Writing Right with Dmitri: How to Be Funny Without Worrying About Political Correctness
Not too long ago, I was nattering on about humour, and how to do it without hurting people's feelings. These days, we pretty much know to avoid offending people by making fun of them based on their ethnicity, their age, how fat or thin they are, or whether they can do all the things other people can physically. That's a no-brainer. But sometimes, we worry that we're getting hypersensitive about these things. Where's the line between a good, healing laugh at human foibles and the kind of sorry meanness that gets you yelled at (and rightly so)? I think most of us have a pretty sound idea of where that line is. Occasionally, though, something very funny happens along to challenge the rules of thumb you think you have. I saw one last night, and I think we could learn something from it.
I'm referring to the fact that Amazon Prime has loaded up episodes of The Beverly Hillbillies. This was a half-hour sitcom that aired on US television starting in 1962. The situation? A family of hill people from the Ozarks (mountains in Arkansas, remote and 'out of touch' with modernity) discover oil on their land. They become millionaires. On advice from just about everybody, they move to a mansion in Beverly Hills, a high-rent sector of Los Angeles. They upset the neighbours by behaving as if they still lived in the Ozarks.
Guest stars include famous names from the Nashville country music scene of the early 1960s. These are not the Garth Brookses you may be used to. Heck, they're not even as fashionable as Reba McIntire. They're good old, down-home, guitar- and banjo-pickin' comedy homebodies. The humour is broad, and includes references to the swimming pool (a staple of California gracious living) as the 'CEE-ment pond'.
I am from the South. Half of my relatives were hillbillies, the other half from the Mississippi Delta. You might think we were offended by this blatant stereotyping. You would be dead wrong.
We laughed until we cried.
We chuckled when the oil company representative tried to descend to the hills on a ladder from a helicopter. We chortled when Granny Clampett announced that 'that big ol' bird has caught him a man', and lost it completely when Jed Clampett returned, holding a shotgun. 'I couldn't hit the bird, but I made him drop the feller.' Oh, please, I can't stop laughing…
When they mistook their new mansion, bought sight-unseen, for a prison, and decided the groundskeeping crew were escapees, our joy knew no bounds. And that was just the pilot. I am looking forward to watching more and remembering why my relatives laughed so hard at this show back when I was a kid. The theme song was a toe-tapper: backup instrumentals by Flatt and Scruggs, virtuosos from the Grand Ole Opry. Lester Flatt used his Opry money to build his folks a brick house, not more than a couple of miles from my grandparents' farm. This was real 'home folks' stuff, which of course was part of the reason for the glee.
Another reason, of course, may be that I come from the most ethnically thick-skinned group of people on the planet. We don't really mind being mocked1. We find Brent Spiner in the Wheeler sketch on Night Court irresistible. Spiner, aka Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation, has said they claimed the Wheelers were Yugoslavs in order to deflect potential Appalachian ire, but they need not have worried. When Spiner, a native Texan, intones, 'We wuz se-duced by the glamour uv it awl…' we just lose it, and never think to write letters of protest.
As a matter of fact, if you find some gun-toting, pickup-driving yahoo with a Confederate flag bumper sticker complaining about this sort of humour, you can bet he's not really an Appalachian mountain dweller. He's some small-town or suburban type who listens to that fake 'country' on the slick radio station, and buys 'cowboy' clothes at the outlet mall so he can go line dancing on Saturdays. This has nothing to do with heritage, and everything to do with faddism. Real mountaineers love the jokes.
To get back to the original question: what makes The Beverly Hillbillies funny? Watch the pilot. (It's Public Domain, for some reason.) Do you notice the lack of artificiality in the portrayals? Buddy Ebsen and Irene Ryan were seasoned professionals of stage and screen. Ryan was said to be the one person who could reliably make Bob Hope laugh. Donna Douglass (Ellie Mae) is a 30-year-old actress from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with an accent that won't quit. Max Baer, Jr (Jethro) is a Southern Californian with good acting chops. The quality of the delivery is very assured. So is the dialogue.
But notice something else about the acting and the writing behind it. They take the situation seriously. Actions have consequences – funny ones, to be sure, but there's a consistency here. No absurdism intended or enacted. And notice how consistent the characters are. They aren't knowledgeable one moment and ignorant the next. They have a stable world view, such as it is. Note, best of all, how warm and caring these people are. They may be confused by the situation, but they will consistently behave in a manner designed to do good and not harm. That makes the 'safe space' for us to laugh. And boy, do we laugh.
The Beverly Hillbillies used a setup common to the best of the comedy programmes of the 1960s. Some people call it the 'fish out of water' trope, but I call it 'the alien next door'. The Clampetts are just like the Addams Family, or Uncle Martin the Martian, or Samantha Stevens, suburban witch. They are aliens in the American landscape. They comment on it, they react to it, they point out its errors and limitations. We're laughing so hard, we don't even realise how progressive the message of tolerance is.
And we probably haven't even noticed the lack of earthquakes, tsunamis, axe murders, car chases (okay, Jethro is a terrible driver, and dangerous to hen houses…), or major wars. Heck, it comes suspiciously close to Peace, Love, and Understanding.