Hee Haw was a country-themed television variety show filmed in Nashville, Tennessee, for over twenty years. The show featured musical segments and comedy and became a late-twentieth-century cultural icon of Tennessee, the South, and the country. Sam Lovullo, producer of Hee Haw for the entire run of the series, remarked in his memoir, Life in the Kornfield (1996), “Sure we were cornball, but hilarious cornball, good old fashioned country humor, much of which was brand-new and quite refreshing to the folks up in New York and out in Los Angeles, and other sophisticated cities across the nation.”
Hee Haw was born from the ashes of The Jonathan Winters Show, a short-lived variety show featuring the titular sketch comedian. Two writers from the show, John Aylsworth and Frank Peppiatt, conceived of another variety show, one set in the South, after the cancellation of the Winters program. CBS agreed to air a one-hour special based on the concept. As Aylsworth and Peppiatt were preparing the special, the network requested an additional twelve shows with the intention of making it a regular series.
The show’s first episode aired on December 29, 1969. By the spring of 1971, Hee Haw was the twelfth most popular show in total viewers, but new management at CBS had become dissatisfied with the stylistic direction of the network, which they felt featured too many rural settings. CBS officials canceled Hee Haw, along with other country-themed shows such as The Beverly Hillbillies, Mayberry R.F.D., and Green Acres, to make room for shows that would appeal to seemingly more sophisticated urban and suburban audiences.
From 1971 to 1991, Hee Haw enjoyed a generation of success in syndication. In 1971 local stations were desperate for original programming because of the recent FCC ruling that restricted stations not affiliated with a network from airing reruns of network shows during prime time. Popular programs like Hee Haw helped to fill this deficit in programming. At the height of its popularity in syndication, it made eight million dollars in advertising a year.
The ratings for the show declined by 1991, and in an effort to improve those ratings, the producers made drastic changes, jettisoning most of the cast (keeping only eight of the most famous members), and changing the setting to a more urban one. Longtime viewers hated the changes and abandoned the show while the revised Hee Haw failed to attract new viewers. The show’s final episode aired on May 30, 1992.
Country music stars Roy Clark and Buck Owens hosted Hee Haw. Generally, Clark was in charge of the comedy sections while Owens handled the musical segments. The typical show would include musical segments interspersed with comedic sketches and took place in fictional Kornfield Kounty. The show featured some famous regular cast performers such as Country Music Hall of Fame members Minnie Pearl and Roy Acuff, along with the popular “Hee Haw Honeys.” Guest performers were diverse, ranging from mainstream country stars such as Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash, Reba McEntire, and Garth Brooks to other celebrities such as Jerry Lee Lewis, Mickey Mantle, John Ritter, Robin Leach, and even Big Bird.
The show was originally filmed in the studios of the Nashville CBS affiliate, WLAC. In 1980 production was moved to the Opryland complex, which had significantly more space and was a more state-of-the-art facility. In 1981, shortly after their move to the Opryland complex, Hee Haw was sold to Gaylord, which subsequently added to its holdings the Opryland Hotel, Opryland amusement park, WSM, and the Grand Ole Opry. Like other prominent businesses in Nashville, the cast and crew of Hee Haw participated in the greater Nashville community, including forming a softball league and contributing to charity events.
Two notable derivative television programs came from Hee Haw: Hee Haw Honeys and Silver Hee Haw. Silver Hee Haw was a compilation program that aired after the end of the show in 1992. It garnered good ratings and inspired The Nashville Network (TNN) to begin re-airing the old Hee Haw episodes in their entirety, from the beginning, in 1993. It quickly became one of the most popular shows on TNN. Hee Haw Honeys was a spin-off meant to capitalize on the popularity of the young women on the program. It aired for one season in 1982 and featured the future cohost of Live with Regis and Kathie Lee, Kathie Lee Johnson (later Kathie Lee Gifford).
Hee Haw has become culturally synonymous with country humor and sketch comedy. It won an Emmy award for best editing in 1971. Like the earlier Rowan and Martin’s Laugh In and The Jonathan Winters Show, Hee Haw was part of the inspiration for newer sketch-comedy programs such as Saturday Night Live and Mad TV. Its legacy of highlighting rural life in America continues to live on in the memory of its fans and in popular culture.
Sam Luvullo and Marc Eliot, Life in the Kornfield: My 25 Years at Hee Haw (1996)