When you think of Westerns, laughing isn't the first thing that comes to mind. You visualize cowboy attire (the signature hat and stylish boots), weapons, horses, lots of bad guys, sheriffs, and of course, the hero. The plots usually involve a bad guy trying to use their toughness to take over a town, scare people or potentially shatter the hero (because of jealousy). Can this become boring to watch after seeing it so often? It depends.
Some viewers love the straightforward, crime-stopping Westerns, especially in movies. However, for television, it got a little redundant with the multiple half-hour episodes focusing on the same plot structure. So what did Western creators start to do? Add comedy. John Payne, star of the '50s series The Restless Gun, said situational comedy helped ease the tension in the genre.
"It's the theory that if you play Westerns down the middle with a straight hero, they're boring and dull," Payne told the Beatrice Daily Sun in 1957. "Comedy characters and occasional comedy situations involving the hero—that's the blueprint I'm following. But it isn't mine—it belongs to the movies—and I'm making a half-hour movie every week."
That's right! The well-known structure helped many Western films like Man of the West (1958), The Big Country (1958), The Gunfighter (1950), and more see success. The goal was still to keep the feel of a true cowboy production and add bits and pieces of laughable situations that could resonate with audiences.
"It's just good showmanship," Payne continued, "to get the hero off the boring and dull hook. You do it with light situations and by hiring outstanding bit players in the supporting casts. It was supporting casts—outstanding featured players—which made the big movies hits. Now I'm doing the same on TV."
The Restless Gun only had two seasons, lasting from its 1957 debut to the 1959 finale, but it's still a crucial production of the Western era. John Payne did not believe the genre should be limited to just "bang-bang" stuff, and he was right.
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