The Grand-Mother of Contemporary Clown

By Ira Seidenstein

March 12, 2023

The Grand-Mother of Contemporary Clown – Irene Ryan

Irene Ryan played the great clown “Granny Clampett” in the television series The Beverly Hillbillies.

Back row Donna Douglas; Irene Ryan; front Buddy Ebsen; Max Baer, Jr

Granny Clowns Birth Timeline Sampler: Fanny Brice 1891; Mae West 1893; Gracie Allen 1895; Irene Ryan 1902; Josephine Baker 1906; Lucille Ball 1911. 

Ryan began her performing career at the age of 11, when she won $3 for singing “Pretty Baby” in an amateur contest at the Valencia Theater in San Francisco.At 20, she married writer-comedian Tim Ryan. They performed in vaudeville as a double act. There was a genre of Vaudeville that was comic/clown duets of a husband and wife with the actress an expert in comedy “double-speak”. Essentially double-speak was holding two lines of logic and two lines of conversation at once.  That also involved the use of malapropisms. Known professionally as “Tim and Irene” (and billed formally as Tim Ryan and Irene Noblette), they starred in 11 short comedies for Educational Pictures between 1935 and 1937.

The duet “Tim and Irene” was highly successful in Vaudeville, but Irene Ryan became most famous for her great role in The Beverly Hillbillies that aired from 1962-1971.

The Beverly Hillbillies was created by the screenwriter and producer Paul William Henning. As noted in my books and blogs, the USA TV ‘clown shows’ some of which were sitcoms included “I Love Lucy” and “The Carol Burnett Show ” and many dozens more were structured primarily around a quartet.

Additionally, such shows had gifted writers and directors who were all expert in clown, comedy, drama, the medium of television, TV series, and what became known as sitcoms.

In Paul Henning’s case, he was born and raised on a farm near Independence, Missouri (hometown of President Harry S. Truman). Henning was the primary writer of The Beverly Hillbillies. Yet, he also wrote two other rural themed sitcoms. Those were Petticoat Junction and Green Acres. Green Acres was based on the successful Radio show of the same name created by Jay Sommers. Henning’s has said Elly May Clampett was based on his daughter Linda Kaye (Henning). Linda Kaye became an actress and was one of the 3 daughters in the TV show Petticoat Junction. Linda Kaye played Betty Jo Bradley 1963-1970.

I Love Lucy; The Carol Burnett Show; The Honeymooners; The Beverly Hillbillies – quartets were two women and two men. This followed on from the  Vaudeville comedy/clown genre of duets comprised of a female and male couple. Such duet and quartet comedy was sometimes structured into Shakespeare’s comedies.

The character’s complete name was Daisy Mae Moses. It is likely a reference to both the revered American painter known as “Grandma Moses” who had died the year before The Beverly Hillbillies TV series began. But also one of the most popular cartoons was Li’l Abner and the main character Li’l Abner had a girlfriend Daisy Mae. Li’l Abner cartoon was created by cartoonist/writer Al Capp.

Daisy Mae, Li’l Abner, The Beverly Hillbillies, various cartoons were based around the clown or clowns being yokels i.e. rural countryside peasants. The word ‘clown’ some believe stems from the Germanic word ‘clod’. A klump or klutz or klunni – all imply something or somone oafish or clumsy. Those words can mean a lump or klump of anything – dirt, wood, bread. A clod is a lump of mud, as in a lump from the countryside. Often clowns were involved in a central theme of townsfolks and city slickers, versus, plain ol’ downhome country folk. Often the humour is based around the misunderstandings in language, values, and how common sense operates diffently in the different cultures of town vs rural. Notably, Li’l Abner and Jethro Bodine (in The Beverly Hillbillies) are incredibly handsome and strong men; and, the Daisy Mae and Elly May (in The Beverly Hillbillies) character costumes were designed to be ‘provocatively’ beautiful.

Other actors in The Beverly Hillbillies were equally masterful with Clown and comedy: Raymond Bailey; Nancy Kulp; Bea Benaderet; Harriet MacGibbon. Below in photo is Nancy Kulp as Miss Jane Hathaway with Donna Douglas as Elly May.


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Ira Seidenstein