Paul Henning used his childhood as fuel to write three hit rural comedies

Growing up, Paul Henning loved hillbilly humor. As an adult, hillbilly humor made Henning's career as the producer of three hit TV shows.

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When producer and writer Paul Henning was a young boy in western Missouri, he would attend a camp deep in the Ozark Mountains and hike by himself in the woods nearby the campsite.

Henning would meet people along the way, and sometimes those random hillbilly hikers would inspire future characters in Henning's three big hits: Green Acres, Petticoat Junction and The Beverly Hillbillies.

"Ever since then I've been a sucker for hillbilly humor," Henning said in a 1966 interview with the Star-Gazette. 

Henning credited those childhood moments for giving him a base to start writing. From Missouri to Hollywood, Henning had a real Beverly Hillbillies moment. He wasn't just writing from the heart; he was writing from experience.

"The thing that always stopped me was that to do hillbillies as they really are would be pretty downbeat," Henning said. "I tried for a long time to think of some ways of taking a group of hillbilly characters and putting them in upbeat surroundings."

This sparked the idea: take a group of hillbillies and put them in Beverly Hills. 

According to the interview, Henning had no idea how popular The Beverly Hillbillies would become. He worked 70 hours a week and wrote or co-wrote every single episode of the series.

"I figured the show would do well in the Midwest, but I was really surprised at the breadth of its support," Henning said. "A standing joke in the industry is that the people in small towns watch the Hillbillies with the shades up, and in the cities they watch it with the shades pulled."

At the time of the interview, all three Henning-produced series were in the top 12 performing TV shows, a performance record that only Henning had achieved at the time. 

Despite what Henning originally thought, the series became so popular that commercial time on the program sold for $50,000 to $80,000 per minute... and that was 1966 prices. 

Petticoat Junction was another series that was written based on Henning's country upbringing. According to the interview, Henning was a big fan of Bea Benaderet's acting. 

"I've admired Bea Benaderet's talents for a long, long time," Henning said. "There was really no place for her in the original concept of The Beverly Hillbillies, so I wrote her in as cousin Pearl. But I told her that I was going to write something especially for her as soon as I could."

Green Acres followed the same Henning formula, taking the hillbillies and transplanting them somewhere new and interesting. No matter which show Henning was working on, he took from his past. 

"These characters aren't just funny," Henning started in a 1969 interview with The Dayton Daily News. "Underneath, Jed Clampett has a certain dignity. You might even say all the virtues. I'd be proud to have him in my house.

Henning wasn't the only one who loved having the Clampetts in their home, audiences all over the country would tune in to get a piece of the hillbilly humor that Henning knew and loved so well.

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14 Comments

MikefromJersey 1 month ago
Where was Green Acres, Petticoat Junction and the Beverly Hillbillies actually situated?
Most people say Tenn.(Granny's home state) or Kentucky, the Smokey Mountains.
But they would be wrong, especially given creator Paul Hennings roots, as cited above.
If you watch the last season of the Beverly Hillbillies - the subpar one featuring the beyond
annoying "Shorty" as if he was the star of the series - it makes clear they hail from southern
Missouri, the Ozark mountains.
Somewhere near the real Silver Dollar City which was shown in Beverly Hillbillies episodes,
complete with real life tourists gawking at the cast, footage that was pleasingly left in.
Pleasing to me as my family vacationed thru Missouri at the time and the tourists are dressed
exactly like we were, same hairstyles etc. so it was fun to see them.
Sooner 14 months ago
As an Ozark hillbilly, I resent his comment that taking hillbillies as they are would be too downbeat, so he gave them upbeat situations.

I had a great life amongst hillbillies, with very little downbeat about it. Henning must have been a weekend hillbilly or something.
MikefromJersey Sooner 1 month ago
He lived there during the Depression, he probably meant the people there had it rough
and it wasn't a time of high comedy living in those times.
He was always proud of his roots.
same 14 months ago
I've watched all three shows in reruns growing up great memories.
Charlotte 14 months ago
As a kid, me and my brother loved Petticoat Junction! My brother, RIP, loved Betty Joe. He loved her so much when my mom had my baby brother, if he'd been a girl, her name would have been Linda Kaye. He was so disappointed.
Hi Charlotte,
That's a neat story about your late bro. My family also loved these shows, we all gathered
around our one TV to watch them, often with popcorn and root beers with a dollop of
vanilla ice cream(Black Cows).
I suspect like me that when you watch the reruns the memories come back and you recall
the family members who have passed on.
For a few fleeting moments they all seem alive again, making fun of Uncle Joe, or like
my older brothers - ok, me too - drooling over the Bradley sisters.
tootsieg 14 months ago
Very good article. I don’t think I ever read anything about Paul Henning (if I did I don’t remember). TBH and PJ are longtime favorites.
Runeshaper 14 months ago
Good story, MeTV! Thanks for sharing (-:
Pacificsun 14 months ago
Well written, and interesting. Thank you, MeTV Staff writers! TBH is a fun show to tune into occasionally!

IMO the real secret to those particular rural comedies was the casting! They were very talented actors, who made the character appear legitimate. And the "My Fair Lady" theme of class juxtaposition, never fails. I'm appreciative of Paul Henning maintaining the humanity element of the story he was telling!
Andybandit 14 months ago
Paul obviously was a good producer to have 3 good shows on TV.
Adanor 14 months ago
This article is interesting but it could be better. Let's look at ". . . in the woods nearby the campsite." What about ". . . in the woods near the campsite." And what about all of those paragraphs? Many of those paragraphs could be combined to make a better article. Also, there are many tantalizing thoughts and ideas that are not completed. So he met some hillbillies while walking. How many? When? Were Oliver and Lisa Douglas in Green Acres really hillbillies? What about Petticoat Junction? Yes, characters but hillbillies? Let's try to do better.
LoveMETV22 Adanor 14 months ago
See nothing wrong with the articles composition except for the use of "nearby". The rest of the paragraphs flow well. Don't need to know how many,when, whether Oliver/Lisa/Petticoat Junction were hillbillies, all those assumptions/inferences/ideas are superfluous and would add nothing to the articles quality.
Pacificsun Adanor 14 months ago
Well, here's the thing. The MeTV webpage site is basically an entertaining method of promoting the shows. The writers (and they're probably interns) pick a through-point (meaning a solitary theme). And in this case is about how Paul Henning approached the subject of Hillbillies. Not a treaties on the nature of "hillbillies" themselves. But his particular experience in terms of observation and interaction, which he translated into a popular commercial opportunity for entertainment. PH's challenge was appealing to the masses, so the goal was comedy, elevated. Like TAGS, not at the sorry expense of characters being ridiculed. But highlighting the honest comedy behind the relationships which they celebrated. If these writers wrote articles in the manner which many "scholars" seem to expect, they'd never get anything out of the door. But I'm sure, that if suggestions are made kindly, it will help their experience to grow.

And no, Oliver and Lisa were anything but stereotypical "hillbillies." And most articles of this kind, given the resources available pointing back to that era, are interpreted based on a writer's assumptions. Unless we're reading direct quotes.
You post is one of the best I have seen on the MeTV boards. Sometimes, I keep insights
from the posters here for my TV file, this will be one of them. Thanks for sharing.
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