“One joke, nine years,” is how one critic summed up The Beverly Hillbillies (CBS, 1962-1971) when the sitcom ended its run. I doubt anyone involved with the show would have argued the point. The joke is that the Clampetts are ignorant hicks living in Beverly Hills who misinterpret anything that didn’t exist before the late 19th century. Men who come to chlorinate their pool are accused of making their “cement pond” unlivable for fish and driven off at gunpoint. Actors are assumed to be the characters they play on television. And so on, to the tune of 274 episodes.
To someone who didn’t grow up with this stuff, it probably sounds unbelievably dumb. But, as Louis Menand points out in the Nov. 22 issue of The New Yorker, between 1962 and 1964 an average of fifty-seven million people tuned in every week. Television viewing habits were different at the time—a huge number of people would always be watching any given night, and the network’s mission was to get as many of these people as possible to watch CBS. NBC contemptuously referred to this philosophy as LOP (Least Objectionable Programming), but CBS, as Menand observes, ate NBC’s lunch for most of the decade.
But there is one more thing. The show, especially in the early seasons, is actually very funny. Go and watch a few episodes on Youtube. You will agree that “one joke, nine years” is an eminently fair judgment. But somehow they got the joke to work for about six of those years. The cast, particularly the Clampetts themselves, turns the dumb premise into a decade-long exercise in sincerity. The Clampetts don’t sell their jokes. They mean everything they say, and we laugh because they believe it. The show is a farce, and farce only works alongside this kind of total sincerity. If someone blinks once, the farce is over.
Compare this to a show like 30 Rock, one of the few comedies making occasional attempts at full-blown absurdity today. The writers of 30 Rock would, I suspect, trounce their Hillbillies counterparts on IQ tests or Trivial Pursuit, but they still haven’t figured out a way to carry out a farce, beginning to end. The characters are just too knowing. They wink at the audience, perform for the camera. The closest thing to sincerity in 30 Rock is the comedian Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan), who constantly alternates between hip-hop profligacy and wacky but informed social commentary in a manner which seems decidedly Method. But Morgan is a real-life comedian whose training prompts him to perform the role rather than living it. He is often very funny, but we laugh because we are impressed by the wit exercised in animating him, not because we submit to his absurdity. Reproducing that kind of wit is challenging: 30 Rock began showing signs of fatigue by Season Three. The show has produced many good jokes, but none of them will be funny for even close to nine years.