Hee Haw vs. Soul Train: The Aesthetics Of Niche

Hee Haw vs. Soul Train: The Aesthetics Of Niche

The musical variety program Hee Haw debuted on CBS in 1969 as a quickie replacement for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, which had been cancelled abruptly that spring due to its controversial political content. No such worries with Hee Haw. Pitched as “a hillbilly Laugh-In,” Hee Haw was produced in the God-and-country confines of Nashville, where the bulk of its talent pool lived. The show mixed corny jokes—often delivered from the middle of a fake cornfield—with performances by some of the legends of country music, all edited together at a machine-gun pace. It’s a prime example of what I call “comedy with a ‘k’”—the kind you’ll find in joke-books and cross-stitched wall-hangings at Cracker Barrels everywhere. Hee Haw ran for two years on CBS and consistently ranked in the Top 20 in the ratings before it was canned in 1971 over concerns that it made the network look too down-market. But the show went on to thrive in syndication for decades.

I grew up in Nashville, and have strong memories of Hee Haw. My dad was a country music aficionado (and occasional performer) and though he wasn’t that crazy about the comedy on the show, he’d stop to watch Buck Owens or Roy Clark, two pickers he held in high esteem. And given Nashville’s “company town” nature—combined with the industry’s of-the-people image—I was practically surrounded by the stars of Hee Haw, who popped up as guests on local TV and at various public events. The show was never a favorite of mine, but I didn’t kick up a fuss when my parents said, “No, leave it there,” as I was flipping past.

These days, I’m kind of fascinated by Hee Haw. Some of it’s nostalgia, I’m sure: an unexpected twinge on hearing “Pfft! You Was Gone” or “Gloom, Despair And Agony On Me” again. Like most of the Nashville kids I knew, I resisted our city’s best-known export when I was young, if only because it was frustrating to be identified with it. (I’d travel outside of Nashville with my family and constantly hear, “Oh, you must love country music,” as though I had any choice about where I lived when I was 12.) But as I got older and more interested in music as a whole, I developed some native pride. When I watch Hee Haw now on RFD—or on the Time-Life box set I bought a couple of months ago—I too marvel like my dad at the skill of Owens and Clark, two performers who deftly integrated elements of pop and rock into music that was still unmistakably C&W.

I’ve even softened on the comedy, which now feels integral to my Southern roots. I’ve spent a good chunk of my life listening to old men try the patience of grandchildren, waitresses, convenience-store clerks, and waiting-room inhabitants with their limited arsenal of puns, one-liners, and humorous aphorisms. So there’s a sense of comforting familiarity to Hee Haw’s barbershop and general-store sketches, where the cast sits around trading stories and setting up punchlines. Hee Haw’s comics were a mix of old hands like Grandpa Jones (who’d been performing in old-age make-up since the Depression, when he was still in his 20s), nonplussed newcomers like Junior Samples (an illiterate stock car racer “from hard times,” who stumbled into comedy when he discovered that people liked the rambling way he told an anecdote), and ambitious youngsters like Lulu Roman (a hippie burlesque performer who had no interest in country music when she took the Hee Haw gig, and who was barred from the show for a time because of her drug habit). The cast read from cue cards and pulled faces, often making fun of their own ineptitude. That mix of natural charm and the unnaturalness of their line-readings is weirdly entertaining—much more so than if the delivery had been more polished.

In the early ’90s, Hee Haw tried to contemporize, reflecting the “new country” trends by losing the hick trappings and going suburban. An already-shrinking audience rejected the changes, and Hee Haw came back as a “classic clips” show before it was finally cancelled. I read about but never saw the revamped Hee Haw—and couldn’t find any examples of it online—but I’m not surprised that it failed. For all the nods to Laugh-In in the editing and jokes, Hee Haw’s look and tone were more influenced by two decades of syndicated and local country music shows like The Country Place and The Old American Barn Dance (and many others as well, samples of which are frequently linked to and posted on Kliph Nesteroff’s invaluable Classic Television Showbiz blog.) Hee Haw’s early reviews were lousy, but it attracted a devoted core audience who knew instantly what it was up to. According to one of the original Hee Haw writers, George Yanok, the fans would often say, “This is our kind of show.”

The same year that Hee Haw was booted off CBS and into syndication, the Chicago daily local TV dance show Soul Train added a weekly version in seven markets, then expanded from there and ran for decades. Soul Train followed the familiar dance show format: an authoritative but still somewhat hip host (in this case Don Cornelius) introduced live appearances by top recording artists in between some chit-chat with the kids and lots of dancin’, dancin’, dancin’. Soul Train’s hook was its target audience. The series ran for as long as it did in part because in the days before cable TV became omnipresent, Soul Train was one of the few shows on the air that could guarantee advertisers a substantial black viewership.

Yet unlike Hee Haw, Soul Train didn’t have the overall design of a niche show. Yes, its guests, host, and dancers were black, and one of its signature segments—the “line dance,” where couples showed off their moves and their fashion, both of which were set to maximum funk—probably wasn’t appealing to the Hee Haw crowd. But in general, if a person were flipping through channels on a Saturday afternoon in the mid-’70s, it might take a few seconds to distinguish Soul Train from American Bandstand or some local pop music show. Soul Train’s mission was a lot like Berry Gordy’s when he founded Motown, and brashly dubbed his label’s music “The Sound Of Young America.” Soul Train’s Cornelius favored conservatism both in format and in the acts that he chose to grace the stage. (It’s one of the reasons I rarely watched Soul Train as a kid; by the time I’d developed an interest in R&B, I was more into the harder-edged hip-hop and electro-funk groups that Cornelius rarely booked.)

That kind of insta-branding goes on today, too. In Christian-themed music and movies, the creators often try to give the finished product a surface sheen that they believe to be indistinguishable from mainstream popular culture. Some of that is outreach, trying to reach a non-Christian audience with something familiar before delivering The Word; but it’s also a way to maintain a hold on existing disciples, to show that they don’t need to listen to Top 40 or go to a Hollywood movie to get “top-shelf” entertainment. Conversely, some branches of showbiz go out of their way to make the product look more inaccessible or raw. I remember knowing people in college who were way into wrestling videos, or skate videos, both of which came in makeshift cases with a collage of blurry color photos on their sleeves—not unlike porn. That shoddiness persists in a lot of independent hip-hop and metal packaging these days, and it’s rarely unintentional.

The Internet, the home video boom, and an explosion of cable channels have all helped people find their own communities of the like-minded a lot more easily than in the era when most media markets had about 30 radio stations and eight TV channels. But there was something to be said for those days when people with special interests had to wait for the hour or so a week when Hee Haw was on, or wrestling, or The Midnight Special, or Saturday Night Live—shows that had not just niche content, but a style that was different enough that fans could recognize it straight away. Even Soul Train, which strove for normalcy, transmitted on its own wavelength whenever the dancers had a few seconds in front of the camera to flail about, calling the people on the other side of the screen to join hands and join in.