April 09, 1988|BRETT J. BLACKLEDGE | Associated Press GUTHRIE, OK
There is a special blend as potent as Tennessee moonshine that is responsible for the 20-year success of the syndicated country variety show "Hee Haw."
The Nashville-produced program, ridiculed by national TV critics after its first broadcast, has survived cancellation by CBS, the loss of major cast members and the general decline of network variety show. In fact, "Hee Haw" has outlasted every other variety show in television history, surpassing "The Lawrence Welk Show" in September with more than 1 billion viewers in two decades.
Cast members who were with the show in the days when it was taped in a one-room Nashville news studio say it has exceeded all expectations because of its down-home, country hospitality.
"I don't think the public cares if we do the same thing over and over again," said Minnie Pearl, an original cast member. "I think they're more interested in visiting with us."
"The audience knows we like them," said George Lindsey, a 16-year "Hee Haw" veteran who brought his popular "Goober" character to the show when "Mayberry R.F.D." was canceled. "They know that we're their friends. I think they're almost doing it with us."
Lindsey and Pearl are featured with other cast members and fellow country music entertainers in a special two-hour 20th-anniversary tribute to the series to be broadcast between April 15 and May 8.
Other cast members appearing on the special include Cathy Baker, Marianne Rogers, Misty Rowe, Grandpa Jones, Gailard Sartain, Gordie Tapp, Dub Taylor and Buck Owens, who left the show two years ago after 18 years as co-host.
Featured guests include George Jones, Conway Twitty, Barbara Mandrell, Kathy Mattea, Charley Pride, Kenny Rogers, Ricky Skaggs and Highway 101.
The special, taped before a live audience March 30 at the Lazy E Arena in Guthrie, gave original cast members and fellow country music artists a chance to catch up on each other's lives.
"It's really like a family reunion," said Roy Clark, who has been co-host of the show since its first broadcast. "We see how fat everybody's gotten and how many new babies there are."
During rehearsals for the show, Tanya Tucker, who first appeared on the program at age 14, got autographs from performers and cast members. Loretta Lynn, who was featured on the first "Hee Haw," had pictures taken with many fellow artists. And Clark spent much of his time between stage calls exchanging stories with guests and cast members.
Sam Lovullo, the program's producer since its pilot in 1969, believes that there is a simple reason "Hee Haw" has been successful: "The people on the show make it fun. It's got a little bit of everything for everybody in the audience."
There were no formalities and no tempers lost when taping the anniversary special, despite the complexity of weaving 15 major country music acts into the program's basic format of hillbilly humor.
Clark found time between sketches to rattle off jokes to the live audience or to coerce the band into joining him in a song to pass the time, Minnie Pearl rushed to kiss a man in the audience after he complimented her performance in a sketch, and Ray Stevens cast off problems with his song by stopping in mid-verse with a joke.
The concept for "Hee Haw" was developed by Canadians John Aylesworth and Frank Peppiatt, who offered the series to CBS when their "Jonathan Winters Show" was canceled in 1968.
CBS asked for a 12-week pilot of the show to air in the summer of 1969 and put it in its regular season lineup in 1970. But the network canceled "Hee Haw" and several other top-rated country-oriented programs in 1971 to make room for shows aimed at a younger, urban audience.
Six months later, "Hee Haw" went into syndication, and its 26 shows a year are now carried by 220 stations.
Hee Haw's 20th Anniversary Show (1988) (TV)
Cast: Roy Clark, George Jones, Conway Twitty, Barbara Mandrell, Kathy Mattea, Charley Pride, Kenny Rogers, Ricky Skaggs