Saturday, March 26, 2005

Come and Listen To My Story

Paul Henning died yesterday at the age of 93. The obit above, from a newspaper in Henning's native Missouri, is much better and more detailed than the AP obit.

Henning, like a surprisingly large number of successful comedy writers, had a law degree, though he didn't practice law; instead he took a staff job at a Kansas City radio station, and broke into the big time when he got a spec script accepted by Fibber McGee and Molly. He wrote for a number of radio comedies, but his most important credit was The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show; he was one of the top writers on the radio show, and had a big role in helping to develop the show for television. He left Burns and Allen to write and produce The Bob Cummings Show, one of the funniest sitcoms of the '50s (and certainly the lewdest; in an era where nearly every sitcom was about a family, this was about the adventures of a womanizing glamour photographer). His best-known credit is, of course, The Beverly Hillbillies, arguably the biggest hit sitcom of all time -- at the height of its popularity it pulled in a staggering number of viewers, more than any series could possibly get today -- and, at its best, which is to say in the first two seasons, a very funny show that brought the Vaudevillian sensibility of radio comedy to the world of TV sitcoms.

Henning wrote or co-wrote nearly every episode of The Beverly Hillbillies during its nine-year run; he also created Petticoat Junction and served as a consultant on Green Acres (after Variety mistakenly credited him with creating Green Acres, he generously took out an ad in Variety calling attention to the name and work of the show's actual creator, Jay Sommers). He also wrote two movie scripts with Stanley Shapiro, Lover Come Back, the best of the Doris Day/Rock Hudson movies, and Bedtime Story, later remade as Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Lover Come Back isn't all it might have been as a movie, mostly because of bad direction, but the script, which uses the romantic-comedy formula as a pretext for a very funny satire on Madison Avenue, has some of the best lines of any comedy script of the '60s.

He was a prolific and very funny comedy writer whose good-natured humor, along with his ability to tailor his material to the strengths of his performers, has made his best work hold up very well. He also has some historical significance in that he helped to bring the concept of the "arc" show into the mainstream of radio and TV (in his radio work, and on The Beverly Hillbillies, he often did story arcs stretching story threads over several weeks or even months, instead of making every episode self-contained). Plus the theme song of "The Beverly Hillbillies" is his work, too.

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