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The year was 1965. The civil rights movement was at its peak and the Vietnam War was raging, but you wouldn’t have known it from CBS’s TV lineup.
That year, the network had five comedies set in the rural south. In nine of the 10 years of the 1960s, at least one CBS rural comedy was among the five highest-rated shows on TV.
In shows like The Beverly Hillbillies and The Andy Griffith Show, the virtually all-white characters went about their zany hijinks in a world seemingly removed from the era’s social unrest.
Journalist (and former 1A digital director) Gabe Bullard explains this part of the shows’ appeal:
When the newscasts were full of footage from My Lai and Saigon, from Selma and Birmingham, Americans looked for laughs in Hooterville. They sought them in Cornfield County, Pixley, and Mayberry. These were fictional rural places full of carefree, unencumbered country folks. There was no racial strife in these burgs because everyone was white. In these worlds, the sheriff didn’t carry a gun, a man could join the Marines and never talk about the war in Vietnam, and nobody even thought about the War on Poverty.
The end of that decade saw the debut of a show that would have more endurance than the rest. The variety show Hee Haw premiered in 1969, pairing musical guests with easy laughs from a cast that combined stereotypical, overall-wearing men with improbably made-up young women known as the “Hee Haw Honeys.”
The formula worked, and although CBS canceled it along with several other shows in 1971 — a move that has been called “the rural purge” — Hee Haw went on to air in syndication for another 22 years.
These shows left an indelible mark on American culture, helping to dispel negative stereotypes about the “uncivilized” rural poor while at the same time papering over genuine differences and painting an exaggerated and two-dimensional picture of the white working class.
Decades later, American TV audiences are still captivated by rural southerners, although they’re now often starring in reality shows.
We analyze these TV shows and the impact they’ve had on our ideas about rural southerners with Bullard, who has researched the topic, and tweeted extensively on the subject.
Produced by Bianca Martin. Text by Orion Donovan-Smith.
- Gabe Bullard Journalist; writer, Bitter Southerner; senior editor, WAMU; @gbullard
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