Paul Henning said Hollywood comedy writers didn’t know what to make of The Beverly Hillbillies when they saw the pilot. They liked it, but almost none of them understood how to write for the characters.
In a 1997 interview with the Television Academy Foundation, show creator and producer Paul Henning said finding writers early on for the quirky, fish-out-of-water comedy was incredibly difficult. Considering how popular the show became, it’s hard to imagine people turning it down.
“I did the first episodes alone simply because the writers that I invited over to our house next door and showed them the pilot on a screen, the honest ones said it’s funny, it’s wonderful, but I can’t write for that kind of voice. I just don’t understand them,” Henning said.
Henning died in 2005 at the age of 93.
The concept of The Beverly Hillbillies came from camping trips to the Ozarks that Henning took as a Boy Scout. He thought it would interesting to see what would happen if someone like the people who lived in those rural communities struck it rich.
Critics hated the show, calling it low-brow. But viewers loved it. The Beverly Hillbillies was the No. 1 show in the country three weeks into its first season. It was so popular, in fact, CBS asked Henning for a spin-off. He came back with Petticoat Junction. He also helped developed Green Acres, as well, off the strength of the rural comedy. Henning served as executive producer on the latter.
The Beverly Hillbillies ran for 9 seasons and 274 episodes. Petticoat Junction had 222 episodes and Green Acres 170.
Henning Discusses ‘The Beverly Hillbillies’ Success
Paul Henning said he wasn’t expecting the show to be such a hit. But he understood what people wanted from television: characters they can like. It sounds simple, but thousands of shows have failed because their characters were boring, unlikeable, or unbelievable?
“Characters are what make up television shows. That’s not true in a movie, he said. “For example, you know you can have the scariest, most horrible movie, but you have a captive audience, and when the movie is over they escape. But you would not want to invite them into your home on a weekly basis … so television depends on characters and on people liking those characters and wanting them to visit in their house again. Because it’s an easy thing to click and switch and change channels. And so you have to hope that your characters become friends of the people watching, and our characters did to a certain extent, I suppose.”
It’s a hard needle to thread, but it’s why it was so hard for The Beverly Hillbillies to find writers in the beginning. They didn’t see the characters beneath the costumes.