“Here comes the X TROOOOOOOOOOOOOP! In Happy Trails! A Barry & Enright production for the Paramount Network! Ummmm. Rick? Rick, where's the next cue card? Rick?”
Happy Trails was for several years the premier program on the Paramount Network in the 1980's and early 1990's. Barry & Enright Productions created Happy Trails as a western program for young children, shown live on weekdays, which allowed the Paramount Network to use the western town set on WB's studio backlot.
Premise of the show:
Marshal Nick, leader of the X Troop, was the hero of the program, in which he personified the forces of good while wearing a cowboy hat and riding a heavily modified Ford F-150 modified to look like a horse-drawn carriage. The villains, allegedly crooks and evil Indians, also drove modified pick-up trucks. Happy Trails was the first television program to ever show horses fight each other. The scene, done live in the show's twentieth episode, was masterminded by the network's master special effects artist, Neus Hammock. Creative Engineering of Florida built two animatronic horses that "smacked" each other to represent the horses fighting, and earned the show an Emmy nomination.
Nick worked out of a "Sheriff's Office" that was actually a closet in one of the houses on the western town set. His chief assistant was creatively known as Captain Steve. A slew of other people appeared on the show, although many of them simply walked in front of the camera without knowing it was on.
Due to the rambling nature of the program - an episode written on Monday would generally be performed on Thursday with props finished on Wednesday night - the plot generally wavered between "incoherent" and "schizoid." Marshal Nick - who was played by a total of twenty different actors over the series' run, including two identical twins and former Beatles member Ringo Starr - faced down a battery of villains with a high rate of robberies of banks and girl kidnappings.
The only permanent villain, Sir Evil, died a total of one-hundred-twenty-four times over the series. These deaths were neither retconned nor explained. He simply reappeared every time he was needed.
Various other recurring characters included:
Captain Steve, Marshal Nick's chief aide. Despite his explicitly generic status, Captain Steve was the only major character aside from Sir Evil never played by more than one character.
Lady Francis, who had a daughter named Madame LeBelle who can transform into a anthro poodle. LeBelle's poodle form was played by a total of fifteen different actresses over the run of the show, including five male actors and a former bus driver. Interestingly, the fursuit used for her "werepoodle" form didn't actually fit her male portrayers quite right.
The Man, an individual of highly indeterminate status. Played by an American using an incredibly bad Vietnamense accent, The Man was generally seen riding around in a small peddle-powered cart with Captain Steve, thus allowing him to use the carpool lanes on highways.
Happy Trails was popular with pre-teens and tweens who realized that, when accompanied by a ice cold glass of New Coke (or Pepsi) (or Mountain Dew) (or Kool-Aid), it made for excellent viewing. The program was also well-marketed by the Paramount Network's spokesperson Maurice Stevens, who went door to door in the half hour before the broadcast to tell everybody it was coming on.
Happy Trails was the network's longest-lived program, running for twelve years as the Paramount Network picked up programs from various producers. Production money funds abruptly ran out one day during the live transmission of Happy Trails episode #1,508 ("Western Picnic with Friends"), and viewers of the program were treated to a awkward moment when WB set workers started repossessing props while the gang was eating delicious McDonald's cheeseburgers. Half an hour later, the sponsors dropped their sponsorship and the show was cancelled for good.
The show spawned three spinoffs: two local and foreign versions (one local version for Boston, Massachusetts, USA and a foreign version for France) and the esteemed motorsports banner Paramount Turbo. The Boston version of Happy Trails (Happae Tarilz) was, in fact, done live every evening by the same actors who did the American versions. They simply performed the day's episode over again, this time with bad Boston accents (except the guy who played The Man, the "Vietnamese" guy, who simply switched back to his regular speaking voice and became the "Boston accented" guy). The result was then sent across cross-country cables and broadcast by WBOR. The French version, which never made it past episode 12, was called Traînées Heureuses, and was done live every day during lunch by the same actors who did the American versions. They simply performed the day's episode over again, this time with middle-aged French immigrants talking in the background with the actors lip-syncing to the French people's words, except for the actor who played (and voiced) Madame LeBelle, who switched back to her normal language and spoke French. The result was sent across trans-atlantic cables and broadcasted by TF1.
Paramount Turbo premiered on August 7, 1988 on the Paramount Network during what was originally broadcast of Happy Trails. Marshal Nick accidentally tried to walk down a flight of prop stairs while on live television. When he fell through the cardboard and broke his leg, he ended up being treated while a network camera continued to roll because nobody was sure it would start again if it was turned off.
Then-network president Shreekly (who would later leave to star on The Care Bears Family), who at the time was working out of a old film vault she shared with the kinescopes of the Famous Players Film Company silent films, found that viewership for Happy Trails had doubled (from five to ten) during the hour in which Marshal Nick, who had drunk a cup of Coca-Cola to cut the pain, had shared the screen with medical personnel and the stagehands. The first dedicated episode appeared a week later, featuring a roundtable consisting of Marshal Nick, Don Adams, and Squire Fridell, playing Ronald McDonald, since McDonald's was sponsoring, watching a USHRA event at the Louisiana Superdome and commentating on it while live cameras (with a S-VHS camera doing "1980's style live kinescope" to save the show for VHS and Laserdisc releases).
The program didn't go well for a number of reasons, one of the larger ones being that Don tended to get angry over Marshal Nick's actions. Another was the "call-in" nature of the show. The program featured the the call-in feature on television as a "talk to us line". Unfortunately, the phone was hooked to a "party line" - the type of phone setup in which multiple people shared one phone line. The S-VHS 80's style kinescope from the program illustrated the show's early problems:
[After the program starts, we show three men sitting on a "very comfy" couch. They are in the pressbox of the Superdome. Three retro candlestick phones sit on a table in front of them.]
ADAMS: So anyway, welcome to Paramount Turbo, and we're at the Superdome to see Bigfoot and other trucks.
Marsh. NICK: I said that when you came out.
ADAMS: Yeah, but the camera wasn't on then.
Marsh. NICK: Really? Joe, I thought the camera was on.
VOICE O.S.: Yeah, we had a malfunction with the video camera, but it seems to be working fine n--
[The film goes dark for about five seconds]
VOICE O.S.: -kay, it's back now. Nobody touch this wire.
ADAMS: What were we talking about?
MCDONALD: McDonald's cheeseburg--
Marsh. NICK: Thank you. We were talking about the USHRA's event at the Superdome!
[The phone rings]
Marsh. NICK: That would be a caller!
[He takes the phone off the hook and sets it next to a microphone on the crate]
Marsh. NICK: Hello, you're on the air with Paramount Turbo.
SEVERAL VOICES: (lots of chatter, including one saying "I WANT TO SEE BIGFOOT 5 CRUSH MISS BIGFOOT 'CAUSE I HATE FEMA--").
[NICK reluctantly hangs up the phone. Adams steeples his fingers and fumes.]
MCDONALD: Okay, now it is time for--
[ADAMS blows a whistle, causing McDonald to shiver]
Marsh. NICK: You can't imagine how badly I wanted to do that. He was warming up in the room next to mine.
ADAMS: No thanks are necessary.
[Motorsports action begins]