The Dukes of Hazzard Turns 40
Celebrating the anniversary of the greatest theatrical production of all time
Can you remember what you were doing 40 years ago?
I can. I was 7 and trying to hide from my babysitter. Didn’t want to go to bed at 9 p.m. on a Friday, Jan. 26, 1979.
So she kept our 16" Sanyo black and white television on and a program came on that before or after I have never before seen the likes of.
The show was The Dukes of Hazzard, and 40 years ago tomorrow will be the anniversary of the airing of “One Armed Bandits,” the pilot episode that changed the way action was presented on television.
Imagine you’re a 7-year-old boy who waxes poetic for the summers and time spent with grandparents in South Carolina. Fascinated with automobiles as young boys are, the series begins with a car chase, nay, a car JUMP, with background music composed by Waylon Jennings’ very own band in the background.
I’m hooked. I’m absolutely hooked. For life.
By the time the commercial comes on, I’m introduced not only to the magical idea cars can fly, but the naughty concept that authority figures in police and government can be corrupt (unheard of to a 7-year-old boy), a story line involving an election, two car chases, including one with a ’69 Dodge Charger converted to a race car, Starsky and Hutch’s Cherry Tomato, an El Camino. and a 1960-something Camaro, a blonde female guest star who would marry in to French royalty (Tisch Raye- look it up), and Catherine Bach in her prime in a red bikini and heels posing alongside a ’71 Plymouth Road Runner.
What more could a little boy ask for? By the time Waylon Jennings ends the first segment with “Ain’t this fun,” what can I possibly do but agree?
Coupled with the fact the program was set not in some place like New York City or Los Angeles but the SOUTH, and I can’t get enough. By the time 10 p.m. rolls around, I’m at the front door of my apartment when my mother gets home and while the baby sitter is making excuses as to why she couldn’t get me to bed I’m begging to be allowed to stay up until 10 p.m. on Friday nights to watch this magical theatrical production on the idiot box.
“Well, it’s not a school night,” my mother sighed.
You can tell what generation a southerner is from whether his favorite show is The Andy Griffith Show or The Dukes of Hazzard. And you’ll never get me to believe Andy Griffith was as good as Dukes.
Where’s the action? Besides, Andy Griffith spin offs were a victim of CBS’ famous “Rural Purge.”
Eight years later, Dukes of Hazzard was the antidote to the purge. And after the first few episodes even the kids at Bryn Mawr Elementary on the Main Line of Philadelphia were sitting on top of tires in the school yard pretending they were driving the General Lee.
The show premiered three weeks before CBS would televise the Daytona 500 live for the first time, and one cannot dismiss the connection to the corresponding debuts. The 1979 Daytona 500 featured the famous Cale Yarborough-Donnie Allison fight, and Yarborough, perhaps to try to save his reputation, would make a guest starring appearance that fall on Dukes.
But when one watched Dukes, they realized there were certain stereotypes about the south that Hollywood wished to prevail, as they seem to do to all country or southern based shows. Whereas the show was originally set on location in Georgia and had very realistic and entertaining storylines, or at least as realistic as one could have with cars flying,
Okay, maybe Boss Hogg and his sidekick, Sheriff Rosco, who were originally played realistically, had to be dumbed down in the Warner Brothers tradition of their cartoons. They were like Sylvester the Cat and Wile E. Coyote, characters who may never win, but they’re likable so you keep watching. If story lines were going to have the same heroes and villains appearing on every episode, it was important to make them all equally likable, even if some plausibility was sacrificed.
But by the time traditional moonshine stories had been replaced at the end of the series’ run by ones with genies, space aliens, and robots, fans realized the original writers’ and creator’s vision had been replaced by script writers who had previously worked on cartoons and were trying to cater to children.
And it showed. Characters became broad based and caricatures. It seemed as if Hollywood was pushing forth the idea that southerners were the only group of people who one could portray in such a manner.
We all have criticisms of the place we live or are from. But this was stereotyping.
And by the time Dukes was made in to a feature film, were those stereotypes so prevalent that it caused the film to fail critically?
They’d never want to admit it, but Dukes of Hazzard has a fan base that is much like that of Star Trek. Fans travel to conventions, have incredible collections of memorabilia, and are fanatically supportive even generations after their show’s original run was taken off the air.
Unfortunately the media embraces the cult of science fiction fandom. A country fantasy of exciting car chases and good humor and “a stranger is just a friend you’ve never met before” where even the bad guys believe violence is morally wrong somehow is not, so Dukes fandom is often ignored by comparison.
How could someone embrace a show that displayed the Confederate Flag so prominently? Dukes isn’t even aired in reruns now because of that.
But is that healthy? That a show who’s creator, Gy Waldron, said would have their characters ask “are we doing the right thing?”
Unfortunately, Dukes falls to the prejudices so many of its modern critics would wrongfully say it promotes.
Yes, along with Aneesh Seghal, Marky Billson helped put on the second-ever Dukes of Hazzard convention in 1999 in Covington, Georgia.