King of the Hill Revisited: "The Unbearable Blindness...", "Meet the Manger Babies"

“The Unbearable Blindness of Laying” (airdate: December 21, 1997)
Written by Paul Lieberstein
Directed by Cyndi Tang

People sure do go blind easily on TV. We’ve seen people go temporarily blind from explosions, from being hit on the head with a tray, and in this episode, by seeing an unpleasant sight. Hank walks in on his mother (Tammy Wynette) having sex with her boyfriend (Carl Reiner) and suffers hysterical blindness, which can only be cured if he faces up to what’s bothering him. Of course, Hank would rather stay blind than face up to any emotions, so his friends are free to mock him and play “blind” jokes on him for a large portion of the episode.

This was the episode that was covered in a 1997 article about the writing process of a King of the Hill show; it started with that basic idea – Hank goes blind when he walks in on his mother and her lover – and went through lots of late-night rewrites before the table read, nothing unusual for a weekly TV series. The article said that
the two biggest things that had to be fixed in the rewrite were keeping the sex scene on a PG level (done by making it “a montage of body parts” seen from Hank’s point of view) and fixing the character of the boyfriend:

Though [Paul] Lieberstein finished the script a week ago, the writers have been too busy to look at it until today.
As [Greg] Daniels leads the group in reading through the material and hashing out the story points, flurries of inspiration are balanced by moments of utter silence.
The risque description of the senior-citizen sex scene stops the producer cold. “We can’t do this,” Daniels flatly declares. “We need to find a way to have adults know what’s going on but have kids see something else.”
But his biggest problem is with the boyfriend’s character. “He’s just so boring,” says Daniels, “and Hank’s reaction is so muted.”
The meeting breaks up without a resolution. The writers have two days to revise the script before the first read-through with the cast.
On Friday morning, the voice actors, studio execs, and assorted staff trickle into the production office. It turns out that the writers worked on it until 5am: “That’s a record for us,” writer and co-executive producer Brent Forrester admits. “It’s come a long way.”

One thing that is a bit unexpected in the story is not the blindness, but Hank’s reason for opposing his mother’s relationship. Normally, this would be the place where the son resents his mother for taking another man. But this would make no sense with Hank, a sensible man who knows that his father is a terrible person and that his mother, as he says, “had the good sense” to dump him. What he’s worried about is that this new guy will treat his mother as a doormat the way his father did. It’s another example of the “mislead” technique the show liked to use to keep us from guessing what the resolution would be. Given Hank’s discomfort with sex, and comedy’s general discomfort with the idea of old people having sex, you would think that his issues with sexuality will have something to do with the cure for his blindness. But the sex thing is just a red herring to distract us from the real problem, and the real cure: Hank gets better when he realizes that his mom’s boyfriend Garry is a good man who is going to treat her well.

This mislead makes the episode’s story quite strong on an emotional level, and having Hank’s recovery take place in the middle of a faith-healing ceremony is a fine ironic touch. Maybe because they never completely fixed the problem of the boyfriend – he’s defined primarily as a nice guy, and nice people aren’t very funny – it’s not as strong on the comedy side as some of the other season 2 episodes. About half of the comedy of the episode comes from the “blind” gags: Hank’s friends teasing him, Hank trying to do everything he usually does, including handing out presents and shaving.

Much of the rest of the comedy comes from Jewish jokes; Garry is the first Jewish character on the show, and there is lots of humour about the harmless stereotypes the main characters have of Jewish people (Bill’s first question about him: “Is he funny?”). This leads to a slight callback to an earlier episode, where Cotton – thanks to his overseas experience – was the only person in the cast who knew there was more to Asia than China and Japan. Here, also thanks to his military service, he’s the only one who has ever met a Jewish person before.


And being the chameleon that he is, Bobby almost immediately starts imitating Garry and his Yiddishisms (“blind he’s gone now!”). The main joke there is that Bobby has no idea that Garry is Jewish; knowing only that the man is from Arizona, he decides that this is “the cool new way people from Arizona talk.”

This was the only time Tammy Wynette voiced Hank’s mother; she died soon after and was replaced by other actresses for her return appearances. Reiner returned at least once as Garry, but the character was eventually Chuck Cunningham’d out of Hank’s mother’s life.

“Meet the Manger Babies” (airdate: January 11, 1998)
Written by Jonathan Aibel & Glenn Berger
Directed by Jeff Myers

Religion is one of the forbidden subjects in American television comedy. In other countries, not so much: other countries have a long tradition of church comedy. But in America, dealing with religion is always going to get somebody mad. So religion mostly enters the picture when it’s portrayed very seriously or when religious people are making things miserable for everybody else, the way they were in “Hilloween.” The everyday place of religion in life — the fact that the church is an important part of a lot of communities, or that religion informs the way people live — is usually sidestepped, because it’s just going to upset someone.

The Simpsons was one of the few shows that tried to poke a little more deeply into the comedic possibilities of regular, unspectacular religion, and this episode is King of the Hill‘s attempt to do the same. As usual, it picks up on something from real life, the Christian puppet show, and tries to make fun of it while still showing some respect for the people who put them on and watch them. Luanne gets some hand puppets and turns them into a show for kids after church services. Not really knowing anything about the Bible except that Jesus was born in a manger, she dubs the show “The Manger Babies,” and part of the implied joke is that the show doesn’t actually have much value as religious education: it’s just a bunch of kids’ puppet show ideas – including King Herod as an evil wizard – with some moralizing messages added. And that’s a fairly accurate parody of what religious kids’ entertainment is like, at an amateur or professional level.

As I’ve said in earlier posts, King of the Hill in its second season was very carefully if precariously balanced between making fun of its characters and being sympathetic towards them, and that’s very true of this episode. The story makes a lot of fun of Luanne and her crude little puppet show, as well as her outsized belief in its importance (she thinks the station scheduled her against the Super Bowl because she can beat it). But running alongside the mockery is a sympathetic portrayal of what religion can mean to a person in Luanne’s position. She’s not intelligent, is treated like dirt by her boyfriend (his breaking a date with her is what gets her down at the beginning of the episode, and the puppets help her feel better), and comes from a broken home. Under those circumstances, it’s implied, religious belief is one of the things that has kept her from going off the rails. For someone in that position, messages about staying on the right path are genuinely important, no matter how corny they may be. That’s part of the subtext of Hank’s decision to give up watching the Super Bowl and rush over to help out with the show: his niece actually is just one loss of faith away from winding up a drunken mess.

The episode also portrays religious faith as almost interchangeable with faith in another human being, though. A repeated theme throughout the episode is that Luanne sees Hank as “God,” a remote, aloof being she looks up to, who never gives her much encouragement, but who, she trusts, will come through for her in the end. (So of course he winds up playing “God” in the puppet show, complete with white beard and lordly laugh.) This allows the episode to play out as a gentle parody of theology: having Peggy ask Hank how he can allow suffering when he has the power to prevent it, or having Bobby point out that if Hank is God, “that makes me Jesus.”

All of this gives some extra weight to what is otherwise an episode with a foregone conclusion: will Hank watch the Super Bowl or give it up to restore his niece’s faith? (The show had even used this basic plot the year before in “Peggy the Boggle Champ,” where Hank had to decide whether to go to a big event or be by his wife’s side during the Boggle tournament.) The writers try to give some variety to this particular plot point with a whole bunch of devices: having Peggy save the day by forcing Hank to watch Luanne’s show; a surprise as-himself guest cameo by Troy Aikman; and finally a play on the old “was it really a miracle?” twist at the end. But since we know the ending in advance, it’s hard to avoid the sense that the last minute or so is straining too hard to find something to surprise us. What is surprising in the episode comes earlier, as a little story about a girl and her puppets turns into a rather huge story about faith, one that can be read as a humanistic story, a religious story, or a spoof of religious stories. That’s an example of how KotH could start with these little real-life things and make them into titanically important parts of the characters’ lives.

The Manger Babies would recur a few more times throughout the series, though eventually they lost most of their religious associations. (Since the Luanne character didn’t always have a particularly well-defined character beyond dumbness and blondeness, they may be what people associate most directly with the character.) Another thing we’re seeing in this episode is Bill continuing his journey towards full-fledged Butt Monkey status, as he’s the guy nobody really wants to have in their house (Peggy and Hank spend a whole scene discussing how to keep his disgusting hands off their furniture), and when the TV starts changing channels seemingly at will, Hank’s first instinct is to blame Bill. Jerry on Parks & Recreation is sort of the successor to the way Bill is treated by his so-called friends, though the joke with Jerry is that (unlike Bill) he’s not actually a pathetic individual, everyone just treats him as if he is.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.