May 11, 2022

The "It's About TV" Interview: in Daniel R. Budnik, author of From Beverly Hills To Hooterville: Exploring TV's Henningverse 1962-1971

You'll probably recognize our guest from his fantastic podcast Eventually Supertrain, which I've been pleased to appear on many times over the years, but he has also authored several books, including the book we're here to talk about today, From Beverly Hills To Hooterville: Exploring TV's Henningverse 1962-1971. And so, without further delay, Mystery Guest, will you enter and sign in, please?

[Thunderous applause]

Thank you, Mitchell, and hello everyone. I’m Daniel R. Budnik. Call me Dan. I’m a writer and podcaster. I’ve written fiction. But, I’m mainly known for writing about TV and movies. I have a book on 1980s horror and 1980s action. And they are delightful. But here, we’re going to talk all about Paul Henning and his three big shows of the 1960s. Or, at least, we’re going to talk about my book about those shows and Mr. H.

The book
It's About TV: I think most people who visit this site will recognize the shows that Paul Henning created: in order, The Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction, and Green Acres. For someone my age, they were a staple of CBS's lineup when I was growing up. (Which is one reason I loved the book.) That wouldn't have been the case for a whippersnapper like you, though. So how did you discover them?

Dan Budnik: Rick Mitz’s The Great TV Sitcom Book really hates Henning’s 1960s sitcoms. That book was a sitcom Bible for me (3rd edition) until I got Eisner and Krinsky’s Television Comedy Series. Those two loved The Beverly Hillbillies and adored Green Acres. So, when a station in 1985 (CBN) started showing Acres, I gave it a try. CBN were showing the series (more or less) in order. And they were near the end of the 6th season. I watched a few episodes and I just loved it. It made me laugh. It made me smile. I thought it was intelligent. And I wanted to watch it more. (Get Smart was the main 1960s show from that time that I had similar feeling about but that always got rotten syndication in Rochester. NY.) Then, WTBS started showing the Hillbillies and I fell in love. The laughs from Acres. The serialization and satire from Hillbillies. Always gave them a place n my heart. In the mid-1990s when Columbia House released Acres on VHS, I bought every tape. Junction came later. I first watched it on DVD. But, those two others were very important to me in the world of sitcoms from early on..

Introduce us to this fictional "Henningverse" that Paul Henning created? How did he come up with the idea, where did he start, how did he add to it?

To me, it began when Paul decided to make Bea Benaderet the lead in Junction. She played Cousin Pearl in Season 1 of the Hillbillies. Having an actress who was so familiar in a role (in a #1 TV show) and then giving her another important role, I feel like that stuck in people’s minds. And then, when Acres was created, it made sense to set it in Hooterville. Then, as time went on, it made sense to bring the Hillbillies characters into Hooterville. And that, suddenly, gave us a world, an integrated universe. Of course, the people on Acres used to watch the Hillbillies on TV. So, how does that all fit in? You got me. But, I have theories. 

Although the three shows were all victims of CBS's rural purge, each has a distinct personality from the rest--they're not just cookie cutter clones. What makes the three shows different in a way that, say, the Warner Bros. detective shows of the early '60s aren't?

So, the Hillbillies, at its best, is beautiful satire. Some of it is dated, obviously. But much of it still holds true. It is a “fish out of water” show but with one advantage. These fish, the Clampetts, are richer than almost everyone else. Because of that, the people in the world they now a part of treat them as superior. Almost as royalty. Then, all of them get confused when they find hillbillies at the big, big mansion on the hill. At it worst, the show comes off as a bit dumb. But, generally, it is funny, and the serialization makes it rather modern. There are no reset switches thrown. If something happens, if someone appears, they probably will be back. And it probably will continue the story.

Petticoat Junction, apart from Season 2, is a standard 1960s sitcom. Sometimes there’s continuity, sometimes there isn’t. Sometimes characters act within their characters, sometimes they act weird. But, if you like the setting ad the basic characters when they act like themselves, you will enjoy the show. It’s not as funny nor as sharp as the others but it sure can be fun.

Green Acres starts off relatively normal but highly serialized and very funny. At some point, Jay Sommers and Dick Chevillat (the main writers) decided to go a bit crazy. They decided to indulge all their comedy whims. And the show goes surreal, the show goes screwy, the show becomes really, really funny. Making it such a different beast from the other two.

And of course, John Charles Daly introduces the first episode of Acres, which explains why I started off our interview as a kind of homage. [Both laughSo where did the idea for the book come from?

I was pitching ideas for my next book after 80s Action Movies on The Cheap. I like to come up with about seven or eight ideas. Right before that. I had started watching Hillbillies and Junction in tandem, as aired. I thought “This might make a fun podcast.” As I pitched books, I added, as the last entry, a book on the Henningverse, which I just made up. I had a lot of great book ideas. But, the publisher wanted the Hennigverse book. So, I spent the next 1 ½ years writing it. They rejected it. And I published it through Throckmorton Press.*

*Full disclosure: Throckmorton Press is also my publisher, as well.

This is a big book, that you can just pick up and start at a random point and be drawn into it. Tell us a little about how the book works.

You can start from where you want. To me, some folks buying it would prefer one show to another. And they’d skip around to the shows they wanted. Hopefully, later on, they’d read it all. Or you can start at the beginning and go. It’s a journey. It’s a very meticulous journey. It’s a step-by-step journey. But it is rewarding. If you chose to jump through randomly, remember that the book is cumulative. If you read an early Hillbillies review where I don’t mention the name of their hometown, I haven’t done that because the show hadn’t named it yet. (It’s "Bug Tussle.") So, please, don’t feel like the book is inept because of its structure. You need to read the intro before you dive in. The book learns as the creators tell us. Once you are conversant with how the book works, do whatever you want. Read a page and then eat it. I don’t care. That’s your thing. I don’t judge.

Was there any other addition to the Henningverse that he never had the chance to explore?

I think once Junction ended in 1970 (and it was supposed to end the year before) that fractured the Henningverse. Hillbillies was close to Junction and Junction was close to Acres. On Acres, Hillbillies was almost more fictional than "real." I think once Junction went away there was no way we were all going to get together as we did previously, although they were still technically together. Part of me wishes, Junction had gone on longer. But, as I think it’s the weakest of the shows, it was right to end when it did.

Do you have a favorite of the three shows? And do you have a favorite episode from each one?

Green Acres is my favorite. And it’s my favorite because it does a tricky thing. Back in 1986, when I was 13, I was watching the show. And I had a subscription to a magazine called Reruns, which focused on classic TV. (At the same time, I got TV Guide every week and was focusing on current TV. The moment one realizes that they can’t truly focus on all of it (from The Goldbergs to The Goldbergs) is a big moment. I realized that in late 1987. I ran away into music and horror/ exploitation films for some time after that.) In the back of Reruns were ads. From one of those ads, I ordered script copies of TV shows from a nice couple somewhere in the U.S. I ordered several Acres scripts from them. And I asked, at age 13, which show do you prefer, Hillbillies or Acres? The couple wrote back “Acres. Because of the relationship between Oliver and Lisa. No matter how crazy things got, they loved each other.” In the three shows, including Bettie Jo and Steve, there is no closer relationship than Oliver and Lisa. Their show was the funniest, but it was also the most human in some respects. Keeping it so screwy and yet keeping that relationship real isn’t easy. Acres did it. That’s why it’s my favorite.

Junction favorite episodes: Either "Cannonball Christmas" or "The Curse of Chester W. Farnsworth." 

Hillbillies: "The Clampetts In Court." Because I think it’s the perfect encapsulation of what the show does best. Email me for another 10 episodes.

Green Acres: "Love Meets Arnold Ziffel," or "Lisa’s Vegetable Garden," or "Kimball Gets Fired." There are too many to name.

Where, in fact, is Hooterville? I've read many theories, but nobody seems to know for sure.

It’s near Chicago. That’s all I can gauge. Probably in Illinois. Maybe near Springfield, where the Simpsons live. But, I don’t really know where they live either.

I was talking recently with David Hofstede, who runs the blog Comfort TV, about what vintage television shows can provide us during these--I don't want to lapse into cliche, but I will--turbulent times. Do the shows of the Henningverse provide the same benefit?

I think Junction can provide great comfort if you get into the groove of it. Of the three, it’s the most “regular” sitcom. It’s a woman raising her three kids and trying to run a small country hotel. Apart from Season 2, which is quite funny and rather odd, it’s a sweet and almost simple show. Occasionally it goes topical and, occasionally, it embarrasses itself by doing so. But, if you can get into the world, it’s seven seasons of fun.

Hillbillies is sharp satire, at its best, that can still work today. It helps that it’s a very funny show. But there are times when it goes down odd rabbit holes, especially in its last two seasons. And those might be more exasperating to people than comforting. Can I just say one word? “Frogmen.”

Green Acres is one of my favorite TV shows of all time. (Did I mention that?) Pop in almost any episode and it will make you laugh and, possibly, calm you down. It’s a good show to take you out of the world for a while. And it does what it says it’s going to: it makes you laugh. And it brings you back again, because it did fulfill that promise. 

The best shows are the ones that fulfill their promise. The sitcom that makes you laugh. (Or in the case of a show like My Favorite Martian, a sitcom that is clever and imaginative.) An action show that thrills you. A detective show steeped in good mysteries. That’s all I want. You give me one episode of one these shows that succeeds and I will return. And if you give me several or quite a few, I will buy your Complete Series boxset or hunt down all the episodes. I think there are many that fail. I think the members of the Henningverse succeed, some better than others. But they do. (And, not to be self-serving, Junction works better in tandem with the rest of the Henningverse than it does alone.)

The author

We know there are people out there who, for whatever reason—they've got recency bias, or they don't like black-and-white shows and movies; they're think they're not cool, even though Green Acres was always in color and Hillbillies and Junction were mostly in color
and they're like, "Why should I be bothered with these old TV shows?" What do you say to them?

One of the areas of pop culture I’ve written about quite a bit is a realm some might call the region of the “bad movie.” Or the movie that doesn’t meet blockbuster expectations. And so many times over the past 15 years or so, I’ve been asked or challenged about why one would watch these movies? (Except to laugh at them.) I’m happy to say that I have fought the good fight valiantly and have convinced some people to watch these things even though they aren’t huge, expensive epics. Some will never care or try. But, quite a few people will. And quite a few like it.

Now with TV, it is different because so much of what people watch nowadays is serialized. And the weird thing is I don’t think it has anything to do with age. My Mom was born in Eastern Europe in the late 1940s. She loves Lucy but she never watches any other old shows. She just watches new shows. My stepdad was the same way, apart from Sanford and Son. If I went to visit them and suggested we watch some Hillbillies or Acres, they might say “Sure,” watch an episode and then return to Ice City Truckers or something set in a pawn shop. 

As if that's more real-life than Hooterville.

[Laughs] Or they might wonder why bother? It’s an old show. They make new shows. Why watch old shows? That is the attitude of almost all of the older members of my family. So, if the older members don’t care, why on Earth would the younger members care? I think the people who watch older shows are becoming more and more a select few. I don’t think it’s a dislike for the older shows. It’s just a “Why? Would I bother? I’ve only a certain amount of time in the day and I’d prefer to watch new shows.” I can’t argue with that. The only thing I can do is appeal to the quality of some of the older shows. I mean, there are plenty of bad old shows. Plenty of them. But the best ones should be watched and should continue to be watched. With people that I feel might try an older show, I’ll pick episodes very carefully and try to introduce them. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. But, when it does, it’s awesome. I knew when I wrote a book on the Henningverse it would appeal to a very small group and maybe annoy some others. In the end, I may have written the book for myself. It’s exactly the guide I want to have to these three shows. My complaint? Needs a better index. (I would like to apologize to myself for not having a better index. At this time, Amazon does not allow books over 800 pages. If I put in the complete index I wanted, the book would have been very close to (or over) that allotment. So, I kept it simple.)

Paul Henning
Where are the pictures? You know me
—all these words make my brain hurt. 

That was the original publisher’s idea. They pointed out that the cost of acquiring rights to a decent amount of photos would cost more money than I would make from the book. They suggested that I don’t include photos. I agreed. I do hope that everyone either knows what the main characters look like or don’t mind hopping on Google to find the images.

What's your next project?

I was interested in doing something related to more American shows from this time period. But, my encounters with the Henningverse Gatekeepers have stopped me there. (I won’t go into detail. But, they’re all men. They all claimed to have watched the shows when they originally aired. They don’t know why someone who wasn’t alive when the shows aired has written this book. They’re arrogant. They’re unpleasant. And, when questioned, they’re always wrong.) So, my next best is going to be a Doctor Who book. Reviewing each episode, like the Henningverse book. But, after each story/ serial, I will be including a postscript relating my personal experiences with the show from 1981 to the most recent episode, which aired on Easter. And also I will include some stories and remembrances regarding the history of the show, which some people may have forgotten. It’s going to be hefty but I think it’s going to be fun.

l  l  l

As I often said about Eventually Supertrain, I hope you all had as much fun reading this as we did doing it. My thanks to Dan, not only for From Beverly Hills To Hooterville: Exploring TV's Henningverse 1962-1971, but for his time today, and his friendship. If this book isn't already on your classic TV bookshelf, make room for it. TV  

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

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Thanks for writing! Drive safely!