But Peppiatt did have one other great love – the world of entertainment. Born in Toronto on March 19, 1927, he was smitten by show business as a child. His Scottish grandfather took him to the movies every Saturday afternoon. The rest of the week found him glued to the radio, soaking up The Happy Gang, Ma Perkins, The Guiding Light, Amos ’n’ Andy, The Fred Allen Show, Fibber McGee and Molly and The Jack Benny Program.
“Most of the programs would begin, ‘Live from New York . . .,’” he writes, “and I thought New York must be a wonderful place to send out all these programs. They were even better than the movies because radio gave me my own movies in my head.”
A star athlete (football and basketball in high school and college), Peppiatt earned a bachelor of arts degree at the University of Toronto, graduating in 1949. His father kept lobbying for law school, but Peppiatt resisted, and eventually found – for $1,100 a year – an entry-level position at MacLaren Advertising. Soon thereafter, he was ordered to please the client by smoking while meeting with a cigarette manufacturer. After a few such gatherings, he was hooked – for the next 30 years.
A year later, he met Aylesworth, then just 21, at MacLaren and in 1952, the agency started creating ads for the new medium of television. When MacLaren exec Peter MacFarlane was recruited to produce at the CBC, he invited the two funniest guys he knew – Peppiatt and Aylesworth – to try their hand at TV comedy. For their first sketch, about Superman’s unhappy home life – Peppiatt dressed as the Man of Steel in a costume made by his mother.
From the CBC, Peppiatt started writing for Steve Allen, then one of the biggest names in U.S. network television. After that, the offers just kept on coming.
“He absolutely loved what he did,” Caroline Peppiatt recalls. “Unlike other workaholics, he had joy in his work.”
In 1969, their agent, Bernie Brillstein, suggested they pitch a summer replacement series for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour to CBS. Reckoning that no network had ever aired a country music variety show in prime time, they decided to marry the fast-paced format of Laugh-In to traditional C&W. Thus was born Hee Haw (named by Brillstein’s wife, Laura), a 12-week series that became one of the most popular shows on television.
Neither Aylesworth or Peppiatt knew anything about country music – they had never even visited the South – but no matter. What they did know was TV comedy. And while sophisticates in New York and LA derided its corny, hillbilly humour, the writers (turned producers) hee-hawed all the way to the bank. When a new regime at CBS decided after two seasons not to renew it, Peppiatt mortgaged his house and, putting up a share for his frequently cash-strapped partner, produced the first 13 shows. Their company, Yongestreet Productions, gave the shows away to TV stations, retaining six half-minutes of advertising to sell.
Initially, the animus against the show was so strong that no major Madison Avenue agency would buy time. In fact, the first show went to air with only one commercial – for Crisco – “not nearly enough to cover the costs of producing 26 hour-long programs,” Peppiatt wrote. “But there was no turning back. We were contractually obligated to provide 26 new shows.”
But after 13 weeks, Hee Haw was the country’s top-rated show in its time slot and the ad agencies were soon begging for time.
“John and Frank really enjoyed the Hollywood lifestyle,” recalls Barry Adelman, then a young executive on the show and now executive producer of Dick Clark Productions. “They loved the whole swinging Rat Pack thing – drinking, smoking, dinner at Chasen’s. They were fun to be around, always well-dressed, urbane, gentlemanly. They loved the English language and were never slovenly with it. And they loved a good prank.”
When one famous LA producer was heard slagging their hit show, they pasted a Hee Haw bumper sticker to his Rolls-Royce. “In those days,” says Adelman, “it took weeks to get them off.”