Whenever I look back at number-one-rated shows from the past, there’s always one that puzzles me: “The Beverly Hillbillies.”
I can understand why “I Love Lucy,” “Gunsmoke,” “All in the Family” and “Happy Days” were all massive hits. But why was “The Beverly Hillbillies” such a huge blockbuster?
In the 1962-1964 era, about a third of all households were tuned to the show. That’s the modern equivalent of 30 Super Bowls a year for two years.
I actually remember when it came on -- and knew even then it was kind of dumb. As an adult I've been wondering if perhaps my memory was wrong, and maybe it was better than I remembered. After all, when I now watch its contemporary, “The Andy Griffith Show,” I appreciate it in a way I never did as a child.
Well, thanks to the miracle of Amazon Prime, I am now able to watch all the old “Beverly Hillbilly” episodes I want. But be careful what you wish for; when I recently streamed a few shows, I realized it was even worse than my recollection. I had to turn it off after a handful of episodes.
The premise of the series is that a family of simple Appalachian mountain folk (the Clampetts) strike it rich when oil is discovered on their land. They move to Beverly Hills, where they experience culture conflict with their more traditionally wealthy and snooty neighbors.
Jeffrey Melton, an associate professor of American Studies at the University of Alabama, points out that this is a “one-joke” show -- and boy, is he right. In episode after episode, the alleged humor is derived from the Clampetts’ extreme naiveté and lack of understanding of modern cultural norms. Thus the swimming pool is called the “cement pond” and the pool table in the billiards room is construed to be some kind of special dining table -- complete with bumpers to prevent spillage and a glued-on felt table cloth. Ha-ha.
A secondary source of humor on the show is that the young characters -- the daughter Elly May and the nephew Jethro -- are ideal specimens of physical beauty but have no sexual desire themselves and don’t pick up on the va-va-va-voom impact they’re having on others. Elly May, a country girl who’s lived among animals all her live, supposedly doesn’t know “the facts of life,” and Jethro is about the only virile 20something in the United States who is consistently obtuse when beautiful women are coming on to him.
Professor Melton makes the case that the “Beverly Hillbillies” was so popular because it embodies “The American Joke” that has preoccupied American humorists for centuries: the gap between the ideals of equality espoused by politicians since the Declaration of Independence and the reality of how American society has turned out. The joke is, while we purport to believe that all men are created equal, we yet strive mightily to enhance our status and climb a ladder that theoretically doesn’t exist.
To that end, “The Beverly Hillbillies” mixes together the very lowest socioeconomic class with the very highest. And lo and behold, the rich are as clueless as the Clampetts, with stuffy uncomprehending butlers, vain wives and their own ridiculous behaviors.
This would have resonated in the more egalitarian ’60s, when the U.S, boasted a vast middle class; in a monoculture worshipping the new suburban lifestyle, people could laugh harmlessly at both their social inferiors and their nominal social betters.
The problem in a one-joke show, though, is that the inability of the characters to understand each other goes on and on, episode after episode. No matter how many years the Clampetts live in Beverly Hills, they never learn a thing and are always surprised by the most basic aspect of modern life. And their neighbors never seem to be able to explain anything to them — like how a gas stove works.
My real frustration with the Clampetts is that they aren’t the sly country bumpkins of most rural humor. It’s much funnier when a hayseed is underestimated by a snob and then turns out to be wiser than expected. Not here. The humor always depends on Clampetts being dumber.
Once you know about the theory of “The American Joke” you can see it everywhere: in soap opera dramas like “Dallas,” “Empire,” “Gossip Girl,” and “Billions” and comedies like “The Jeffersons,” “Arrested Development,” and “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.” As believers in the American dream, we long to be rich ourselves, but are gratified to see that wealth doesn’t bring happiness.
What we will not see today, however, is a show that outright mocks hillbilly culture. Ever since the movie “Deliverance,” hillbillies have seemed dangerous. On “Justified” and “Ozark” for example, they are outright frightening. And knowing what we know now about that culture from J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy,” it would be kicking a vulnerable population in crisis while they’re down to make fun of hillbillies these days.
Nope, it’s always safer to mock the rich. Let’s watch “Succession” instead.