From Tuesday’s Life section of The Oklahoman. To read other Oklahoma musicians’ memories of “Hee Haw,” click here.
Roy Clark keeps on “grinnin’”
The longtime Tulsa resident and Country Music Hall of Famer is honored in the Oklahoma History Center’s new exhibit “Pickin’ and Grinnin’: Roy Clark, ‘Hee Haw’ & Country Humor.”
For Roy Clark, the quarter-century he spent as the co-host of the TV show “Hee Haw” is the topper on his richly satisfying entertainment career.
“I’ve often said that it was the icing on the top of my professional cake,” Clark said in an interview from the Oklahoma History Center during the opening of the new exhibition “Pickin’ and Grinnin’: Roy Clark, ‘Hee Haw’ & Country Humor.”
The 3,000-square-foot exhibit offers a hearty “salute!” to “Hee Haw,” the long-running country variety show that showcased corny country humor alongside performances from top-notch country, gospel and bluegrass musicians and made Clark and co-host Buck Owens household names. With his lively sense of humor and prodigious musical skills, Clark was “the heart and soul of ‘Hee Haw,’” said Oklahoma Historical Society Executive Director Bob Blackburn.
“Prior to ‘Hee Haw,’ I had done every variety show that was on television. I had done everything from ‘Beverly Hillbillies’ to ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ to ‘The Tonight Show.’ If it was on the air, I did it. But people back then, like at an airport or something, they’d look and see me and give me that look like ‘I know you from somewhere,’ and then they’d come up and maybe speak after awhile,” said Clark, a longtime Tulsa resident.
“But after ‘Hee Haw’ was on the air, it didn’t take two weeks and they’d come ‘Hey, Roy, how ya doing?’ They’d know who I was right off.”
In 1968, the Virginia native was doing a guest spot on “The Jonathan Winters Show” when “Hee Haw” creators Frank Peppiatt and John Aylesworth approached him with the idea for a country version of “Laugh-In.”
“In television or any other field of entertainment, you learn right off to say yes to everything because a lot of times it never happens,” Clark said with a grin during last week’s exhibit opening. But when his longtime manager Jim Halsey called with news that the show was a go, Clark had forgotten about it.
“He said, ‘Well, they’re calling it ‘Hee Haw,’ and I said, ‘They’re calling what ‘Hee Haw?’” Clark said. “He said, ‘Well, they’ll probably come up with a better name than that by the time it goes on the air.’ But as you look back on it, what better of a title can you come up with. … People repeat it to themselves.”
The producers paired Clark with Owens, whose nationally syndicated program was shot at Oklahoma City’s WKY-TV.
“We did fit because we had worked together before on, like, tours,” Clark said of his co-host, who died in 2006. “We were two different people. As you can see, I laugh a lot and everything is a joke, which I think is a good way of handling life … because it’s gonna be sad soon enough. And Buck was a real businessman.”
“Hee Haw” debuted on CBS on June 15, 1969, as a summer replacement for the “Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. It was a ratings success.
“A lot of people said … it won’t last for the summer. And I make no predictions even right now: I still don’t know if it’ll last. But I’m taking precautions that it will,” he said cheekily.
CBS canceled “Hee Haw” because executives felt it was “too rural” in 1971, the same year Clark moved to Halsey’s home base of Tulsa. So, the producers put together a syndication deal and continued the show in much the same format for another 20 years, making it one of the longest-running syndicated series in TV history. From 1981 to 1993, the show was kept on the air by broadcasting companies associated with The Oklahoma Publishing Co., which publishes The Oklahoman. Clark remained a constant on the series for its entire run.
“It was probably the easiest show I’ve ever done. As you can tell, there was very little if any rehearsing done. We just winged it. We’d just come out and we just did it. And if somebody blew their lines or so, we just did it again. And when they take that kind of pressure off of you, you wind up doing it the first time anyway. No one who ever did that show can say that they were ever under a strain ‘cause we left strain at the door,” said Clark, who was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2009.
“Hee Haw” attracted an array of top-shelf guest stars, from Loretta Lynn and Jerry Lee Lewis to Johnny Cash and Sammy Davis Jr. About 40 famed folks with Oklahoma ties appeared on the show, including Roger Miller, Sheb Wooley, Wanda Jackson, Vince Gill, Reba McEntire and Garth Brooks.
The cast gathered in June and October to film all the segments for a full season of 26 episodes, giving the performers the rest of the year to record and tour. Clark forged tight friendships with many of his castmates, particularly Grandpa Jones and Junior Samples. Several “Hee Haw” regulars have died over the years, and he has mourned those losses.
“It was just like a family reunion twice a year,” Clark said. “I have nothing but great memories of the friends that I made on ‘Hee Haw,’ and I miss it. The hardest part of it is looking at a cast picture, and you find yourself — not consciously — just drawn to (saying) ‘he’s gone, he’s gone, she’s gone, they’re gone.’
“But instead of getting down and sad, you just think of the great times you had together, and it’ll pick you up. There was enough good times that we can stand it.”
“Hee Haw” airs in reruns on the cable channel RFD-TV, and the show still gets Clark recognized all over the world. Whether he’s in Dallas or New York City, people often hail him with Owens’ line from the show, “I’m a-pickin’,” to which Clark obligingly gives his famous answer, “I’m a-grinnin’.”
No doubt he says it with a grin.
“Pickin’ and Grinnin’: Roy Clark, ‘Hee Haw’ & Country Humor”
Where: Oklahoma History Center, 800 Nazih Zuhdi Drive.
Information: 522-5248 or www.okhistorycenter.org.