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The amiable madness of Green Acres

Sometimes a single TV episode can exemplify the spirit of its time and the properties that make television a unique medium. A Very Special Episode presents The A.V. Club’s survey of TV at its most distinctive.

We had genies then. And magical Martians. We were plagued by talking horses and talking cars, and we cast sideways glances at the witches, monsters, and sexy robots who lived next door. We were comforted by thoughts of spies and private eyes, patrolling pop-art citadels to keep us safe. We enjoyed tall tales of a hillbilly family that transformed overnight into oil barons, and we heard rumors of an uncharted desert island where a movie star, a farmgirl, two dopes, and two aristocrats were ruled by a benign scientist. We traveled through time with cartoon cavemen and futuristic suburbanites, and visited alternate realities where cavalrymen and Native Americans lived in harmony, and where Allied POWs toyed with neutered Nazis. The world changed from black and white to color, and then those colors grew wilder and more psychedelic, as the sets and costumes finally caught up to what was going on inside them.

And then the sitcom became self-aware. 

Green Acres didn’t invent post-modern TV tomfoolery, goodness knows. Ernie Kovacs was experimenting with absurdism and surrealism while the medium was still in its infancy, and television characters broke the fourth wall early and often: in variety-show sketches, for example, where the host would sometimes literally wink at the audience; or in The Many Loves Of Dobie Gillis, where the protagonist would openly plead for the audience’s empathy. And reaching back even further, it could be argued that nearly everything savvy and smirky on TV had been done first on radio, where personalities like Jack Benny and Bob & Ray refined the art of being a wise-ass while simultaneously letting the audience in on the joke.

As it happens, Green Acres sprung directly from radio. In 1950, writer Jay Sommers adapted S.J. Perelman’s novel Acres And Pains into a short-lived radio series called Granby’s Green Acres. Sommers later became a writer for Paul Henning, the creator of The Beverly Hillbillies and Petticoat Junction. When those sitcoms became cash cows for CBS, the network gave Henning an open time-slot for the fall of 1965, to fill however he pleased, with no pitch or pilot required. Sommers suggested a TV version of Granby’s Green Acres, and Henning gave the go-ahead.

Veteran Hollywood character actor Eddie Albert stars in Green Acres as Oliver Wendell Douglas, a New York attorney who experiences what later generations would dub a “midlife crisis,” which stirs him to buy a farm in a hick haven named Hooterville. Flamboyant Hungarian celebrity Eva Gabor plays Oliver’s wife Lisa, a flighty socialite who at first protests the move, but ultimately seems more at home with the oddballs of Hooterville than Oliver ever does in any of the show’s six seasons. Early in season one, Green Acres is fairly closely tied to Petticoat Junction, and even follows something like a serialized structure, showing the Douglas’ adjustment to country living. The couple buys a dilapidated farmhouse, hires gawky, childlike live-in handyman Eb Dawson (played by Tom Lester), and meets a progression of unhelpful local businessmen and bureaucrats, as Sommers and his head writer Dick Chevillat carefully build the world of Hooterville, episode by episode and kink by kink.

By the second season, though, Green Acres’ gentle wackiness evolved into outright lunacy. Witness the opening of the episode “I Didn’t Raise My Pig To Be A Soldier” (which aired early in season two, on Sept. 28, 1966). While Oliver works on his busted tractor—in a dress shirt, vest, and tie, as always—Lisa comes out of the house to ask him for a favor, but both of them keep getting distracted by the show’s credits, which are popping up in front of their eyes. (Meanwhile, the cartoon cornpone bounce of Vic Mizzy’s score keeps humming merrily in the background.)

That opening scene gives a good sense of Green Acres’ overall sense of humor, as well as what kept the show grounded. There are outlandish gags, such as the way the wheels fall off the tractor every time Lisa points at them; and there are verbal gags, such as the way Oliver makes fun of Lisa for saying “shtuck” instead of “stuck.” But there’s also an appealingly flirty give-and-take between the two leads, who at the time were one of the friskiest couples on the tube—even sharing a bed before that became commonplace. 

With the banter and the self-reference out of the way, Lisa gets to the point: The Douglas’ elderly neighbors The Ziffels are planning to take a second honeymoon, and would like Oliver and Lisa to look after their pig, Arnold. Even people who don’t know much about Green Acres are often aware of Arnold Ziffel, although the common reduction of Green Acres as “that show with the pig” undersells both the inventiveness of Sommers and Chevillat and the absurdist wonder that is Arnold. In the early ’60s, Charles Schulz started drawing Peanuts cartoons in which Charlie Brown’s dog Snoopy imagined himself having fantastical, humanlike adventures, and at the time, some of Schulz’s colleagues were sure that he’d driven the strip off the rails. Instead, Schulz’s recasting of Snoopy as “the WWI flying ace” or as a struggling novelist made Peanuts more popular than ever, and paved the way for Arnold Ziffel, who over the course of Green Acres would become a movie star, have love affairs, go to school, inherit millions, and generally fill the role that teen heartthrobs did on most sitcoms. (Behind the scenes, the show’s producers had to keep a supply of “Arnold”s in the pipeline, since the pigs tended to outgrow the role after a couple of months. Contrary to rumor, the old Arnolds were not eaten, though the first Arnold reportedly did get slaughtered and cooked before the crew had a change of heart.)

In this episode, Lisa asks Oliver if he considers Arnold a friend, and Oliver says that he likes the pig well enough to say “hi” to him when he runs into him in town, but that he wouldn’t exactly invite Arnold over to play Bridge. Oliver thinks he’s being funny, yet when the Ziffels drop Arnold off, they provide the Douglases with a list of the pig’s quirky likes and dislikes, and make sure that Oliver and Lisa have Arnold’s favorite bathtub and TV set. (Arnold’s set is “easier for him to adjust,” Mr. Ziffel insists.)

At about the 10-minute mark of the episode, after several scenes of Oliver being driven to distraction by Arnold’s demands, the real plot of “I Didn’t Raise My Pig To Be A Soldier” kicks in. Lisa picks up the Ziffels’ mail and finds out that Arnold has received a draft notice. When Oliver ignores it, the county sends a couple of men by the farm to force the issue. So Oliver takes Arnold to meet with his draft board, but the officer in charge assumes this is some kind of draft-dodging prank—like that time a guy pretended to be a kangaroo—and sends the FBI to Hooterville to straighten everything out. Oliver is thus put into the position of trying to make a strange situation intelligible, explaining how he and his wife are caring for a TV-watching pig while its senior-citizen parents are on their honeymoon.

This is the flipside of what usually happens on Green Acres, where Oliver is frequently baffled and reduced to an inarticulate stammer by his surroundings. In Stephen Cox’s The Hooterville Handbook: A Viewer’s Guide To Green Acres, critic Mark Besten explains, “The truly inspired humor within the series springs from something far more elemental than the cultural differences between city and country. Oliver would willingly go to his grave defending his righteous belief that two plus two makes four; his Hooterville neighbors say that two plus two are five—and can often back it up with empirical evidence.” Something like this occurs in “I Didn’t Raise My Pig To Be A Soldier,” when the FBI throws Oliver in jail for harboring a draft-dodger. When Oliver protests to Lisa that he didn’t do anything wrong, she asks, “Then why are you in jail?” Her logic is airtight (sort of), and reflective in its mentality of an era where people were taught to assume that if a suspect had been arrested or a country was being bombed, then the government must have a good reason. (Then again, about all Lisa knows about the FBI is that she likes to watch their TV show, and that sometimes they have to “shoost” people.)

Like most episodes of Green Acres, “I Didn’t Raise My Pig To Be A Soldier” was directed by Richard L. Bare, who got his big break in Hollywood in the ’40s with the “Joe McDoakes” series of spoof-y instructional shorts, before becoming a go-to helmer for B-movies and episodic television. In an interview in Cox’s book, Bare confesses that he didn’t have much to do on Green Acres, besides “set up the camera and let it go,” and occasionally remind the actors to hold for an extra beat to make room for the laugh track. A lot of the show’s comedy was constructed in the editing room. The clips above show the standard Green Acres flip-cut, where the action jumps from one place to another, with a flip of the image and a quick burst of Mizzy. Jay Sommers was also known to trim frames out of scenes to get the pacing as tight as he wanted, and he made liberal use of insert shots to goose the gags. One the show’s regular cast members, Mary Grace Canfield, is quoted by Cox as saying that a Green Acres script never “read as well as it played.”

Much of the humor in this episode comes from the little asides, the quick visual jokes, and the overall world that Sommers and company had built. The Douglas home itself is one big sight gag, with its crumbling fixtures serving as a backdrop to the stray bits of New York finery that Lisa had brought with her. Oliver and Lisa sleep in an elaborate bed, with a chandelier for a bedside light, and yet their closet has no back and opens up to the outside, which in “I Didn’t Raise My Pig” allows Eb to let Arnold into the house when the pig won’t stop whining. (Eb says that he needs his sleep, while Oliver, being the boss, doesn’t “have to get up ’til 11.”) Later, we see Lisa set the breakfast table by hauling all the dishes and silverware—and even a vase with a flower—in a bundled tablecloth. And there’s a nice piece of deadpan acting from the draft officials, who are half-disgusted and half-pleased that they finally have their own dodger to go after. Whenever possible, the Green Acres writers gave a set or a costume or a piece of blocking a funky twist, to amuse themselves and the fans.

Some of the best Green Acres characters are missing from this episode, most notably Mr. Haney (played by Pat Buttram), the honking-voiced peddler who always seemed to roll up on the Douglas’ doorstep bearing exactly the esoteric item they needed to get out of their latest predicament. But “I Didn’t Raise My Pig” does feature an appearance by the Monroe “brothers,” Alf and Ralph—the latter of whom is actually a woman—and a scene with Hank Kimball (Alvy Moore), the endlessly digressing county agent.

And as always, the episode has plenty of Lisa and Oliver, who were originally meant to be the straight men in this cast of oddballs, yet went a little odd themselves as the series rolled on. Gabor had such a delicate comic touch on Green Acres. According to Cox’s book, privately the actress demanded a closed set so that no outsiders could see her without makeup (or see the elaborate system of rubber bands that kept her face taut); and while shooting, she had to deal with costumers fumbling with her bustline between takes to make sure that her cleavage didn’t alarm the censors. Yet when the camera was on, Gabor had a gift for delivering the show’s zippy, sometimes bone-dry jokes (such as when she boasts to her husband that she “can talk Hungarian and do imitations of Zsa Zsa Gabor”) and a chipper way of saying “Oliv-ah!” several times an episode. As for Albert, there was a lightness about him that had served him well on Broadway and in the scores of movies he made during Hollywood’s golden age, and which made Oliver Douglas’ bluster come off as less irascible than adorable.

“I Didn’t Raise My Pig To Be A Soldier” ends with Oliver finally getting Arnold a deferment, which earns Oliver a glowing mention in the local paper as “noted Hooterville pig-lawyer.” But Oliver ends up back in front of the draft board again the next day with Ralph Monroe, who’s just gotten her notice. (“Run out of pigs, huh?” the officer quips.) That’s the way it goes on Green Acres: There’s never any permanent escape from the loopiness of Hooterville.

Green Acres wasn’t as big of a hit as Henning’s Beverly Hillbillies, but it was a reliable performer for CBS until 1971, when the network killed the show as part of programming VP Fred Silverman’s infamous three-year “rural purge,” which also saw the demise of The Beverly Hillbillies, Mayberry R.F.D., Petticoat Junction, Hee Haw, Lassie, The Jim Nabors Hour, and The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour. (Pat Buttram dubbed it “the year CBS canceled everything with a tree.”) But Green Acres repeats had a long run in syndication, where, removed from the pervasive freakiness of the ’60s, the very specific freakiness of this show began to draw more notice. For a time, Green Acres became the subject of serious critical and academic study. In 1985, the prestigious cinema journal Film Comment even ran an appreciative essay by critic Armond White (not yet as notorious as he is today), who wrote, “Unconsciously evoking the absurdist dramatists Beckett and Ionesco, the creators of Green Acres questioned the stability of the world and its comprehensibility (unthinkable in a TV series), but in unpretentious terms that did not alarm the American public. Plainly put: The wonder of the series is that craziness always made sense.” 

In retrospect, Green Acres was hipper than Silverman thought, and maybe didn’t deserve to be lumped in with all the other “country” shows. After all, Sommers never expressly indicated Hooterville’s location—it’s been variously pinpointed as the Midwest, the Ozarks, Appalachia, and upstate New York—and the cast deployed a range of accents, from blue-collar redneck to New England innkeeper to Chicago ward boss. Sommers always said that he was inspired in part by the time he spent as a boy on a farm in Greendale, New York—not the South or the Midwest, as many might assume—which speaks to the patchwork quality of these United States, where the urban, the suburban, and the exurban are all stitched together and not confined to any one region of the country. (Also, it’s apt that Sommers once lived in “Greendale,” which is also the name of the location for one of the most Green Acres-like shows on network prime-time today.)

Still, it is true that the form of Green Acres didn’t synch up with the network soon to be known as the home of some of the most sophisticated sitcoms on television: All In The Family, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show, and M*A*S*H (among others). The day-glo pop of the ’60s quickly faded into the earth tones and urban decay of the ’70s, as what had once seemed like signs of a culture descending into madness—boys with long hair, rampant recreational drug use, loud music, short skirts, coarse language, war-protestors, etc.—became more routine. There weren’t so many genies in the ’70s, or spacemen, or super-cool spies, or scientists turning coconuts into radios. For a time after the cancellation of Green Acres and its ilk, television instead became a home for criminals, addicts, bigots, divorcees, and genocidal profiteers. In the process, our culture diffused the crazy. Or perhaps just absorbed it into our essence.

Next time, on A Very Special Episode… The Love Boat, “Marooned/Search/Isaac’s Holiday”