Ann Althouse And “Green Acres”, Or “When Trusted Bloggers Don’t Know What The Hell They Are Talking About”

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.”

52 thoughts on “Ann Althouse And “Green Acres”, Or “When Trusted Bloggers Don’t Know What The Hell They Are Talking About”

  1. I always considered “Green Acres” to be fairly sophisticated, a kind of theater of the absurd for the American television audience. And yes, Newhart II carried its themes all the way to the end of the series.

  2. 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. . .

    The skits and gags in Hee Haw may have been decidedly lowbrow, but the show is still revered among fans of old-time country and bluegrass music for a very good reason: the best of the best singers and players – both stars and A-list session cats – were featured. The show was really a musical variety show with good-natured if not particularly challenging comedic filler between the musical acts.

    I suspect that none of the audience expected groundbreaking schtick. Pretty much everyone, from the stars to the audience, knew the jokes were as cornball as it got.

  3. I can’t think of a show that had a better first five seasons than the Andy Griffith Show. I’m 31, and it’s still one of my all-time favorites. I’m hard pressed to think of another show I like more. No other show has ever done a better job of making the view believe the characters cared for each other without sacrificing the humor element of the show.

    • No actor – none – has ever played a character better than don knotts played Barney fife. It was beyond brilliant.

        • In “No Time for Sergeants” Knotts played Cpl John C Brown a psych tech testing Will Stockdale (Griffith). He was exactly like that in that role.

  4. Oh, and I forgot to mention: I was living in Vermont when Newhart aired, and pretty much the entire state HATED the show. Folks didn’t mind the gags involving the not-particularly-bright Larry Darryl and Darryl – it was just that nobody could figure out where in hell their accent was from, because it sure as hell wasn’t from northern New England.

      • Oh, I thought Cliff was putting on “airs”. I thought he was trying to sound a little British in an attempt to sound a little smarter, and failing spectacularly. (Both in terms of getting a slight British accent and in terms of sounding smarter). That’s how always read his tone/accent anyway.

      • William Windom got all kinds of complaints about his fake Maine accent in “Murder She Wrote”. I can’t even do it and my paternal grandfather was born in New Hampshire.

  5. Thank you for taking this on, as I read that post this morning and was equally disturbed.

    Like yourself, I think there was terrific entertainment to be found in those rural comedies I grew up with. (Well … maybe not Hee-Haw, but tastes always vary.) The Andy Griffith Show, in particular, was splendid on multiple levels. Green Acres had a wonderfully surreal quality at its best – like The Music Man, part valentine, part send up.

    Actually, I liked Petticoat Junction quite a bit, and as a gay kid, the three girls did nothing for me. But the Shady Rest seemed an ideal place to spend time, and I liked all of the people there. Growing up in New York in the Sixties and Seventies, I thought Petticoat Junction was an infinitely better place to be, and I often (and absently, to my husband’s dismay), find myself humming incident music from Petticoat while driving to this day.

    I vividly remember my mother’s dismay (and at the time, she was a young woman) at finding Mayberry RFD gone, and the only options were Norman Lear comedies. To this day, I miss those shows.

    What I find most fascinating about the rural purge was how comprehensive it was. Many of these shows had high ratings (high enough to stay on the air), but skewed older. The purge of these shows seems very Draconian, in hindsight; rather like the reaction to Roseanne.

    Perhaps it’s a symptom of the times and my observations of current media manipulation, but I can’t help but think that ratings were only part of the story for the rural purge, and the predominant reason for the comprehensive change was a little targeted social engineering. After all, Petticoat Junction to the Mod Squad, or the Andy Griffith Show to All in the Family is a seismic change. Could this again have been a case of our betters delivering what they thought was good for us?

    Some day, I would love for you to write at length about The Music Man. It is very thematically rich for an ethicist. The paradoxes of the film is that Hill sells River City a lie, a terrible, expensive and rather disappointing lie. However, it is a lie that nourishes, energizes and unites – it is a lie that becomes town myth. Essentially, The Music Man posits that an empowering lie can be better than a mundane truth. Where does that leave us.
    I greatly enjoy your blog!

    • Great comment. I have long considered “The Music Man” The Great American Musical, more so than “Oklahoma!” or “Damn Yankees.” It’s not my favorite (close, though!), but Willson nailed it. It also has the best climax/ending of any musical, nicely ripped off by “School of Rock.”

  6. “‘Petticoat Junction’… was pretty much junk….”

    The first couple of seasons, in black and white and with the original trio of daughters, were pretty funny, with a daffy energy to them.

    “Green Acres” is my pick for the most similar show to “Seinfeld.” Quite different settings, but the pacing, the skewed view of the regular world, and deep pool of weird characters are very similar.

    Part of the responsibility for the “rural purge” rests with the FCC. Beginning in 1971-72, networks were required to reduce their prime time schedules by thirty minutes a night, six night per week. So the three networks had to cancel 9 hours of programming before they could add any new shows.

  7. I watched Green Acres in the 80s, dubbed into Spanish in a culture completely foreign to the one it was created for. It was surprisingly good, kudos to both the original creative team and the translators/dubbers for making it work. A few of the others were dubbed too, but most weren’t. I have good memories of watching it with my Mom.

  8. How could you forget that masterpiece of theatre, “The Dukes of Hazzard”?

    Quintessentially American drama.

    I admit I’ve been trying to forget it for decades now, without success.

    • “Just the good ol’ boys
      Never meanin’ no harm
      Beats all you never saw
      Been in trouble with the law
      Since the day they was born…”

      Followed by ‘The Fall Guy’ each week, where Lee Majors fought to break out of the ‘^ Million Dollar Man’ role.

      ‘Dukes’ did not age well

  9. Ok I have fond memories of green acres, when I was seven years old I ended up in the hospital due to a mercury intolerance I was deathly ill. I have never eaten fish again I am only allergic to some types, but the taste of fish gives me flash backs the local station was showing the later seasons late at night and my two weeks on the hospital I got to know the Hooverville denizens . It was a fun show after I got out out of the hospital I renogataited my bed time to watch it and carol
    Burnett’s show. And yes many of the plots were absurd but in a few years I was reading Inescoe and Albee. It was fun and
    I look forward to it! Jack the theatre is working its way back, our community was hurt by all the losses during the aides crisis But the last few years there have been a few stand outs. And I for one like the idea of some family friendly non contraversail shows once In a while. Then something with some meat like Jb.

  10. I read Althouse regularly and also feel she was off the beam on this one. The comedy in “Green Acres” was some of the best ever.

    Remember, Sheriff Andy Taylor made his first appearance in an episode of “Make Room for Daddy” in which he arrests Danny Williams (Danny Thomas) for a traffic violation and puts him in jail.

    I grew up watching these shows on TV and had the experience of seeing many great actors in their TV roles before I ever knew about the films they were in. Seeing the very young Buddy Ebsen dancing in “Born to Dance” is a treat. That movie is also notable for a young Jimmy Stewart singing and dancing.

  11. Those shows really showed us to not take ourselves so damned seriously and we learned how to laugh at ourselves at the same time. I cherish many of those older family sitcoms. It’s a rarity to find similar humor these days but Tim Allen’s shows are about as close as you’re going to get in modern day sitcoms.

    • P.S. I learned the hard way not to go back and binge watch old sitcoms, the world is a different place than it was back then and perspectives change and watching the shows through modern eyes taints the memory. I now accept the warm feelings I get from memories of the shows and reject watching the old shows.

        • The really good ones age just fine. Dick Van Dyke. Mary Tyler Moore. MASH. I Love Lucy. Andy Griffith, Police Squad. Newhart. Taxi. Cheers. Of the dramas: Columbo. Hill Street Blues. LA Law. The Twilight Zone. Alfred Hitchcock. Star Trek: Next Generation. The best of the Westerns. (Psst: “Murder She Wrote” was always junk: weak plots, hammy acting. It doesn’t hold up because it was never as good as its reputation.)

  12. We only had a couple of channels when I was young (and had to turn the outside antenna with a pipe wrench to get those) and so I was forced to watch ‘Hee Haw’ while wishing for cartoons.

    I must have absorbed more of that show than I thought… they are running on RFD-TV (“The World’s Most Important Rural Network” – who knew?) and I really enjoy seeing the old country stars when many were young. I also found out I can sing many of the bit ditties like ‘Gloom, Despair…,’ ‘Hee Haw’s All Jug Band,’ and the still hilarious ‘Where, Oh Where, Are You Tonight?’

    My wife is amazed (she only had one channel so she also knows Lawrence Welk tropes, much to her dismay) and a bit embarrassed by my finding this funny. It is an escape to a simpler time, when my worst worry was wishing Hee Haw would be over with so I could change the channel. (My kids just roll their eyes)

    I have found that Former KKK Grand Foopah Senator Robert Byrd was a guest (who could play a mean fiddle) as well as Mike Tyson (who could not sing no matter how they supported him); racial politics were nonexistent. They might allude to current events in passing (Gomer carrying a gas can looking for gas for his station, during the OPEC Crisis) but never pushed a point of view, other than ‘people can get along with humor and a song or two.’

    Not comedy or music for the ages, but easy good fun and entertainment from a time when Americans were not so divided.

  13. I am somewhat confused – I didn’t think she was mocking or dismissing the comedies from the 1960s, but that she thought the idea of a “Green Acres” musical was dumb. I also thought she was ridiculing the glitterati. Perhaps my impression was colored by her take down of the “Cher” musical (my God, why?!?!?!?!?!?!) which everyone seemed to love and she thought was ludicrous.

    I also thought her take down of the Washington Post burying racial identities of the individuals responsible for beating a defenseless 92 year-old man fascinating. Here is her blogpost on the story. It starts around the third full paragraph. Read it in conjunction with the comments. Eye opening to say the least:


    • She said that making musicals out of “unsophisticated” fare like “Green Acres” was stupid, showing a) she never saw the show b) she knows nothing about musicals and the sources they spring from.

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