We S-A-L-U-T-E producer and Hee Haw producer Sam Lovullo who passed away yesterday at 88 years old.
While, we are not great fans of country music or country humor -I once spent a night in an out of body experience at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville watching the Grand Ole Opry- I had a peverse delight in watching the corn pone show Hee Haw. I’m from suburban Cleveland and I certainly had no connection with cornball humor such as Minnie Pearl. Grandpa Jones or Junior Samples. I didn’t care much for the music of the hosts- Roy Clark and Buck Owens. I hate country music. However, I love-and still watch- Hee Haw.
I was fascinated in the creation and long duration of Hee Haw, which was created by Canadians and produced by Los Angeles native Sam Lovullo.
Years later, I was researching a book on television with legendary television pioneer and producer Bob Finkel. Finkel produced countless variety shows from Andy Williams, Eddie Fisher, Jackie Gleason to Dinah Shore. He created The People’s Choice Awards. Bob produced-several Emmy and Academy Award telecasts. He directed shows such as McMillan & Wife to The Bob Newhart Show.
Bob satisfied my curiosity and kindly introduced me to his friend, Canadian comedy writer John Aylesworth. John was indebted to Bob as he had given him and his writing partner, Frank Peppiatt, their first break in writing for the Andy Williams Show that Finkel produced. Soon after Peppiatt and Aylesworth became the producer/writers of The Jonathan Winters Show on CBS (1967-1969).
Aylesworth and Peppiatt, who met in their native Canada, were fascinated by the segments between Jonathan Winters and Charley Weaver (Cliff Arquette) and the country banter on The Jonathan Winters Show (1967-1969) on CBS.. With the popularity of The Andy Griffith Show, Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, Petticoat Junction etc., they combined the country humor with a format drawn from Laugh -In and created Hee Haw, which debuted as a summer replacement for The Smothers Brothers in 1969. It became a permanent show in December of 1969. Hee Haw was an immediate ratings winner. The CBS producer of the show was Sam Lovullo.
The success of Hee Haw and other country-themed shows was the source of a heated dispute in CBS’s corporate offices led by Mike Dann who personally disliked the show he still considered total viewership the benchmark of success and encouraged the shows to stay on the air. When Fred Silverman became the head of CBS programming, he believed certain demographics—the ones in which Hee Haw and the other “rural” type shows performed poorly and believed that the bottom line was that he could draw more advertising dollars with broader, urban based programs. Silverman’s view won out, and CBS canceled the rural shows in summer 1971.
Ron Simon, curator of television and radio at New York’s Paley Center for the Media described their collaboration at Hee Haw as “an interesting hybrid of two of the most popular programs of the ’60s, The Beverly Hillbillies and Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, and ironically outlasted both of them.
The show featured a sequence of brief sketches of cornball humor, combined with performances by top acts in country. The show lasted for two seasons, starting in 1969 on CBS in prime time and lasted on network television until 1971 when CBS axed all of its country-oriented programming.
With the brilliant partnership between former CBS executive Sam Lovullo, John Aylesworth and Frank Peppiatt they took the show to syndication and peddled the show to local stations. The show then ran in syndication for another 22 years, making it one of the longest-running programs in television history with 585 episodes. In 1982, they sold the show for $15 million.
The show debuted as a mid-season replacement in June 1969 and because of this its first season is considered to be those first few months on the summer schedule. Its 24th season is referred to the batch of shows that aired from January through May 1992 when it was re-titled The Hee Haw Show. The fall of 1992 marked the beginning of the program’s 25th season on the air
Hee Haw’s appeal, however, was not limited to a rural audience. It was successful in all of the major markets, including New York, Los Angeles, Boston, and Chicago. Other niche programs followed the template created by Hee Haw, such as The Lawrence Welk Show (which targeted older audiences) and Soul Train (which targeted black audiences) also rose to prominence in syndication during the era.
Like Laugh-In, Hee Haw minimized production costs by taping all of the recurring sketches for a season in batches, setting up for the Cornfield one day, the Joke Fence on another day, etc. At the height of its popularity, an entire season’s worth of shows would be taped in two separate week-long sessions, then individual shows were assembled from edited sections. Only musical performances were taped with a live audience; a laugh track was added to all other segments.
So with an appropriate Hee Haw send off, we give Sam Lovullo a SALUTE!
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