With all due respect to the Bunkers and Simpsons, among others, “The Clampetts Strike Oil” may be the best sitcom pilot episode ever. Paul Henning started with a basic fish-out-of-water premise. His first thought had been to move his hillbillies to New York City. They ended up in California, apparently partly out of consideration for production costs. California, though, was really more fertile ground for their culture clash, anyway.
Studying it closely on DVD, you can see how twenty odd minutes of pilot (first aired September 26, 1962) had the fertile seeds for years of comedy in the internal study of a half dozen characters here in the hills, before we’re even given much look at the city folk in further episodes. There are bunches of issues to play with for each Clampett, and then the ways they mesh with one another — and THEN you start bringing in the city folk, and the parodies and criticisms of modern life.
Consider the very first scene as an exposition. First thing, Jed walks through the door to find Granny sewing up his child’s pants. Kid’s been rassling with a bobcat. Henning delays a bit before disclosing that this child was specifically a girl. Actually, she’s a full grown womanchild, as Granny is quick to point out, while moving on to sew back the buttons she’s done popped off her blouse. She’s full grown, and she ought to be doing woman’s work, like helping Granny with the still.
Plus, she obviously should be finding her a husband. Look, the boys started trying to court her right on schedule back when she was 12. But what’d she do? “She whopped the tar out of them.” Note closely at the proud and wistful sentiment of how Buddy Ebsen expresses that. For one thing, this looks very much like the tone he struck as Doc in his Breakfast at Tiffany‘s speech in the park reminiscing about his courtship of the teenaged Holly Golightly.
Then comes the first series appearance of Elly May Clampett — carrying a man over her shoulders that she’s knocked out with a rock. “Can I keep him?” It’s not that she’s not interested in men, she just doesn’t know how to deal with them. She wanted to keep this one out in the smokehouse for a pet, like her critters. They’d get a lot of good mileage out of just that one point about Elly May over the coming years of the series.
Poor little fellow turns out to be from the pee-tro-le-um company, and he’d asked Granny for permission to do some wildcatting out in their swamp. Of course, the joke was on him, as the swamp was way too full of oil for there to be any wildcats.
They had some quick exposition with his boss from the oil company, Mr. Brewster. They worked good quick jokes into all this, and country flavor, what with Granny cooking up some tasty mustard greens and possum innards for supper — which, by the way, make excellent leftovers; just as good the second day.
The most basic point of Jed’s nephew Jethro Bodine was that the big lug was an absolute idiot – despite being the one with the nominal education — a 6th grade degree, as it would be explained in subsequent episodes. He got a big arrival in the truck with Mom, crashing the truck into Jed’s chicken coop because he’d taken out the brakes. Thus, his very first appearance, he’s walking in covered with feathers with a chicken under his arm.
One point that’s lost, though, is that dunce Jethro’s mother, Pearl Bodine, was clearly really the brains in the family. Brewster had been in signing a contract, and trying to explain to Jed about the oil, but they didn’t quite get it. Jed was a bit ashamed of letting himself be snookered for twenty-five of these dollars, though he didn’t quite know what they were. He knew about gold dollars, silver dollars, and paper dollars.
But it took Pearl to figure out about these “million” dollars that they were giving Jed. She’s shown specifically sitting at the table, reading the contract. It was Pearl that finally got that Jed was rich, and had to explain it to him.
My favorite part of the episode comes in this scene. It is THE critical enunciation of the hillbillies’ values underlying the whole series.
Jed: Do you think I oughta move?
Pearl: Jed, how can you even ask? You’re eight miles from your nearest neighbor. You’re overrun with skunks, possums, coyotes, bobcats. You use kerosene lamps for light. You cook on a wood stove summer and winter. You’re drinking homemade moonshine, washing with homemade lye soap. Your bathroom is fifty feet from the house, and you ask should you move?
Jed: Yeah, I reckon you’re right. A man would be a danged fool to leave all this.
Note that when she recovered from being flabbergasted by this response, it was Pearl specifically who came up with the idea of moving the family to Beverly Hills. “We can come visit you,” she notes carefully.
Pearl’s main convincing pitch to Jed on the idea of moving to Beverly Hills was that it would be good for Granny’s health, out where it never snows. This set up the first indication of the hillbillies as super strapping physical specimens, as Jed laments the time Granny fell in the snow and broke her hip. Poor gal was limping for two whole days.
Of course, Daisy Moses is old school, and she’s not interested in moving to no Californee. My favorite new discovery in this episode that I just noticed after lo these many years of viewing was Jed’s immediate response to Elly when she told him that Granny wasn’t coming. “Danged if I ain’t got me the mule-iest womenfolk.” [ADBLOCKHERE]
Granny’s on the back porch in her rocking chair cradling her shotgun, and not going anywhere. This sets up one of the best classic iconographic images of Granny, symbolically encapsulating her mule-ish nature, strapped onto the top of the truck, rocking chair and all. Among other things, Granny would fulfill the role of Doubting Thomas in the series, regularly unimpressed with the city, starting with the supposed Beverly “hills”.
Over the years, much of the best material would be satire of the neuroses of the big city folk, but we get very little of that in the pilot. It’s only about the last five minutes before we even get to the city. We get maybe a minute in the Commerce Bank, and one main bit of setup for Milburn Drysdale, who responds to doubts about these people he’s never met by saying, “I know to the dollar what kind of people they are. They’re MY kind of people: loaded.”
The thing that jumps out at me studying this scene closely is Nancy Kulp. She obviously created this character herself. Henning apparently hadn’t intended her as a major character. Note the end credits, where the character is credited simply as “Secretary”. He hadn’t even given her a name. She might have a couple dozen words, strictly reactions or setup for the boss.
But study the secretary’s body language and facial expressions. She gets a great deal of implication of haughty superiority, flabbergasted exasperation, disdain, and a whole bunch of other stuff going in a matter of seconds. You can see the little acorn here that would grow into one of the great iconographic characters in television history.
They don’t quite get to even set foot in their mansion in the pilot. They figure this big gated building for a prison (Jethro’s idea, natch). Their first interaction with the city folk is to stop these guys at the gate who are there with their tools for a jailbreak. They’re holding them at shotgun point, figuring what a grateful first impression they’re going to make with the local constabulary. Imagine their surprise when they end up in jail for pulling guns on the gardeners.
This sets up their first meeting with Milburn Drysdale, who comes to get them out of jail. Drysdale gets his first classic shocked reaction shot, having grabbed hold of this ruffian by his collar through the bars, demanding to know what he’s done with Jed Clampett. “I’m Jed Clampett, and I’ll appreciate it if you let go of my Sunday shirt.”
One little detail Henning apparently hadn’t quite settled yet: in their first meeting in jail, Drysdale specifically refers to Granny as Jed’s mother. It was never dwelled on in the series, but Daisy Moses was cast as Jed’s mother-in-law, Elly’s maternal grandmother. The authority thing of making her Jed’s mother would probably not have been quite right, I don’t think. Anyway, if anyone asks, they can just play it off that Drysdale was a bit confused here.
Henning ends the pilot with the “head for the hills” segment, underlining their, at this point, reasonable animal suspicion. On getting them out of jail, Drysdale takes them right back to the “jail” that they haven’t yet figured out is their new home. Just inside the gates, Jed figures that this Drysdale guy has tricked them, and instructs the family to “head for the hills”, and off they go, with Drysdale chasing after them trying to explain.
Thus, the end credits of the pilot run over footage of Clampetts fleeing down the streets, jumping bushes, and such. The last shot before black shows Granny diving over a hedgerow.
Note that CBS failed to renew the copyrights on the first two seasons of the show, so they are public domain. On the one hand, that means you can get cheap copies. On the other hand, those very cheap editions are cheaply made — and don’t carry the original theme song recording, which is a separate copyright issue. The nice official set is more expensive, but also contains the proper theme music and other bonuses, such as cast ads for sponsor products.