There’s a growing trend in the comedies on television where a careful, respectful approach that caters towards character-driven comedy is exactly what people want. Series like The Good Place, Silicon Valley, or Brooklyn Nine-Nine may go to extremely crazy places, but they ultimately all come down to their characters and creating a real feeling of community with their comedy. These aren’t the only programs that take this approach, though, and it’s worth examining why this style 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, would spawn this whole line of writers and directors who would become their protégés. Daniels would in turn work with people like Mike Schur, and to a lesser extent Dan Goor (who started on Parks and Recreation, has gone on to co-create Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and will go on further beyond that). These people have become the next breed of writers and directors that you see composing the sharpest comedies from the past decade as well as the programs that are currently shaping television comedy right now, like Parks and Recreation, Bob’s Burgers, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Silicon Valley, Modern Family, The Good Place, American Dad, and Rick and Morty.
If it weren’t for the lessons that were instilled on King of the Hill, these writers and directors wouldn’t have gone on to make today’s classics. Not only that, but many of these writers and directors 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 the likes of Emily Spivey (showrunner of Up All Night), David Zuckerman (showrunner of Wilfred), Dan Goor (the aforementioned Brooklyn Nine-Nine), and John Altschuler and Dave Krinsky, who are both co-creators of Silicon Valley along with Judge, himself. This can even be seen in the form of Paul Lieberstein stepping up on The Office when Greg Daniels departed and his weird tenure on the third season of Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom to help get it back on track.
While an extremely humble, unassuming show, King of the Hill managed to run for thirteen seasons and rack up 259 episodes, which puts it in third place for the longest-running animated sitcom behind The Simpsons and Family Guy (which only just surpassed King of the Hill in 2015). It also still airs twice a day on Adult Swim and pulls in decent numbers in contrast to the network’s more surreal programming. 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 and 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, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and Bob’s Burgers simply because of things like this and the effort put into the characters. These feel like real people, and seeing them grow is just as satisfying as any big plot machinations. King of the Hill’s Emily Spivey would eventually end up as co-executive producer on The Last Man on Earth, which would focus almost exclusively on character and the growth that the cast goes through in unusual, yet grounded, ways. The heavy cliffhangers that Brooklyn Nine-Nine or Silicon Valley go out on each year feel deeply reminiscent of the large notes that King of the Hill’s earlier seasons would close on.
King of the Hill really pushed this sort of approach to its limit and would do radical experiments like having an entire season where Peggy needs to learn how to walk again after she breaks her legs in the preceding season’s finale. In the end, is this that different than Leslie Knope running for public office for an entire season on Parks, Raymond Holt spending a season away from the 99th precinct on Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Ryan Howard being made boss of everything on The Office, or frankly anything that happens on Silicon Valley?
Amidst this, we see constant flux and growth through King of the Hill’s cast with things like Luanne dealing with her boyfriend’s death, moving away to college, and even starting a family. Nancy ends her affair with John Redcorn, Joseph goes through puberty, Bill moves past his ex-wife, and the litany of different jobs that Peggy attempts later on in the series. Hell, even Cotton dies, which is a move that feels like something far more ambitious and fluid than something that 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 on King of the Hill before being seen in your current favorite comedies.
One of the most plot-centric animated comedies that’s currently on television is Rick and Morty, and while the eccentric series might not seem like it shares that much in common with the straight-laced sitcom, its mark is also ever-present on the show. Rick and Morty certainly doesn’t shy away from killing off cast members or allowing its characters to grow and change in dramatic ways. Wes Archer, a major directing force from King of the Hill, is not only the supervising director on Rick and Morty (as well as Bob’s Burgers), but John Rice, Jeff Myers, and Dominic Polcino are all King of the Hill directors that also now work on Rick and Morty.
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 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, are 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 (who was voiced by Tom Petty, no less).
Lucky was a character that appeared in the show as a one-off, but as his presence and popularity 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 shows like The Office, Parks and Recreation, Bob’s Burgers, and The Last Man on Earth, too. These creatives know that the move can bear fruit when it’s 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, with Kyounghee Lim also coming on as a director. 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 reigns, eventually co-showrunning Parks and Recreation, The Good Place, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine and bringing former King of the Hill writers Emily Spivey and Norm Hiscock with him.
The rest of King of the Hill’s writers have been flung amongst comedies like Modern Family, American Dad, and Community and included people like Wyatt Cenac, who is now starring in his own HBO series in addition to People of Earth, along with Paul Lieberstein. In fact, in addition to its cast and the fact that Greg Daniels is also an executive producer here, People of Earth has several King of the Hill writers on its writing staff, too. 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 on Brooklyn Nine-Nine 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.
Even after King of the Hill’s conclusion in 2010, there have been recent discussions on the possibility of reviving the show on Fox. Television has certainly entered an unusually nostalgic place where old comedies like Roseanne and Murphy Brown can suddenly be the hot new thing, so why not King of the Hill? These revival talks are merely in the discussion stage, but Mike Judge at least has interest in the idea. Honestly, Dale’s conspiracy theories and Hank’s take on the current president (and what his small hands may be like in a handshake) feel like a lot more natural fit than some of the other television returns that have happened. With Wes Archer recently putting out previously unreleased King of the Hill material to much celebration, it feels like the show has never been more popular and relevant than it is now.
With shows like Parks and Recreation now over and programs like Brooklyn Nine-Nine beginning to reach their end point, it’s exciting to think about 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 become the future showrunners of comedy on television or that they’ll be 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.