NEW YORK — Before there were blue states and red states, in the late 1960s there were the ‘‘Laugh-In’’ states and the ‘‘Hee Haw’’ states of America.
Roughly speaking, the blue states were inhabited by the target audience for ‘‘Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In’’: mod, go-go dancing, liberal-minded, coastal. The red states were ‘‘Hee Haw’’ country: tradition-loving, two-step-dancing, conservative-minded, heartland.
Frank Peppiatt, the Canadian-born cocreator of ‘‘Hee Haw’’ — who died Nov. 7 in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., at 85 — kept his political views to himself as a top producer of television variety shows, including series and specials for Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Julie Andrews, and Jonathan Winters. What he cared about were ratings. And ‘‘Hee Haw,’’ which dispensed corny jokes, country music, and down-home folksiness for 22 years, was born of his talent for reading them. In 1969, Mr. Peppiatt and his business partner, John Aylesworth, had invited country stars Jimmy Dean, Dale Evans, and Minnie Pearl to appear on ‘‘The Jonathan Winters Show,’’ which they produced and which was in a ratings decline.
Ratings jumped, and though the show went off the air anyway, the partners had an idea ready when CBS needed a summer replacement in 1969 for ‘‘The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,’’ which was being canceled because of a dispute between the network and the Smothers Brothers over their on-air opposition to the Vietnam War. Mr. Peppiatt and Aylesworth proposed a show closely modeled on ‘‘Laugh-In,’’ which had become a hit for NBC by breaking new ground with nonstop, rapid-fire gags and an often absurd approach to sketch comedy.
‘’Hee Haw’’ emulated the breathless pace of ‘‘Laugh-In.’’ But where ‘‘Laugh-In’’ put an antiestablishment spin on its jokes, ‘‘Hee Haw’’ had a proudly cracker-barrel sense of humor — and a lineup of musical guests that included some of the biggest names in Nashville.
‘‘John and I knew we were pushing a boulder uphill with ‘Hee Haw,’ ’’ Mr. Peppiatt wrote in his autobiography, ‘‘When Variety Was King: Memoir of a TV Pioneer,’’ scheduled to be published next year. ‘‘Country music was considered a second- or even third-rate art form in the entertainment capitals of New York and Los Angeles.’’
“Hee Haw’’ was an immediate hit and added to the prime-time lineup by year’s end.
With running gags about cows, corn, and other rustic subjects, delivered by a large ensemble cast, the show’s hosts, country musicians Buck Owens and Roy Clark, traded jokes and exchanged a standard line, written by Mr. Peppiatt, that for a time entered the lexicon.
“I’m a-pickin’,’’ Owens would say. ‘‘And I’m a-grinnin’,’’ Clark would reply. Though they created thousands of hours of prime-time entertainment during the heyday of television variety shows, Mr. Peppiatt and his partner were best known for ‘‘Hee Haw.’’ After it was canceled in 1971 (in what television critics called a ‘‘rural purge’’ at CBS that also claimed ‘‘The Beverly Hillbillies,’’ “Green Acres’’ and ‘‘Mayberry R.F.D.’’ that year), ‘‘Hee Haw’’ continued in syndication until 1992, leaving an archive of more than 600 episodes.
Frank Peppiatt was born in Toronto. After graduating in 1949 from the University of Toronto — where he worked alongside classmate Norman Jewison, later a successful filmmaker, in college theater productions — he became an advertising copywriter. An entry-level job at the Canadian Broadcasting Co. led to production credits and to his partnership with Aylesworth. By the mid-1950s he was working in American television.
Mr. Peppiatt’s death, of bladder cancer, was announced by a spokesman for ECW Press, the publisher of his autobiography.