Milestone: 'King of the Hill'

The royal family

Ray Richmond
The second-longest-running animated series in primetime TV history is a half-hour set deep in the heart of Texas that features few actual jokes, an unremarkable collection of blue-collar types who drink a little too much beer and often mumble -- and a frequently befuddled Everyman hero who suffers from a narrow urethra. If that doesn't necessarily sound like a recipe for long-running success, well, Fox's "King of the Hill" has somehow managed to spin mundane Americana into a satirical touchstone, dad gummit! With Sunday night's episode (7:30 p.m. EDT/PDT), it improbably reaches the 200-episode milestone, a number previously achieved in the annals of network animation only by its Fox big brother "The Simpsons" (which made it to 200 eight years ago and could well pass 400 before it's through).

Hitting 200 episodes always has been a rarity in primetime series, animated or not. It's more than "The Dick Van Dyke Show," "The Flintstones," "I Love Lucy," "Laverne & Shirley," "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "Seinfeld" and only one episode fewer than "The Cosby Show." "Get Smart" never made it to 200 episodes. Neither did "Barney Miller" or "Family Ties." In fact, fewer than 100 comedy and drama series -- actually, closer to 80 -- have produced a 200th episode since the dawn of primetime. So, this is quite a feat, albeit one that "King" patriarch Hank Hill shrugs off with trademark modesty.

Fox was able to squeeze a few words out of Hank for a cover letter that accompanied the "King" 200th episode press kit. "I guess people really do enjoy reality TV," he said.

"I never understood why you folks wanted to watch what we're up to week after week. ... But as long as you keep saying that we're 'more real than any live-action show,' I guess we'll keep showing what we're up to."

With the show's renewal for the 2006-07 season, its 12th, "King" will continue to document the decidedly off-kilter adventures and conservative, corn-pone sensibility of the townsfolk in the fictitious town of Arlen, Texas, where life tends to happen at a saunter rather than a sprint. It is to "Simpsons" what a summer breeze is to a tornado, breaking every unwritten cartoon rule by keeping the action slow and steady rather than the typical frenetic.

"What 'King of the Hill' does better than anybody is allow for moments of quiet assessment by the characters, which you simply never see, especially in animation," says John Altschuler, who has been the series' executive producer and co-showrunner with partner Dave Krinsky for the past five seasons. "They often don't say anything. They'll just stare. But you know from looking at Hank what's going on in his head. Some of our biggest laughs come from his just saying, 'Huh?'"

Besides the silent contemplation, the show's subtle dialogue rhythms also steer clear of the setup-punchline style, pegging all of the comedy to its characters. It's a dangerous approach for a series that so depends on laughs, Krinsky finds.

"It's a very difficult show to get across because there are no jokes per se," he says. "You're always walking a fine line, weaving in important social issues and having to make sure the characters don't drift but stay consistent to who they are. It's a constant battle, especially once you've been around for 200 episodes."

If the long shadow cast by "Simpsons" has tended to obscure the low-key brilliance of "King," that might stem in part from the fact that the series is as unassuming as is the man responsible for its inception.

That would be Mike Judge, the "Beavis and Butt-Head" maestro who co-created "King" with Greg Daniels and who based its colorful group of working-class folks and suburban types on his own life as a one-time resident of Garland (sounds like Arlen), Texas. Judge, who serves as the voice of Hank and his barely comprehensible womanizing pal, Boomhauer, grew up in New Mexico and now makes his home in Austin, eschewing the fast pace of Los Angeles and managing to stick close to his Texas base most of the time.

Judge brainstormed the concept for "King" early in 1996. He had an overall production deal with Fox, and he'd fly in from his home in Texas to take meetings, where network executives prodded him to come up with a companion animated series for "Simpsons," which had yet to be paired with a compatible half-hour that did any numbers.

"After one of those crazy meetings, I came up with the brilliant idea of doing a show that I'd actually want to watch -- which was kind of a radical thing," Judge recalls. "It was win-win. If they liked it, I'd get to do the show. If they didn't, I'd get paid this huge amount of money not to do anything."

Judge admits that at the time, he was ambivalent about doing a series at all. He had plenty on his plate, having been in the middle of shooting his 1996 feature "Beavis and Butt-Head Do America" and writing the treatment and script for what would become 1999's "Office Space."

"The key was, again, doing something I'd have fun doing," he adds. "The executives loved it from the start, which was kind of surprising given how different this was going to be. But I knew if I got this thing on the air and did it right, it would be around a long time because these were all relatable characters. It isn't just Texas. This country has a lot of middle-aged white guys and lawns."

Apparently, the white guys and lawns even extend overseas, given "King's" international reach. The show has been translated into Spanish, French and Portuguese (imagine Portuguese coming out of Hank Hill's mouth) and is licensed everywhere from Australia and France to Germany, Ireland, Japan, Kuwait, Norway and South Africa.

Premiering as a midseason entry on Jan. 12, 1997, "King" immediately caught on with audiences as a Sunday night companion following "Simpsons." It centers on the lives of the Hills and their extended circle of friends, family and acquaintances. Most notably, there is the virtuous, upright Hank, a hard-working, loyal, God-fearing family man who peddles propane for a living and often sees himself as a lone voice of reason in a world gone mad; Hank's well-meaning but generally naive wife Peggy (Kathy Najimy), a champion Boggle player, substitute Spanish teacher and notary public and Hank's rock; 13-year-old son Bobby (Pamela Segall Adlon), a chubby, gender-confused lad who makes his daddy sick with worry most days; and live-in niece Luanne Platter (Brittany Murphy), 18 years old and nubile but neither as dumb nor as promiscuous as she sometimes appears -- she knows how to fix cars and solve logic puzzles, after all.

Giving vocal life to Peggy has made Najimy "the luckiest woman on Earth, hands down," she maintains.

"What we get to do has been what's consistently some of the best writing on TV," she believes. "We're accustomed to seeing one-dimensional -- you know, either sexy or smart or dumb. But Peggy is all of those things at different times. She's balanced, flawed, self-involved, loving, selfish -- all of the things each of us are in a day. The dialogue is so good and complex and real. The writers could shoot the Hills in a rocket to outer space because it's a cartoon, but they don't. We could work almost as well doing it as live action ... I mean, almost."

To be sure, "King" remains a unique animal in the animation universe, with its gently spoofy but affectionate depiction of rural American life and traditional values in a nation that's grown so philosophically divided (and which "King" reflects). The show's genius, believes 20th Century Fox Television president Gary Newman, is in how it is able to capture and sustain the cultural zeitgeist in a way that wasn't at all derivative of "Simpsons."

"Mike Judge found a really unique voice and characters and a specific point of view that, from the beginning, felt like something entirely different from anything we'd seen before," Newman says. "You've got an Everyman at the center in Hank Hill, whose common-sense approach to life allows for tremendous social commentary, satirizing political correctness and various points of view."

"King" also has served as a valuable utility player for the Fox network, Newman adds, delivering strong, young-adult demographic ratings no matter where on Sunday night it gets plopped. It's aired at 7 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. in addition to its current 7:30 p.m. showing.

"And I think we've seen sort of a rebirth, with young viewers in particular flocking to 'King of the Hill' the past three or four years," Newman says. "After some lull, I feel as if the show has become hip again, and Mike feels that same creative renaissance for the show since about 2002. That bodes well for the show's future, I think."

Texas-sized dollarsThe show's success extends well beyond its Sunday night time slot.In today's demanding market, a TV show's success is tied as much to its primetime performance as to its life in ancillary markets.

By that measure, Fox's "King of the Hill" has triumphed admirably, seeing profits funneling in through syndication and DVD sales, not to mention kitschy merchandise.

After five years in syndication, "King" covers 99% of the country on 217 stations and ranks No. 5 in all off-net shows. "It's (rated) second-highest with males 12-34 out of all syndication and third-highest in persons 12-34, so the show has a nice young skew," Twentieth Television president and chief operating officer Bob Cook says. "Advertisers are looking for that younger audience -- especially, hard-to-reach young males -- and 'King of the Hill' continues in syndication to reach those targets."

Selling "King" for a cash license fee plus a minute and a half of barter, Cook would only say that the revenue the show generates has been pleasing. "The ultimate goal is to produce a show that has a considerable afterlife in syndication, cable, DVD and now, a lot of these new mediums including mobile content and video-on-demand."

Another successful avenue Fox has found for "King" is merchandising. Throughout the show's run, there have been as many as 35 licensees targeting mostly males ages 14-24; merchandise ranges from T-shirts, sweatshirts, hats and loungewear to key chains and figurines.

"When a fan buys a T-shirt and wears it all day long, they become walking billboards for the show," Fox Licensing and Merchandising executive vp Elie Dekel says. "That really helps extend beyond the on-air promotion and off-air marketing. We look at that as the really important factor to how a show continues to gain an audience and continues to succeed."