Sunday, January 04, 2009

The First Accusations of Surrealism

I was thinking about Green Acres the other day, mostly to be P.O.'d that the last three seasons seem to be stuck in DVD limbo, and I got to wondering who was the first person to advance the idea that the show was "surrealistic." It didn't seem to be very common when the show was on the air -- though I get the impression that it was considered a cut above the usual rural show, and Jay Sommers, the creator, said at the time that he considered it "a fairly sophisticated show" -- but it was only after it went into syndication that critics and fans started comparing it to surrealism and theatre of the absurd and so forth. The comparison is valid, even a lot of it is only surrealistic by comparison with other TV comedy of the time; fans of radio comedy were less surprised by it. (Most episodes of Green Acres used the old "Fibber McGee and Molly" structure where each supporting character drops by to give his point of view on the problem of the week.)

But then I found that the first person to call Green Acres "surrealistic" was probably Eddie Albert himself, in a New York Times article from near the end of the show's first season. The article, by Judy Stone, ran on April 10, 1966, and featured interviews with the two stars of the series. At one point, Albert uses the s-word to describe the show and its writing -- and then, even better, realizes that he shouldn't be over-analyzing a show that is meant only to entertain. So in one fell swoop he anticipates the show's cult following and lectures people who (and I sometimes do this) use fancy words and critical terms to justify watching the show. Eddie Albert rocked.

A great deal of revision takes place on most TV shows, Albert said, but this isn't true of "Green Acres," written and produced by Jay Sommers. The show ranked tenth in the latest Nielsen rating. "Everything Jay writes is beautifully done. A lot of people think the script is corny because it's laid in a rural community, but some of it is wonderfully surrealistic stuff. I'm in an apple orchard, wondering if the apples will keep falling and I look at one and it's an orange. I consider that very funny. Part of the show's great value is its irrelevance."

Albert suddenly looked very irritated. "This whole talk about surrealism -- in a way I'm just answering the critics about whom I don't give a damn. I'm wasting my time because I don't care what they think. I absolutely love the fact that the kids come up to me -- as thousands did at the Thanksgiving Day parade in Philadelphia -- and ask about Elinor, the cow. They love the show. If you want to say there is more to life than this, that's a philosophical question.

Speaking of Green Acres, I've also realized that this is one of those shows where the character you identify with can change over time. I used to identify more with Oliver, the one person on the whole show who tries to hang on to the rules of real-world logic. But now I think I identify more with Lisa, because in reality, she's more logical and sensible than her husband: she accepts the ways of Hooterville and just tries to enjoy herself wherever she happens to be, while Oliver simply can't let go of his idiotic fantasy about what rural life should be like. I think I'd rather be a "Lisa" person, trying to make the best of any situation, than an "Oliver" person, trying to force the world to be something it isn't. (However, I have the opposite reaction to Moonlighting, where I completely sympathize with Maddie and consider David an asshole. And I also have a certain sympathy for the early Hot Lips on M*A*S*H, but let's not even get into that.)


Anonymous said...

Jay Sommers was both surreal and wonderfully entertaining. People who actually live in small towns grasp the absurdity of daily life easily, something Hollywood usually misses by a country mile when it tries to replicate rural America. "Green Acres" remains one of the most accurate depictions of how insane rural life can be and a hell of a lot funnier than most any Edward Albee play. Try sitting through "Tiny Alice" sometime. I dare you.

Anonymous said...

Wait, how can you sympathise with Maddie over David? "Oh, I'm maybe pregnant with David's child, so I won't explain anything to him, will run away to my parents, and leave him to take care of my business and wonder about what the hell I'm up to? All the while I'm wondering around, refusing to seek help from anyone at all for no discernable reason."

Anonymous said...

Paul Henning, the show's executive producer, also was a past expert on surrealism, having worked as one of the main writers on "The Burns & Allen Show". A lot of Gracie Allen found its way into Lisa Douglas, and in the TV show's final two seasons, the writers took to having George not only commenting on the action, but watching the action on his upstairs TV and then going downstairs and mentioning what was going on (usually to Harry Von Zell, Larry Keating or Bea Benaderet, much to their shock).

Of course, Henning and Burns also were two of the main people behind Filmways, which came up with "Mr. Ed", "The Beverly Hillbillies" and "The Addams Family" along with "Green Acres", so normalcy in their sitcom premises were more the exception than the rule.

burlivespipe said...

Albert did rock. Take a guy who, for all intense purposes, was locked into second-banana land, who in reality was a war hero, who attempted to ruralize the growing urban sprawl by promoting the old-time front yard garden and ended up being the father of Earth Day, who then became super popular for playing an uptight man thrown into the most ridiculous circumstances... He was some kind of guy.
And isn't it strange how Green Acres' format is almost the reverse of recent sit-com style? While uptight and conventional on the surface, the leads in GA (and BH, too) were by and large leaps more interesting and funny than their so-called second-banana cut-ups like Mr Haney, Hank Kimball, Eb etc. Look at the Newhart show, and it seems IMHO to be the reverse.

Anonymous said...

Just one more note about Eddie Albert: when the time came, he could make a truly chilling villain - never more so than in the original LONGEST YARD (you know, the good one). "His-to-REE. I read you just like a book."

Barry Wallace said...

I would actually like to read why you consider the early Margaret Houlihan sympathetic? I liked her more in the early-mid-seasons, around "Nurses" and through her marriage with Donald but rarely elsewhere.

I don't remember the scene with the orange falling out the apple tree, that must've been hilarious.

I can see the absurdism of it all more than the surreality though. The neverending repairs to the house. The phone on the top of the pole. The pig-child. Etc etc. You really don't get that kind of non-self-aware comedy today - if someone had a pet that they treated like a child in a sitcom today the pet and the owner (parent?) would be the butt of the joke by those around him. But Arnold Ziffel was treated like a child by everyone except Oliver which made it funnier. And while Oliver griped about the house not being fixed and having to climb the telephone pole to use the phone, nobody else seemed to notice much urgency or necessity in fixing it, which was woven into the fabric of the show. In today's sitcoms it would just be a running gag.

I was a fan of GA when I was a kid, but I'm not sure I'd watch it again on DVD. Maybe I'll give it a try and see.

Anonymous said...

Matt Groening's said how he's a green Acres fan, and it shows it in the SIMPSONS ride! [At Universal.] As shown in that Pat Buttram [Mr.Haney] sounding "teen who's a qualified teenage ride operator".[The one I go to is the Hollywood one.] Not to mention Andy Devine.."I have a MATH test to do[yodeling}."

PS Disney studio put both Buttram AND Devine in their 1973 animated cartoon movie "Robin Hood".Like putting Paul Lynde and Charles Nelson Reilly, then at their the same production..:)