None of the Best Comedies on TV Would Exist Without ‘King of the Hill’
With Parks and Recreation gracefully leaving our television screens this year, showrunner Mike Schur has been getting a lot of attention. Not only for his series coming to a close, but for the sort of careful, respectful character-driven approach that Parks is not only heralding through these final thirteen episodes, but that has strongly been a part of it from the start. Parks and Recreation isn’t the only program with this approach to comedy, however, and with a rather impressive, unifying force of series now out there, it’s worth examining why this breed of comedy is currently in control. It might surprise you that the answer goes all the way back to January of 1997 in a fictional animated suburb in Texas.
King of the Hill debuted on FOX on January 12, 1997, and from it stemmed this integral renaissance where Greg Daniels (along with Mike Judge) spawned this whole line of writers, with people like Mike Schur (and to a lesser extent, Dan Goor, who started on Parks, has gone on to run Brooklyn Nine Nine, and will go on beyond that)becoming protégés that have formed the next breed of writers that you see composing the sharpest comedies on TV right now, like Parks and Recreation, Bob’s Burgers, Brooklyn Nine Nine, Silicon Valley, Modern Family, and American Dad. And if it weren’t for what was instilled on King of the Hill, these writers wouldn’t have gone on to make today’s classics. Not only that, but all of these writers that started on King of the Hill have become fit to be showrunners, leading some of the strongest shows out there, as can be seen with writers like Emily Spivey (showrunner of Up All Night), David Zuckerman (showrunner of Wilfred), Dan Goor, and even in the form of Paul Lieberstein stepping up on The Office when Greg Daniels departed.
While an extremely humble, unassuming show, King of the Hill managed to run for thirteen seasons and rack up 259 episodes, being the longest running animated sitcom behind The Simpsons (although Family Guy is at 240 and will usurp this within a season’s time), and still airs twice a day on Adult Swim, pulling in decent numbers. There should be a clear legacy and lineage behind any behemoth of a show like this, but likely due to its simple, restrained nature, you don’t see King of the Hill coming up that much in the public consciousness. This is all too unfortunate since its stamp is everywhere.
Something big that King of the Hill was very focused on was telling these larger, ongoing storylines. These would often include dramatic cliffhangers and even grueling season finales at times. It was in fact Daniels’ idea to focus on these elements, add heavy character development, and he was crucial for a lot of the traits that the show became synonymous with, like Dale’s conspiracy theory nature and characters like Luanne and Cotton. Daniels went so far with his developments that Judge shared the “Created by” credit with him. This shouldn’t be that surprising since a lot of people fell so in love with shows like The Office and Bob’s Burgers simply because of things like this and the effort put into the characters. These felt like real people and seeing them grow was just as satisfying as any big plot machinations.
King of the Hill really pushed this sort of approach to its limit, doing radical experiments like having an entire season where Peggy is rehabilitating herself to learn to walk again after having broken her legs in the preceding season’s finale. Although is that that different than Leslie Knope running for congress for an entire season on Parks or Ryan Howard being made boss of everything on The Office? Amidst this we saw constant flux and growth through the cast with things like Luanne dealing with her boyfriend’s death and move to college, Nancy ending her affair with John Redcorn, Joseph going through puberty, Bill moving past his ex-wife, the litany of different jobs that Peggy attempts later on, and hell, even Cotton dying, in a move that feels like something far more ambitious and fluid than The Simpsons would ever attempt. It might seem like a given now for comedies to have such a continuity, character-driven mindset, but a lot of these instincts started here before being seen in your current favorite comedies.
Even when these huge, ambitious storylines weren’t being attempted on King of the Hill, there was still a constant focus on character minutiae and low impact stories. Entire episodes could revolve around essentially nothing, but be so entrenched in character viewpoints that they’re still incredibly strong. FOX tried vehemently to squash these impulses and curb continuing storylines in order to streamline syndication, but even in spite of this mandate, King of the Hill’s voice and style prevailed. It’s the fight for all of this that has made these touches so fundamental to the sort of comedies that they’re now creating.
Daniels revealed on a King of the Hill commentary track that he wanted every episode to feel like any character could have an emotional epiphany or breakthrough. This is definitely the case with his current comedies too, but a lot of other shows, especially animated ones, were purely interested in being joke machines. This sort of respect for the characters and storytelling has slowly transitioned into what now holds together our finest comedies. King of the Hill wasn’t even afraid to introduce new main characters in its final seasons, like they did in the form of Lucky, Luanne’s husband (voiced by Tom Petty, no less).
Lucky was a character that naturally appeared in the show and as his presence and reason to be around increased, his role grew accordingly. It’s pretty uncommon for an animated series to introduce a new character like this, especially this late in the game, but it’s just another example of King of the Hill rolling with what feels organic, rather than what’s the conventional move. You can see all of these late-series character additions happening in current shows like The Office and Parks and Recreation, too, with these creatives knowing that the move can bear fruit when done right.
And speaking of the creatives involved with King of the Hill, there was truly a bevvy of incredible talent on their writing staff, the majority of which are now deeply entrenched in comedy classics. Mike Judge has gone on to create the Golden Globe winning comedy Silicon Valley, while taking John Altschuler and Dave Krinsky with him. FOX’s Bob’s Burgers would also adopt much of King of the Hill’s tone and writing staff, with Jim Dauterive, Kit Boss, Aaron Abrams and Gregory Thompson shaping the show.
Greg Daniels would go on to showrun The Office, giving former KOTH writers Paul Lieberstein, Jon Vitti, Brent Forrester, and Dan Sterling (who would also go on to head write for The Daily Show and write the infamous The Interview) a job.
Daniels’ The Office trained Mike Schur to slowly take the reins, eventually showrunning Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine Nine, and bringing former King of the Hill writers Norm Hiscock and Emily Spivey with him.
The rest of King of the Hill’s writers have been flung amongst comedies like Modern Family, American Dad, Community, and included people like Wyatt Cenac. Clearly the collective talent of King of the Hill is still a large voice in today’s series.
More than just the people involved and the content produced, the legacy that King of the Hill has left behind is still apparent today. For instance, “The Dundies” a popular tradition on The Office and an episode considered to be one of the first true classics, was in fact based on a tradition held by the writer’s room of King of the Hill. The bumbling characters of Scully and Hitchcock are also in fact named after KOTH writers, Mike Scully and Norm Hiscock. These small nods are more than just cute touches, but it’s more the idea of this show having such a power and energy behind it that these new shows feel compelled to insert it into its DNA and recreate those moments. It’s the standard that they’re trying to reach again.
With shows like Parks and Recreation now wrapping up, it’s exciting to look at where these displaced former King of the Hill writers will end up. It’s more than likely that we’ll see an increasing amount of these people becoming the future showrunners of comedy on television, or being behind the next show that makes you smile and think, just like King of the Hill did nearly two decades ago, I tell ya’ what.