Starting in 1971, fretting about changing times and advertisers clamoring for more appeal to young adults, CBS led the television networks in taking a scythe to down-home entertainment. The rural purge, as it became known, removed the shows that had led the outfit to be nicknamed the “Country Broadcasting System” and replaced them with a new generation of more pointed and socially conscious urban comedies. Out went Gomer Pyle and Jed Clampett; in came Archie Bunker and George Jefferson. Later came Mary Richards and Hawkeye Pierce.
If Broadway is wise, it’ll do the same thing in reverse: ditch some heavy, clunky shows built around social transformation and return to good ol’ entertainment that is smart enough for Broadway cognoscenti and yet broad-based enough to attract tourists. In 2021, when Broadway announced it would return to live performances but devote the entire season to an obsessive focus on Black Lives Matter themes, the resulting audience desertion was so pronounced that, for the first time I know of, the institution simply stopped reporting box-office receipts. The producers involved were burning their money to ash, but at least they could feel relevant.
Now Broadway is relearning the appeal of the irrelevant. A few weeks ago there arrived the Rialto’s answer to Hee Haw, another of the shows CBS axed in 1971. Shucked enjoyed none of the usual marketing hooks. A good-natured rural comedy built around jokes about country folks (albeit with a risqué element), it isn’t based on a well-known preexisting property, isn’t a revival, doesn’t present the audience with a jukebox loaded with established hit songs, and doesn’t feature any stars or even a well-known author. All it has to offer the audience is that it’s hilarious. Two weeks ago it grossed an impressive $712,000, up from $620,000, suggesting word of mouth is getting louder. When I saw it then, the house was packed and rolling with laughter throughout. An excitable fellow behind me asked if it was the first time I’d been to the show; it wasn’t his.
Seeing Shucked more than once would be perfectly understandable given how much fun it is. The plot is rudimentary (corn farmers turn to a con artist after their crop starts to fail), and the country-rock songs by Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally are perfectly serviceable but nothing special, though “Independently Owned,” sung at hurricane force by the hugely talented diva Alex Newell, is a showstopper (and was featured on NBC’s The Voice).
The action finds a farm girl named Maizy (Caroline Innerblicher) tempted away from her hick boyfriend Beau (Andrew Durand) by a slick-talking “corn doctor” (John Behlmann) from “the big city”—Tampa. Newell, as Maizy’s sexpot cousin, dominates every scene she’s in. All of this is fine, but not necessarily worth the cost of a Broadway ticket. What is truly outstanding is the quality of the book, by Robert Horn, who is sure to win a Tony for his work. Essentially Horn has used the plot as a framework for a crackling stand-up comedy routine of one-liners, some of them ribald, some of them cutely punny, others inflected with the dry weirdness of Steven Wright. “She died doing what she loved: making toast in the bathtub.” “If you have time to jump in front of a bullet for somebody, they have time to move.” “People in China must wonder what to call their good plates.” “I just passed a huge squirrel. Which is odd, because I don’t remember eating one.”
Socially important the show is not. Except for a passing reference to abortifacient drugs, it takes place outside of time, free of tiresome social and cultural quarrels. It’s a vacation from all things annoying, dispiriting, and disquieting. Although it contains several black performers, it is also proudly aimed at the taste of white folks. There’s even a joke about this very early in the script, directed with gusto by Jack O’Brien. One of the two lively narrators who preside over this festival of silliness is Ashley D. Kelley, a sharp black actress who casts her gaze over the audience and notes that she doesn’t see anybody who looks like her. (The other narrator, Grey Henson, is a nerdy-looking white guy who is also top-notch.) Shucked, unlike that ill-advised race-based season on Broadway, isn’t trying to make you feel guilty about being white, or anything else. A lecture-free night of entertainment! Just imagine.
You might expect that a big-city show about country folks would come tinged with malice, contempt, or at least condescension, but there’s none of that here; the show is silly, not cutting. Even residents of Tampa can hardly fail to smile at the sheaf of jokes about its pastel colors, flamingo-based decorating style, and sedate-to-sleepy way of life. Sunny, warm-hearted, and lovable, Shucked is one of the most delightful experiences to be had on Broadway in recent years.