McPHERSON — Country music legend Roy Clark knows most critics didn't like "Hee Haw," the iconic 1960s country comedy-variety show he co-hosted, but it turned out he had the last laugh.
The variety show, which mixed performances by country music superstars with a slew of corny jokes and a cornfield of buxom young women, was lambasted by critics and canceled after only two seasons (1969 to '71). Yet it continued to run in syndication for the next 21 years and still is popular today.
Clark, who hosted "Hee Haw" with singer-guitarist Buck Owens, said the show's formula for success was simple.
"It was a music and comedy show, not unlike 'Laugh-In,' where we told good, clean, corny jokes, then played a tune and had a lot of good-looking girls around," he said. "Every critic came out of the woods to voice their opinion on the show, but we just let the public find out how good it really was."
Even so, Clark never dreamed the show would have such a long afterlife and help cement his place in pop culture history.
"If I'd known it was going to be so popular, I'd have bought some stock in it," he said, with a laugh.
Remembrances of "Hee Haw" will make up just a portion of the stories Clark will tell of his life and career during "A Conversation with Roy Clark," Friday at the McPherson Opera House, 219 S. Main.
Clark, 84, will talk about how he learned to become a virtuoso guitar and banjo player, met Elvis Presley, performed at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, played character parts on such classic TV shows as "The Beverly Hillbillies," "The Odd Couple" and "The Muppet Show" and guest hosted "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson."
"I found when I was doing concerts that audiences want to get to know you," he said. "They want to take pictures and talk to you more than they want to hear a song or instrumental. They want to know how I came to write or play a particular song."
Clark said he is fascinated with what other people do, and that's why he calls his show a "conversation" and not a performance.
"I get input from the audience," he said. "We talk, and they ask questions."
Fired for tardiness
Clark was born April 15, 1933, in Meherrin, Va., and grew up in Staten Island, N.Y., and Washington, D.C. At age 14, he began playing banjo, guitar and mandolin and by the age of 15 had won two national banjo championships.
By 1955, Clark was a regular musician on country music star Jimmy Dean's Washington, D.C.-based TV variety show. He said Dean eventually fired him for his frequent tardiness.
"We never had a cross word, but he took his program seriously," Clark said. "I was having too much fun and didn't fit in. We became very close, though, and he stands out as the greatest help I had in the business. He saw something in me he admired, I guess."
Long TV career
Clark soon became a staple on TV variety, comedy and talk shows. He never realized just how much television he'd done during his career until he saw Johnny Carson interviewing legendary comedian Bob Hope one night on "The Tonight Show."
"They were talking about how long Bob Hope had been doing television, and I realized I had been doing TV longer than Bob Hope," he said.
In 2009, Clark was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. He also published an autobiography, "My Life in Spite of Myself," in 1994.
No matter what his ultimate musical legacy, Clark knows he will be remembered primarily for "Hee Haw," and that's just fine with him.
"In my conversations, a lot of questions are about 'Hee Haw,' " he said. "There's another generation of fans seeing it on TV now, and some kids tell me they watch it with their grandpa. It was a funny show."
Clark said if all he did was put smiles on people's faces during his long career, "that would be satisfactory for me."
"I couldn't ask for anything more," he said. "My life has been incredibly blessed."