This is a Popeye-–the Ethics Alarm category in which I have been forced to post because something irritated me so much I couldn’t stand it, or in Popeye’s immortal words,
As frequent readers here know, I am a fan of retired University of Wisconsin law professor Ann Althouse’s wide-ranging blog (even if she does refuse to include Ethics Alarms in her blogroll...). However, loyalty goes only so far.
Today I read this from Ann…
“Green Acres The Musical is a fast-paced, contemporary story that features the best in comedy, music and dance. This is the spirited musical comedy love story of Oliver and Lisa Douglas….He is a high-powered, Manhattan attorney and she is an aspiring fashion designer and, together, they are living ‘the good life’ in New York City. Faced with the overwhelming pressure to run his family’s law firm and live up to his father’s reputation, Oliver longs for the simple life, but New York and all that it has to offer is Lisa’s perfect world. What happens when two people in love find themselves wanting opposite lives sends us on a journey that is both hilarious and filled with heart.”
That’s the press release — published in Entertainment Weekly — for a “Broadway-bound” musical. I guess there’s no limit to how stupid and touristy theater in New York City can become.
When “Green Acres” was on TV in the 1960s, it was one of many sitcoms set in rural America. From the Wikipedia article on the “rural purge” —
the systematic cancellation of all that stuff: “Starting with ‘The Real McCoys,’ a 1957 ABC program, U.S. television had undergone a “rural revolution”, a shift towards situation comedies featuring “naïve but noble ‘rubes’ from deep in the American heartland”. CBS was the network most associated with the trend, with series such as “The Andy Griffith Show,” “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “Green Acres,” “Mister Ed,” “Lassie,” “Petticoat Junction,” and “Hee Haw”….
… CBS executives, afraid of losing the lucrative youth demographic, purged their schedule of hit shows that were drawing huge but older-skewing audiences….
It was decided that those rural shows — a refuge from the social and political upheaval of the 60s — were too damned unsophisticated and irrelevant for 1970s America. I don’t know if the long arc of history bends toward sophistication, but it makes me sad to see that one of the shows that were seen — half a century ago — as too naive and out of it for television is now the basis for a Broadway show. What is happening to us?
Well, what’s happened to you, Ann, is that you have forgotten the #1 obligation of a serious blogger, which is not to make your readers less informed, more ignorant, and more biased than they already are. Ann is about my age, meaning that she had the same opportunity as I did to actually experience those Sixties era TV shows she is denigrating and lumping together, but either she did not, and is thus relying on a typically half-baked Wikipedia entry by their usual anonymous non-professional researchers, or she is deliberately misrepresenting them to justify a side joke (Donald Trump once performed the “Green Acres” song on TV, and Ann posted the video), or, as I long suspected, she’s a snob. Just as one shouldn’t review dinosaur movies if one isn’t interested in dinosaurs, a blogger shouldn’t pretend to analyze Sixties TV shows if she didn’t watch Sixties TV shows, and if Ann had watched those shows, she would have instantly known that her Wikipedia source article was crap.
At the end of the post, she says, returning to Broadway,
When I was a teenager in the 1960s, I saw the Broadway play “Marat/Sade” — “The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade.” That’s where it looked as though Broadway would go. Into immense creativity and sophistication. It’s so sad what happened instead.
I won’t argue that Broadway, the Broadway musical in particular, hasn’t hit the skids, and that it now generally seeks to be more of a theme park ride or a nostalgia-fest for wealthy tourists than a source of new ideas and daring entertainment. That case, however, could have and should have been made (I’ve made it myself in other venues) without ridiculing an unseen musical based on its source material. “Sweeney Todd,” a show I suppose Ann would consider “sophisticated” (Sondheim=Sophisticated, after all! ), was based on a bloody Victorian “penny dreadful,” about as low-brow an origin as any stage work could have.”Wicked,” another much-admired musical, is based on “The Wizard of Oz,” which is many good things, but sophisticated it isn’t. Does Ann think “West Side Story,” which predated “Marat-Sade,” is more “sophisticated” than “Wicked” because it’s based on Shakespeare, or that “A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum” is sophisticated because it’s based on Plautus? Oh, probably. After all, those shows are Sondheim products too. She is, however, wrong, even though “West Side Story” had ballet in it, and we all know ballet is sophisticated.
Althouse is more wrong, much more, to sneer off the TV shows she lists as unsophisticated entertainment for the rubes, cultural dreck deservedly cleared away by the far more admirable “woke” Norman Lear shows like “All in the Family,” “Maude,” and “Sanford and Sons.” (Every one of the shows she mentions—except “Hee Haw,” which went into syndication and lasted many years on cable after CBS cancelled it—were old shows that had been on TV for many seasons. They were cancelled because their ratings were falling, which is what happens to old shows no matter how popular they once were. Would CBS have cancelled “The Beverley Hillbillies if it were still #1 in the Nielsons, as it had once been? Of course not. “Sophistication” was irrelevant. Money was the issue. The show had fallen out of the top 20 in its 8th season, and by its 9th was in free-fall.
What Althouse does in her post is a form of bigotry, and one that is unexpected coming from someone who lives in Wisconsin. Treating “The Real McCoys,” “The Andy Griffith Show,” “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “Green Acres,” “Mister Ed,” “Lassie,” “Petticoat Junction,” and “Hee Haw” as equivalents because they all have rural settings is like lumping Sidney Poitier, Jimmy Walker, Jim Brown, Jackie “Moms” Mabley, Flip Wilson and Pam Grier together because they are all black. Unlike Ann, I watched all of those shows, though in the case of “Hee Haw,” just a few times was enough. They were as different in style, orientation and message as TV shows could be.
Yes, “Hee Haw” was moronic, but it was just a Grand Ol’ Opry-styled rip-off of “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-in” without the politics, and “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In” itself was a blatant rip-off of Broadway’s 1936 hit “Hellzapoppin,” the lowest-brow low brow musical in Broadway history, and also one of the longest running stage shows of all time. “The Real McCoys” was not a rural show so much as it was a family show, and more of a “dramady” than a sit-com, with characters who were not cartoonish or stereotypes, and a star, Walter Brennan, who was one of the greatest character actors in U.S. film history (and who holds the record for most Supporting Actor Oscars). “The Andy Griffith Show” may have been about a small town sheriff, but the show was beautifully written, and performed, wise and ethical at its best, and gave the culture, in Andy and Barney Fife, one of the great comedy pairings of all time. Unlike “All in the Family,” “The Andy Griffith Show” did not rely heavily on wisecracks and insults, and its humor was often very sophisticated. Dismissing this show, more than all the rest, is signature significance for a cultural snob, and an ignorant one. Ann should watch some episodes; they are on Netflix. She would learn something.
“Lassie,” obviously, was only incidentally a rural show: you can’t have a dog as the hero (well, heroine) of a story taking place in a city with leash laws, and besides, as Ann could have easily checked, “Lassie” was not one of the programs killed in CBS’s anti-rural purge. It had been on the air for 20 years when it was finally retired two years after the so-called purge, because “Lassie” was already on its second kid (There was Jeff, and then there was Timmy), and he had aged out of the role. Nor was “Lassie” a sitcom: it was a family drama, mostly aimed at children. This is more evidence that Ann didn’t do her research, or check her sources.
Also mostly for kids was”Mister Ed,” a shamelessly silly show about a talking horse. “Mister Ed” was an adaptation of the popular (and stupid) “Francis the Talking Mule” films of the 50’s, and unsophisticated is not an unfair description.
I was not a fan of “The Beverly Hillbillies,” but it was still a classic and well-executed “fish out of water” comedy set-up that was sustained by the many pros in its cast, notably Buddy Ebsen and Irene Ryan, whose feisty granny routine is just as funny today as it was then, when it won her two Emmy nominations. (The character was loosely based on the pipe-smoking, pint-sized Mammy Yokum in Al Capp’s satirical comic strip “Lil Abner.”) “Petticoat Junction,” a spin-off of “The Beverley Hillbillies” featuring Lucille Ball pal Bea Benaderet and veteran Western character actor Edgar Buchanan (“Shane”) was pretty much junk, a chance to ogle Bea’s pretty county daughters in their cut-offs.
But “Green Acres” was a different story.
“Green Acres” was a reverse “Beverley Hillbillies.” For seven seasons, it provided consistently classic vaudeville comedy by a terrific group of vintage comedians, all playing rustic weirdos whose function on the show was to drive city-slickers Eddie Albert and Eva Gabor to the edge of madness. (My personal favorite: Hank Kimball, played by the marvelous Alvy Moore, who edited himself as he spoke. ) The show’s formula was repurposed for Bob Newhart’s second sitcom, “Newhart,” in which Bob ran a rural Vermont inn. As with Newhart’s show, the series was getting increasingly absurd by the end, and CBS was right to cancel it when it did. Nonetheless, nobody who actually watched “Green Acres” and who had a sense of humor would dismiss it with the disrespect Althouse does. “Green Acres” also had a pedigree: it was inspired by the film version of “The Egg and I,” the best-selling humorous memoir by American author Betty MacDonald about her adventures and travels as a young wife on a chicken farm on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state.
Could “Green Acres” be made into an entertaining musical? It probably won’t be, but sure it could. “Oklahoma!” was based on a rural play, “Green Grow the Lilacs.” So was “The Most Happy Fella,” adapted from “They Knew What They Wanted.” Those shows probably weren’t “sophisticated” enough for Ann, though.
Not like the terrific musical that could be made out of “The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade.”