Almost Everyone Was Wrong About 'Hee Haw'

12/07/2015 05:32 pm ET Updated Dec 03, 2016

Hee Haw was a concept that nobody (including myself) thought would ever succeed. Some feared the proposed television program would set the burgeoning country music industry back 25 years. I had my trepidation, but had learned long before in this business that you say "yes" to everything, because most things never happen. My manager Jim Halsey and I agreed that doing the show wouldn't seriously damage my career. We assumed people would forget about it after its run of twelve episodes on CBS was over and hopefully also forgive me in the process.

I'm happy to say that everyone was wrong--the TV and music executives, the television critics and me--everyone except for the American public. Nearly half a century later, Hee Haw continues to remain beloved and popular with its long-time fans and those who have discovered the program through reruns and DVD releases. Only last month, another new collection was released by Time/Life giving everyone a chance to see such legendary artists like Loretta Lynn, Merle Haggard, Hank Williams, Jr., Tammy Wynette and Conway Twitty in their prime.

My lukewarm-at-best initial commitment to Hee Haw turned into a job that lasted 24 years (from 1969 to 1993) amassing 585 one-hour episodes. How the show came about and how it lasted and prospered far beyond anyone's wildest hopes foreshadowed the incredible growth in popularity country music would demonstrate over the next few decades.

The genesis of Hee Haw came out of one of my appearances on The Jonathan Winters Show, a comedy/variety program on CBS. I didn't know at the time, but Jonathan was having trouble getting ratings in the South, and Sam Luvullo, associate producer of the show, came up with the idea of using country music guests as a way to increase viewership. Funny enough, whenever a country act was on, the ratings went through the roof.

Jonathan's two producers, Frank Peppiatt and John Aylesworth, told me they had an idea for a new show. What they had in mind was a lot of fast-paced comedy and blackouts, not unlike Laugh-In, which was a big hit at the time. This show would emphasize country humor and country music. They wanted a country personality with high television visibility--so they asked me if I wanted the job.

Opportunity also knocked when the Smothers Brothers had a falling out with CBS over the political content of their show, which was soon canceled. A very sudden and desirable programming vacancy became available. In 1969, CBS scheduled Hee Haw as a 1-hour special to be shot in Nashville. Soon after, 12 episodes were ordered.

My concerns about the Hee Haw (especially about the corny jokes) were abated after watching the first show around halfway in. I finally understood what they were going after. The show was really created in editing - joke, bam, skit, bam, song, bam, skit, bam, cornfield, bam, song, bam, ....and We'll be right back after this commercial break. The schedule was ideal--my work involved taping at the most three weeks twice a year. I could then go back on the road doing concerts.

The network had no idea we would be so successful and had no contingency plan to include us in the Fall primetime schedule. We went off the air in September 1969 and returned in December as a midseason replacement. That was the best they could do.

Hee Haw was on CBS for two and a half years when the network decided to cancel it. We were forced out by Fred Silverman, who had come aboard as CBS's new program director. Silverman's big complaint when he took over was, in his words, "CBS's rural image." He didn't want to be known as the head of the "barnyard network."

To a certain extent CBS was just that with Green Acres, Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction, Andy Griffith, Gomer Pyle and Hee Haw in primetime. Every one was a winner in the ratings and had made lots of money for CBS, however, not the image Silverman had in mind. They certainly didn't know what they had with us or where the key lay to our appeal.

After our cancellation, everybody involved with Hee Haw wanted to keep it alive. Although there were syndication offers, the producers, who all owned a piece of Hee Haw, intended to keep distribution rights for themselves, rather than leasing them to someone else.

With financing in place, all the CBS affiliates that had carried the show when it was on the network were approached and given first option to continue carrying it. As I remember it, about ninety-nine percent of the stations signed up. Instead of being on 165 network affiliate stations, we were now available on 228. In other words, as a result of being canceled, our viewing audience actually increased by a full third!

The only difference between being on the network and being syndicated was essentially financial. Instead of most of the money going to CBS, it went directly to the producers. Their gamble paid off and they became an extremely wealthy bunch of guys because of it.

The show changed my life in so many remarkable ways. Now in my 82nd year, I have been blessed with a wonderful 67-year career with Hee Haw as the icing on the cake. With all of its twists and turns, the program gave me an incredible education in the business of show business--the importance of ratings, questionable executive decisions, syndication, money, problematic artistic decisions, demographics, image, coincidence and luck. But first and foremost, I am most proud of how Hee Haw did its part to help pave the way for country music to burst from its regional roots to remarkable worldwide popularity.