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Ain't That a Knee-Slapper

Ain't That a Knee-Slapper: Rural Comedy in the Twentieth Century

Tim Hollis
Copyright Date: 2008
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    Ain't That a Knee-Slapper
    Book Description:

    There was a time when rural comedians drew most of their humor from tales of farmers' daughters, hogs, hens, and hill country high jinks. Lum and Abner and Ma and Pa Kettle might not have toured happily under the "Redneck" marquee, but they were its precursors.

    InAin't That a Knee-Slapper: Rural Comedy in the Twentieth Century, author Tim Hollis traces the evolution of this classic American form of humor in the mass media, beginning with the golden age of radio, when such comedians as Bob Burns, Judy Canova, and Lum and Abner kept listeners laughing. The book then moves into the motion pictures of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, when the established radio stars enjoyed second careers on the silver screen and were joined by live-action renditions of the comic strip characters Li'l Abner and Snuffy Smith, along with the much-loved Ma and Pa Kettle series of films. Hollis explores such rural sitcoms asThe Real McCoysin the late 1950s and from the 1960s,The Andy Griffith Show,The Beverly Hillbillies,Green Acres,Hee Haw, and many others. Along the way, readers are taken on side trips into the world of animated cartoons and television commercials that succeeded through a distinctly rural sense of fun.

    While rural comedy fell out of vogue and networks sacked shows in the early 1970s, the emergence of such hits asThe Dukes of Hazzardbrought the genre whooping back to the mainstream. Hollis concludes with a brief look at the current state of rural humor, which manifests itself in a more suburban, redneck brand of standup comedy.

    Tim Hollis is the author of numerous books, includingHi There, Boys and Girls! America's Local Children's TV Programsand (with Greg Ehrbar)Mouse Tracks: The Story of Walt Disney Records.

    eISBN: 978-1-60473-953-4
    Subjects: Film Studies, Performing Arts

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-2)
  3. Introduction: What This Book Ain’t
    (pp. 3-6)

    Before we dive headfirst into this lengthy discussion about the history of rural humor, or country comedy, or whatever you may choose to call it, we really should make plain what the book does not cover. Ready?

    You will notice that the subtitle designates it as rural comedy in the twentieth century. That means that for the sake of space, we are not concerning ourselves here with the vast history of hick humor that predated the modern mass communication era. Rural comedy has been an American tradition for longer than there has been an America. Probably the nation’s first homespun...

  4. Chapter One Let’s See What’s Going on Down in Pine Ridge
    (pp. 7-35)

    As we tune our vintage 1920s crystal set radios, we search in vain for some sort of programming to emerge from the mishmash of static and whine coming through our headphones. The world of commercial radio has changed little during the first five or six years of its existence: no one quite seems to know just what sort of programming the listeners—presuming therearelisteners out there somewhere—actually want to hear. Music always seems to be a safe bet, whether classical, popular, or that emerging new brand out of the hill country known as hillbilly music. Programming that...

  5. Chapter Two Radio Rules the Roost
    (pp. 36-62)

    While it may seem that the airwaves were so crowded with rural comedy teams of theLum and Abner, Eb and Zeb,andSi and Elmertradition that you couldn’t stir ’em with a stick, the fact is that many other types of drawling, overall-clad, pigtailed comedians existed. Actually, the idea of a yokel monologist goes back even further than radio, with roots deep in the American tradition. Most of the rural humorists of the nineteenth century supplemented their writing income with stage appearances and readings, but one of the first to develop strictly as an audio character was Uncle...

  6. Chapter Three Hillbillies Go Hollywood
    (pp. 63-93)

    While rural comedians and musicians were first making their mark—even though a good number of them could actually write their names—in radio, the folks in the seedling movie industry also found country themes to be new ground. While radio could present rural dialects and hillbilly music without providing a visual image to go along with it, the first movies to feature such characters were silent and could not rely on the surefire gimmick of an exaggerated voice.

    Two scholarly books have already attempted to address this topic as part of their broader scope. Both J. W. Williamson’sHillbillyland:...

  7. Chapter Four Feudin’, Fussin’, and A-Fightin’
    (pp. 94-120)

    Some historians—but by no means all of them—believe that, in many ways, decades cannot always be defined in ten-year increments, such as 1930–39, 1950–59, and so on. Instead, they feel, decades can be more accurately measured by dividing them according to historical events or even pop culture. This line of thinking designates the 1930s as beginning with the stock market crash of 1929 and ending with U.S. involvement in World War II in 1941. That event would mark the beginning of the 1940s, which would end culturally at the conclusion of the war in 1945—or,...

  8. Chapter Five Peace in the Valley
    (pp. 121-142)

    After the war ended in August 1945, the entertainment industry had to retool itself to resume peacetime production. The returning soldiers immediately set to work producing a bumper crop of children, which would lead to the well-known baby boom that lasted until the early 1960s. The former soldiers had been exposed to much less restrictive forms of entertainment while overseas—both foreign productions and American ones that operated under a more relaxed form of censorship—and some postwar movies, even cartoons, consequently became sexier and slightly less uptight than had previously been the case.

    With most of the former rural...

  9. Chapter Six What It Was, Was the Fifties
    (pp. 143-171)

    When the time inevitably came that the radio audience defected to television, some tough decisions had to be made. Television was not certain just where its future lay, so with radio as the only prior comparable medium, much of TV’s early programming was patterned after what had gone before. Ironically, the remnants of radio would not be television’s biggest successes, but it would take a while before anyone figured that out.

    With so many radio shows and stars already established, a smooth transition to television seemed natural, but actual events sometimes proved more difficult. As only one example, Fred Allen...

  10. Chapter Seven The Country Broadcasting System
    (pp. 172-200)

    Those sophisticated types who thought the country was going to the pigs with all the rural humor that had taken place over the years could only scream and gnash their teeth after the 1960s arrived. Television was about to experience the biggest hillbilly explosion since Snuffy Smith’s still blew up, and it all started almost imperceptibly on the ABC network in October 1957.

    The Real McCoysdocumented the experiences of a family of hill folk who migrated to the more prosperous lands of the West Coast—or, as the theme song described it, “From West Virginny they came to stay...

  11. Chapter Eight From Cartoon Alley to Kornfield Kounty
    (pp. 201-229)

    Since animated cartoons had always been right out in front when it came to employing hillbilly humor during the 1930s and 1940s, it should have been no surprise that they would continue that tradition after theatrical shorts had given way to television. The silent Farmer Al Falfa cartoons were among the first to be made available to local stations, although the prints seen on television frequently had the star rechristened Farmer Gray. When the first country-flavored character created especially for the new medium appeared in 1958, he too had his roots in the world of theatrical cartoons.

    In the early...

  12. Chapter Nine They’re in a Heap o’ Trouble
    (pp. 230-256)

    In the early 1970s, the hills were not alive with the sound of music. In fact, with every trace of a rural situation comedy consigned to the junkyard, them thar hills were as quiet as a cemetery. The performers who had been enjoying steady work found that their talents provoked nowhere near the same demand as they had during the preceding ten years. However, a few remnants still hung around like autumn leaves in November.

    Except for the “Martins and the Coys” segment in Make Mine Music, the Walt Disney studio had evidenced very little interest in rural humor during...

  13. Chapter Ten Still Fertile Ground
    (pp. 257-262)

    One danger in trying to be too current is that the definition ofcurrentchanges daily. For this reason, this book is concerned with rural comedy of the twentieth century; we are not far enough into the twenty-first to ascertain where it will go from here. In this closing, however, we can make a few observations and wrap up a few loose ends.

    When people speak of “country comedy” today, they are usually referring to the acts of stand-up comedians such as Jeff Foxworthy, Bill Engvall, Ron White, Dan “Larry the Cable Guy” Whitney, and Etta May (whose publicity describes...

  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 263-266)
  15. Index
    (pp. 267-281)