John Aylesworth (1928-2010)
Aylesworth, John (1928-2010)
Whether on his own as creator of the longest-running game show on Canadian television, or as co-creator/producer/writer of countless television series with his partner Frank Peppiatt, John Aylesworth’s contributions to the North American broadcasting scene over a period of more than 50 years set him apart as one of the most prolific talents Canadian television has produced since its inception in 1952.
John Aylesworth was born in Toronto in 1928, and was educated from kindergarten through high school at Forest Hill Collegiate. While there, he got his first taste of broadcasting when he appeared in a CFRB radio series, Penny’s Diary, and later as the voice of a daily radio show, High Newsreel, on CJBC. This led to his becoming editor of Canadian High News, a weekly newspaper for teens.
In 1950, he went to work as a copywriter and staff announcer at MacLaren Advertising, where he found himself sharing an office with one Frank Peppiatt. The two quickly established themselves as the office cut-ups, and their bright minds and quick wits eventually had them writing and appearing in a series of half-hour radio comedy shows for the CBC. In 1953 they starred in the CBC’s first television comedy show, After Hours, in which they did comedy sketches wrapped around film clips of major recording artists performing their hits.
After John had worked with Frank on two more CBC television series, The Big Revue (1954) and On Stage (1956), the partners decided to forsake performing to concentrate on writing. John went off to write “Cross Canada Hit Parade” for the CBC for two seasons, and it was during this time that he successfully pitched Lever Brothers with the idea for a panel game show which was to become the longest-running show of its kind in Canada – Front Page Challenge. The series ran as the summer replacement for the Denny Vaughan Show in 1957, and Lever Brothers liked it so much that it replaced the Vaughan show in the fall, and ran until 1995.
In 1958, John was invited by Norman Jewison to go to New York to write Your Hit Parade, which Norman was directing, for CBS. The following summer the entire Hit Parade staff was asked to produce a summer replacement series for the Garry Moore Show, starring Andy Williams. Frank Peppiatt (who had been writing for the Steve Allen Show) was reunited with John to write the Williams show. Their work on this show resulted in 'the boys’ being asked to write a Bing Crosby special, which had Perry Como as the guest. Como was so impressed with their work that he hired them to work with Goodman Ace on the scripts for Como’s Kraft Music Hall, which they did for three years until Perry decided to retire from series television in 1963.
Over the next 22 years, John Aylesworth’s writing credits appeared on scores of specials and series for a dazzling array of stars, including Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra (for whose special, Sinatra - A Man and His Music he won a Peabody Award and was nominated for an Emmy), Herb Alpert, Jack Benny, Jonathan Winters, Julie Andrews (Emmy nomination), Rock Hudson, Steve Allen, Sonny and Cher (another Emmy nomination), Dinah Shore, Phyllis Diller and Groucho Marx.
John and Frank did not forsake Canada altogether. In 1962 they created another panel show for the CBC, with Syd Wayne. Called Flashback, this one had a panel guessing people rather than events, and it lasted for six years. In 1966, the CBC dedicated an episode to John and Frank, titled Peppiatt and Aylesworth – A Taste of Funny, which reviewed their successes to date in Canada and the U.S., and in 1967 they were hired by the CBC to write The Spirit of ’67, a ninety-minute television Centennial special hosted by Percy Saltzman and saluting Canadians and their achievements over the first 100 years of Confederation.
In 1969 John and Frank Peppiatt created Hee Haw for CBS. Once described as “the country and western version of Laugh In”, this fast-paced hour-long show featured skits, songs, a corny line of humour, and the first hosts were Buck Owens and Roy Clark. The series ran in the summer of 1969, and was brought back by CBS from December 1969 through July 1971. When Hee-Haw was cancelled by the network, John and Frank then put it into syndication. Soon it was being carried by more stations than it had when CBS owned it, and by 1977 it was the US’s highest-rated non-network show. It won a People’s Choice Award in 1978. The last original episodes were produced in 1992. A spin-off, Hee-Haw Honeys, was syndicated for one year, 1978-79. Hee Haw still stands as the longest-running comedy-variety show of its genre on American television. (As of early 2007, John was working on a book, The Corn Was Green - The Inside Story of Hee Haw).
Peppiatt and Aylesworth retired from television as a team in 1985, with John doing one last script that year for The New Love American Style for ABC. John moved to Palm Springs, but was hardly retired. He and Frank subsequently wrote a stage musical, Durante, which opened in Toronto and later played in Vancouver, San Francisco and Los Angeles. In the late 1980s, John spent six weeks back in Canada, doing interviews for a popular BCTV Vancouver half-hour series, The Performers. His last US network television show was a one-hour series with Dolly Parton for ABC in 1987-88. He also wrote and directed a comedy-musical, Palm Springs Confidential, which played to packed houses.
In October 1996, John was invited back to Toronto, when Adrienne Clarkson dedicated an entire episode of her one-hour Adrienne Clarkson Presents series to A Tribute To Peppiatt and Aylesworth: Canada’s First Television Comedy Team. In 2000, John relocated to San Diego. In January 2006, he and Frank appeared in Comedy Gold, a four-hour retrospective CBC television mini-series that paid tribute to the wealth of comedy talent that Canada had produced over the years.
John wrote a book, Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum (1961), had two other unpublished works, and in 2006 completed another, A Job Laughing, about his career in comedy as performer and writer. As for television shows, after having created two that made television history, Front Page Challenge and Hee Haw, he said only: “I’d like to do it one more time.”
Sadly, John didn't get to fulfil his wish. He died on July 28th 2010, just three weeks short of his 82nd birthday.
Written by Pip Wedge - August, 2010