"Mobituaries": When TV sitcoms died in the "rural purge"

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The cast of the 1960s sitcom "The Beverly Hillbillies," clockwise from top left: Donna Douglas, Irene Ryan, Max Baer Jr. and Buddy Ebsen. The show was a consistent hit for most of its nine-year run, but fell victim to a network executive's axe.

AP/CBS

On the evening of January 8, 1964, tens of millions of Americans tuned their television sets to CBS for an epic matchup. This wasn't a fight between Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston; instead the main event was a feisty grandmother battling a kangaroo she had mistaken for a giant jackrabbit.

This was the actual premise of an episode of the classic sitcom, "The Beverly Hillbillies." Preposterous though it may seem, "The Giant Jackrabbit" episode aired less than two months after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. In fact, earlier that same day, the new President, Lyndon Johnson, delivered his first State of the Union address to a still-traumatized nation.

"And you know, here's this little old, you know, hillbilly lady confused by what a kangaroo is," Rolling Stone's chief TV critic Alan Sepinwall explained. "You don't get more escapist than that!"

"The Beverly Hillbillies" was a juggernaut in the 1960s. While the critics bemoaned the lack of quality of the show's content, author Sara Eskridge argued that "it's very subversive." (Eskridge wrote a book all about rural comedy at CBS, called "Rube Tube.") "What you see with this family is that they make fools out of the people that are around them in Beverly Hills," she said.

Meanwhile, profits soared, and CBS greenlit a whole host of new shows (like "Petticoat Junction" and "Green Acres") catering to audiences who couldn't get enough of country-themed programming. 

But by the end of the decade, the network put the Clampett clan – and ALL of their country cousins – out to pasture. They even put down "Lassie"!

Fred Silverman was head of programming at the time and didn't mince words when he explained that he and his bosses "whacked the hell out of that schedule and cancelled about a dozen-and-a-half shows."

Sepinwall added: "Anything that was not in a city with brick or concrete, bye bye."

In this episode of "Mobituaries," titled "The Rural Purge: Death of the Country Broadcasting System," host Mo Rocca explains the rise of the rural comedy craze, investigates what caused the largest slaughter in sitcom history, and speaks to one of its stars.

Download or stream "Mobituaries with Mo Rocca" free at art19.com.

      
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