HEADIN' BACK TO KORNFIELD KOUNTY; SNUBBED BY CBS, CITY SLICKERS ALIKE, `HEE HAW' THRIVED IN SYNDICATION, ITS HAYSEED HUMOR INTACT.
Nothing quite like it had ever been seen on national television.
There were hillbillies in straw hats and bib overalls popping up in a mock cornfield, lounging around the facade of a moonshiner's cabin with a lazy hound dog, pickin' banjos and stompin' their feet. And telling corny jokes so awful that they made even the tellers wince.
The show, which premiered in December 1969, was ``Hee Haw,'' a country-western response to the ultra-hip ``Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In,'' with hayseed sketches and jokes interspersed with country-western songs.
TV critics, particularly those in Northern big cities, savaged the new effort. The Boston Globe wrote: `` `Hee Haw' made its debut last night - and shouldn't have.'' The New York Times said: `` `Hee Haw' is ghastly, and Nashville should not hesitate to bring suit.''
It wasn't the reaction the cast and crew were hoping for.
``You never saw such a downhearted group in your life when we saw what the critics wrote after that first Saturday night,'' recalled singer-musician Buck Owens, one of the show's two stars. ``But we hadn't reckoned on the people.''
The ``Hee Haw'' crowd from Kornfield Kounty had the last laugh: The show aired on CBS for only two years - but lasted nearly 23 more in first-run syndication. Reruns still are shown daily on The Nashville Network (TNN), and in the South, they're the cable network's No. 1-rated shows.
``There were so many negative articles about the show, people began tuning in just to see how bad we were, and once they found us, they were surprised that they liked what they saw,'' recalled ``Hee Haw'' producer Sam Lovullo of Encino, who has chronicled the fight to keep the cornball show on the air in his new book, ``Life in the Kornfield: My 25 years at `Hee Haw.' ''
Lovullo is promoting the book (Boulevard Books; $15) nationwide while planning a ``Hee Haw'' reunion; he's still angling with CBS for a time slot for the reunion show sometime this year or next.
``People liked `Hee Haw' because it was just a good time,'' Lovullo said. ``And I think they'd like to see what's happened to the original cast members.''
Several have died: Minnie Pearl with her hats, the price tag dangling; Junior Samples, the lovable illiterate; Stringbean, the gangly storyteller; Archie Campbell, who often helped write the hokey sketches he appeared in.
But the rest of the cast, though scattered, is still around, and most are still performing, including the show's two star ``pickin' and a-grinnin' '' musicians. Owens owns several radio and television stations and directs a magazine publishing empire from Bakersfield, where he appears Friday nights in his own theater, and Roy Clark is on the road 220 nights a year, performing in Nashville, Branson, Las Vegas and other venues.
Clark said he'd love to get back together with the original cast for one more show.
``It'd be an excuse to get back with the `family,' '' he said. ``It'd be like a family reunion.''
Owens said he'd also jump at a chance to do another ``Hee Haw'' show.
``But only if it was a first-class thing, representative of the (show's) early days - the costumes, the jokes, the music,'' he said. ``And no tuxedoes.''
Just as network officials' disdain for hayseed humor got ``Hee Haw'' bumped from CBS (it was No. 12 in the ratings when it was canceled in 1971, along with ``The Beverly Hillbillies,'' ``Petticoat Junction,'' ``Green Acres'' and other rural-humor shows), it was a new production company's misdirected attempt to citify the all-corn pone program in 1992 that began its demise, Lovullo said.
``They wanted to get rid of some of the older cast members, replace them with kids. They wanted to concentrate on new musical talent, get rid of the cornfield, get rid of the overalls, put the cast in fancy costumes. People didn't like it. That wasn't what `Hee Haw' was all about.''
Less than two years later, with its audience dwindling, the show halted production, but the cast and crew left with fond memories.
``We were supposed to be a one-hour pilot to see what reaction would be, and you see what happened,'' Clark said. ``We had no idea it would take off like it did - especially with those god-awful jokes. But it was fun. And it was successful because it wasn't over-rehearsed. We just had a good time.''
Although the ``Hee Haw'' gang made fun of everything considered rural, hillbilly or Southern, Southerners didn't complain because they were laughing with an almost exclusively Southern cast at their own exaggerated and stereotyped foibles. It wasn't as if they were some uppity Yankees looking down their noses at country folk.
There was an innocence to ``Hee Haw,'' a gee-whiz look at the world from the point of view of a country bumpkin - who proved not to be so dumb, after all.
Perhaps ``Grandpa'' Louis Jones, the show's white-haired singer and jokester, best articulated what ``Hee Haw'' was all about.
``It's merely foolish,'' he said with a wry grin one day after watching a silly cornfield sequence. ``Hee Haw'' adopted that as its unofficial motto.
Best country entertainers
Besides its hayseed humor, the show became known for featuring the best country entertainers - from established stars such as Loretta Lynn and Charlie Pride to new talent such as Garth Brooks, Reba McEntire and k.d. lang.
More than 1,000 guest stars appeared during the show's near-quarter-century run, including many noncountry entertainers - and even many nonentertainers - including Sammy Davis Jr., Ethel Merman, boxer Joe Frazier, televangelist Oral Roberts and Playboy publisher Hugh Heffner.
Even Elvis Presley, whom Lovullo met on a plane trip, almost made it into the cornfield in a pair of overalls - but died before his appearance could be scheduled.
One of the things stars seemed to like, Lovullo said, was that on ``Hee Haw,'' they were treated just like any other cast member - no plush hotel suites, no limousines, no personal hairdresser, no fancy costumes. Just a pair of overalls and a straw hat, the show's own backup band and maybe a barbecue or chili lunch cooked up by the ``Hee Haw'' cast and crew.
``We made them comfortable, made them part of the family,'' Lovullo said. ``And it always worked. Everybody loved to get into overalls and get into the cornfield.''
Producer Lovullo saw his role as a combination psychologist, scheduler, talent scout, gofer, cajoler, financial officer and troubleshooter. He fetched drinks and hamburgers, played chauffeur, and helped some guest stars into their overalls - whatever it took to keep things going.
When one of Patti Paige's backup singers failed to show up, Lovullo - without rehearsal - sang the bass part for ``Tennessee Waltz.'' When presidential brother Billy Carter got drunk at lunch and couldn't appear for an afternoon taping session, the producer put on a pair of horn-rimmed glasses and a hat and stood just far enough in the background so he could be mistaken for Billy.
The show was famous for its ability to juggle its schedule to take advantage of country music stars' penchant for dropping by to visit.
When Johnny Cash showed up one day and offered to sing a few songs, the comedy sketches were dropped and the show's backup band summoned to the studio. When evangelist Billy Graham dropped by, it took only minutes for Lovullo to outfit him in overalls, delay taping of musical numbers and put him in the cornfield with the Daisy Mae-clad Hee Haw Honeys (Kathie Lee Gifford was one for a few years) to tell a joke or two.
Producing a country music-and-humor show that could turn on a dime was a big adjustment for Lovullo, a CBS bean-counter-turned-producer whose parents were born and raised in Italy; he grew up in Buffalo, N.Y., far from the land of country music. But it wasn't much of a stretch to learn to love the twangy sounds with their mostly melancholy lyrics, he said.
``When I was a kid, my parents used to take me to the opera,'' Lovullo said. ``I loved it. The opera adds the lyric to the story line - and that's what country music's all about.''
Too little credit
While Lovullo's book concentrates on the show's struggle to survive its early years and on its guest stars, he's at work on a second volume that will concentrate on the show's regular cast, people he says got too little credit for being versatile performers.
During the show's run, just about everybody was called on to sing, dance, play an instrument, tell jokes, act in sketches.
``It was a strange, odd group of people,'' said Cliff Dektar, who did the show's public relations for 16 years and is helping Lovullo promote ``Life in the Kornfield.''
``But they all respected one another,'' he said. ``Take Junior Samples, for example. If you didn't have a Junior Samples, you couldn't invent one. He was just like he was on the show - an ignoramus who could barely read. That's why he always sounded so stupid - he couldn't read the cue cards. When he wasn't in a scene, Junior used to sit out in the parking lot and sell pictures of himself for a nickel.''
Lovullo writes of friction and competition between Owens and Clark, but both stars say occasional differences between their managers never filtered down to them.
``In all those years, Roy Clark and I never had a single cross word or a single cross thought,'' Owens said.
``If we'd have been pickin' at each other, it would have shown up on camera,'' Clark said. ``We loved to work with each other.''
Lovullo also writes about the frustrations overcome, the unplanned jam sessions with the stars and the show's backup musicians, the late-night bull sessions, the impromptu belly laughs.
``Except for my family, that was the best time of my life,'' Lovullo said. ``I loved it, loved the people, loved Nashville.''
Photo: (1) Buck Owens, left, and Roy Clark co-hosted ``Hee Haw.'' Clark said he'd love to get back together with the original cast for one more show. ``It'd be like a family reunion.''
(2) `There were so many negative articles about the show, people began tuning in just to see how bad we were, and once they found us, they were surprised that they liked what they saw. People liked ``Hee Haw'' because it was just a good time. And I think they'd like to see what's happened to the original cast members.'
``Hee Haw'' producer
David Sprague/Daily News
(3) Johnny Cash, left, June Carter Cash and George Lindsey share laughs during a 1986 episode.