YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Deep in the heart of Arlen, Texas

The 'King of the Hill' writers take a field trip for stories -- and for barbecue.

October 20, 2002|Paul Brownfield | Times Staff Writer

Austin, Texas — On the Monday morning after the Emmy Awards last month, while much of the TV industry was sleeping off a night of self-celebration and repeated acts of valet parking, 12 comedy writers from the animated Fox series "King of the Hill" met in the American Airlines terminal at LAX.

By 8 a.m. they were at their gate, sprawled out. Seen as a subspecies, TV comedy writers look like who they are -- white guys, or mostly white guys, in their late 20s and 30s, with jobs that don't require them to tuck in their shirts.

These writers were headed to Austin, where for the next two days they would interview people about floods, child beauty pageants and propane. "King of the Hill," whose seventh season on Fox begins Nov. 3, takes place in the made-up town of Arlen, Texas, where Hank Hill sells propane and propane accessories ("with dignity"). Hank's loves, in no discernible order, are his backyard grill, his headstrong wife Peggy and surprisingly deep, fruit-pie-eating son Bobby, and the art of standing in front of a fence, drinking beer out of a can. In this last pursuit, Hank is typically joined by his three friends: Bill, a divorced loner, sad and wide-eyed; Boomhauer, who speaks in twangy, vaguely comprehensible sentences; and Dale, an anti-government enthusiast who sounds like a cross between William S. Burroughs and a farmer on hooch. It is in front of the fence, from Hank to Dale, that the show finds its political voice, in various shades of Texas drawl. "The schools teach reading, writing and arithmetic, but they don't teach the subjects that will really matter after the coming apocalypse. Namely, etiquette and social dancing," is something Dale says.

In what has become something of a yearly tradition, the writers dream up story lines for these characters in L.A., then head to Austin for a research trip. It all sounds a little bit like an African safari, wherein a bunch of Hollywood guys drop in on Texas to watch the locals in their native habitat. Except these writers go for the verisimilitude. And the barbecue.

This year, in addition to touring a mega-church (Texas-speak for a very large church) and Action Propane in Leander, the writers would meet with a panel from the American Red Cross to talk flood relief (it was time, they thought, for Arlen to be visited by a flood). Each writer would be given $150 in cash and a suck-up pad -- show-speak for the notepads they were supposed to use when interviewing people.

The suck-up part is a facetious reference to executive producer Greg Daniels. Daniels was the last one to show up at the gate. He was wearing cowboy boots. Daniels, who is more than 6 feet tall and looks a little bit like a policy wonk, grew up in Manhattan and went to Harvard; there, he became a member of the Harvard Lampoon, the school's humor society and progenitor of countless TV comedy writers. Daniels, 39, is no exception; his credits include "Saturday Night Live," "Not Necessarily the News" -- and the show that became the Lampoon West, "The Simpsons."

When Daniels signed up to develop "King of the Hill," he made a pilgrimage to Austin, to visit Mike Judge. The creator and voices behind the wildly popular MTV cartoon "Beavis and Butt-head," Judge, who has an innate sense of people and their quirks, had pitched "King of the Hill" to Fox based on a treatment and some drawings. "He showed me some of the places where he thought Hank lived," Daniels said of that initial trip to Austin to visit Judge. "I found it to be very useful."

One year the writers were thrown out of a gun show, but that only taught them to identify themselves to locals on a need-to-know basis. Like their show, they are not here to mock hillbillies, they are here to gather data -- the details and anecdotes that give "King of the Hill" that rare commodity on TV: a sense of an actual world.

Most shows don't have a world. They have sets, and craft-service tables, and actors with agents, but no world. With "King of the Hill," it is possible to land at the Austin airport, rent several cars and, after checking into the downtown Driskill Hotel, go looking for Arlen. Their first night in town, the writers delved into the ribs at the Ironworks Barbeque and afterward worked off the meal at Red's Indoor Shooting Range, out in nearby Pflugerville. Red's offers a frequent-shooter card for $119.95, but the writers just picked out some handguns and rented several lanes for an hour. There was a mother and daughter over in Lane 1 -- Sally Joe Frame of Round Rock and her 13-year-old daughter, Amy Sue. "The NRA is really pushing youth hunts," Frame told Kit Boss, one of the writers. He jotted this down in his suck-up pad.

Los Angeles Times Articles