- “I Am Not Down with That”: King of the Hill and Sitcom Satire
When FOX sent out screening copies of King of the Hill prior to its debut in early 1997, included were a couple of curious freebies for critics: a bag of pork rinds and a Weber barbeque grill. In retrospect, this gesture signaled an ambiguous relationship between viewers and the program’s characters and community. Clearly the pork rinds and barbeque grill were considered to be emblematic of the world of the program’s characters and indicative of what might distinguish the show from other animated sitcoms. Still, pork rinds are available at most any convenience store, even in Hollywood, and barbeque grills populate backyards all across America. Together, however, these items signified a culture assumed as “other” to that of the TV tastemakers—adjunct members of Hollywood such as they are. But what about the “normal” folk beyond who would constitute the program’s mass audience? What was the relationship being signaled between audiences and the Texan, suburban, working-class characters of King of the Hill? Was one meant to mock the pork rinds or to open a bag and light up the grill?
In its first review, industry stalwart Variety proposed the program was satire on that pork rind–eating, barbequing segment of the population, suggesting the show took “easy and well-conceived shots at the world of pickups, trailers, dysfunctional families and supermarket busybodies”—as if pickup trucks and dysfunction naturally went hand-in-hand. Variety further suggested Hank Hill’s buddies provided the “fundamental redneck humor,” not so much through what they said but who they were (Gallo). The program itself rose above such characterizations, though it was certainly willing to find humor within its population. Though a few critics over the years have continued to suggest the program is “laughing at” its characters, others have recognized that Hank, his family, and his friends are represented sympathetically and even possess an agency that has not always been the case in portrayals of middle-class and working-class Americans. In its initial review, Newsweek pointed out, “Hank Hill is no victim. And he’s not a clueless buffoon like Homer Simpson. He’s the kind of guy TV usually makes fun of but Mike Judge, a Longhorn State resident, clearly has affection for. Not quite a redneck, he’s neither upscale nor downscale—more like midscale” (Marin). According to this critic, Hank was represented in a way that suggested audiences were likely to identify with him rather than against him. Pork rinds and barbeque grills are popular all across America, after all, though the TV taste-makers might look past them at the gas station, and the Hollywood elite might dress up their barbeque pits as backyard patios.
King of the Hill was an immediate hit, capitalizing on the success of Judge’s Beavis and Butthead Do America as well as FOX’s Sunday night schedule, which placed the show in the [End Page 38] enviable position between The Simpsons and The X-Files. Even with such a sweet spot on the schedule, King of the Hill did better than expected and was the first program to improve on The Simpsons’ lead-in in all key demographics (Young). The show’s subsequent commercial tie-ins have also suggested a successful connection with what has become known as the “NASCAR” demographic. Hank & Co. appeared for a time in spots for Autolite sparkplugs during NASCAR programs (Irwin), and in 1999, RC Cola launched a $20 million campaign that sought to brand Hank and his cronies as “prototypical RC drinkers” (Morgan). Prizes in the promotion were consistent with Hank’s tastes, such as propane grills and John Deere tractors; another tie-in had radio listeners mowing “RC” into their lawns. When one recognizes that these cross-promotional deals pale in comparison to those The Simpsons has enjoyed over the years, it becomes apparent that the deals speak more about the perceived core audience of King of the Hill than its broader popularity.1 At the time of the cross-promotion, RC Cola was the seventeenth-ranked soft drink, which situates it as middle of the...