Thursday, January 15, 2015

Thoughts on The Beverly Hillbillies

How much realism does comedy require? Personally, I find a TV sitcom or any other type of humorous fiction funnier if it's not downright silly. In other words, I prefer comedy—if it claims to be set in the world as we know it—to have some recognizable grounding in reality.

This topic came to mind because I recently borrowed the first few episodes of THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES from Netflix. This series embodies one of my favorite themes, "fish out of water." It admittedly contains many funny moments, and contrary to first impressions, its humor doesn't rely on holding the displaced rural mountain folk up to ridicule. The Clampett family more often than not gets the better of the Southern California city slickers; their family values show up favorably in contrast to the mercenary motives of the banker, Mr. Drysdale; and Miss Hathaway's mistaking the new millionaires for servants is a graver error than Jethro's mistaking a flamingo for a big, pink chicken. But too many unrealistic details keep wrecking my suspension of disbelief and jerking me out of the story.

Okay, Granny has never cooked with a stove that didn't burn wood and tries to start a fire in the electric oven. She doesn't know what a freezer is. I can stretch to accepting those assumptions. And I rather like the term "cement pond" for the swimming pool. As for Jed's qualms about going upstairs when they first enter their mansion, on the belief that the second floor must surely belong to somebody else, that's an almost poignantly believable detail. But the Clampetts don't recognize a refrigerator as a variation on an old-fashioned icebox? They drive a truck and have seen movies but have no clue what a television is? They've never heard the word "million" before (even though Jed's cousin, Jethro's mother, knows what it means)? The conversation in which they reveal their ignorance of telephones struck me as a particular wall-banger. Come on—the most remote rural areas of the country have had phone service since the early twentieth century. Despite not having a phone themselves, the Clampetts must surely have seen one. As for other technology, the Sears catalog has also been ubiquitous in rural culture for a long time. They must have seen pictures of many items they've never encountered in person.

Come to think of it, if they own a truck, why don't they know oil is valuable? Many such details can be justified only by what calls "the Rule of Funny."

Of course, similar criticisms could be aimed at GILLIGAN'S ISLAND. They brought all their luggage along on a three-hour tour? (Maybe they planned to head directly to the airport from the dock?) That show, however, is clearly fantasy; there's obviously a curse on the island, given all the far-fetched incidents that prevent the castaways from escaping. And their endless supply of necessities and comforts must mean the boat contains an infinite-capacity bag of holding. Seriously, all GILLIGAN'S ISLAND needed to transform it from comedy into horror was a slight shift of perspective, as we saw with the airing of LOST.

Did you hear about the ill-advised attempt (at some point during the past couple of years, I don't remember when) to create a reality TV series on the same premise as THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES? Some network actually planned to transplant a real-life rural mountain family into an affluent suburb and film the resulting hijinks. It would be nice to think the better angels of their nature inspired them to abandon this degrading notion, but I suspect they dropped it because they realized how hard it would be nowadays to find an American family, even in a remote nook of Appalachia or the Ozarks, that doesn't have satellite TV and Internet (or at least a nodding acquaintance with same).

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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