretty important fan, sort of. Former President George H.W. Bush let slip in a 1988 interview with the New York Times' Maureen Dowd that he had liked the show, though he was unaware that it was still on TV at the time.
Here's a clip of Hee Haw stars Buck Owens and Roy Clark doing their regular "pickin' and grinnin'" segment, in which many of the jokes customarily were written by Peppiatt.