In transitioning from a big town to a small town, I’ve been thinking back on the rich history of television comedies about this topic. Comedy emerges from contrasts and conflicts. You can have stories where the main characters bring rural values to the city, like in The Beverly Hillbillies or Gomer Pyle, USMC, but it’s usually funnier the other way around. Better comedy comes from having city folks move to the country. The big-towners think they have life figured out, and they endure misadventures while being forced to readjust. Viewers can delight as the artificial assuredness of the new residents is upset, their pomposity is punctured, their snobbishness skewered.
The first show of this kind that I liked was Green Acres. In that show, which ran from 1965 to 1971, a couple from NYC buy a rundown farm in Hooterville. Jay Sommers, the main writer, re-tooled it from an earlier radio show he did called Granby’s Green Acres. At first it’s the husband’s idea to give up city life, and his wife doesn’t want to. Once they arrive in the country, she decides she will do whatever she can to bring grace and culture to their new surroundings. Eva Gabor played the wife as a glamorous ditz, sort of an upper-class, Hungarian version of Gracie Allen. Eddie Albert farms in three-piece suits and makes patriotic speeches that cause “Yankee Doodle” to be played as underscore. Other characters hear the music, but he can’t.
The show shared some aspects and characters from the world of Petticoat Junction, also set in the same fictional rural locales, but it was more absurd. The main joke around which variants were created is that the residents of the Hooterville Valley live lives that follow no logical rules, yet they are happily, comfortably bound by the bizarre traditions they’ve decided to follow. This irritates the lawyer from New York endlessly. He’s the only character who can’t live without logic or gamely accept this off-kilter alternate world. His daffy wife goes right along with it. The show became The Lawyer (satirically named Oliver Wendell Douglas) vs. Everyone Else. Hooterville World wins of course. Green Acres dialogue is characterized by a specific style where all the characters except Oliver take everything that is spoken literally. This constantly derails any normal train of thought. It’s funny for viewers because the non-sequiter speech doesn’t bother the Hootervillians. For them it’s normal:
Green Acres was being broadcast within the larger context of the seismic cultural shifts occurring during the Presidential administrations of LBJ and Nixon I. The symbolic subtext of the show is that the lawyer represents the old, weary world, resisting change, and Hooterville World is the Dance of Shiva, joyfully destroying convention in preparation for the emergence of the new. I was going through my own seismic shift (puberty) so I related to both sides in the conflict. I wasn’t the only one aware of the strangeness of the show. In 1978 the comedic musicians Barnes & Barnes (one of whom is Bill Mumy from Lost in Space) combined a 1967 Beatles song with the lyrics to the theme from Green Acres.
A Day in the Life of Green Acres – Damascas & Barnes & Barnes