‘King of the Hill’ leaving lasting impression on propane industry

February 1, 2009 By    

Greg Daily still remembers the cold, winter day at American Propane when a van stopped at his Austin, Texas, office and about 10 people walked through the door. They were inquisitive about propane yet secretive about their purpose.

“They came in and started asking questions,” Daily recalls. “Finally, I said, ‘Where are you all from? Who are you with?’ Finally, they told us they were doing this [TV] series called ‘King of the Hill’ and they were writers.”

The group visited American Propane once more, stopping to ask questions about the operation and to learn about the propane industry. The caravan also made a stop at Action Propane in Leander, Texas, “to look things over,” an employee there remembers.

More than a decade later, these tours of Texas propane companies now make sense. They were the basis for “King of the Hill,” one of the longest running, animated comedy series ever, shown every Sunday night on Fox. The network announced recently an end to the series, which will culminate with its 14th season and the final episode in 2010.

Launched on Jan. 12, 1997, the series features the character Hank Hill, well known as the “salesman of propane and propane accessories with honor and dignity” for Strickland Propane in Arlen, Texas. “King of the Hill” portrays the lives of Hank, his family (wife Peggy and son Bobby) and their neighbors in the fictional Texas town, at the fictional propane business.

Industry involvement
As the popular series fades to black, it will take a piece of the propane industry with it. Industry members played a part in the show’s beginning – from marketers who hosted writer visits to technical and marketing personnel who offered their insights.

“Everyone was concerned about how the industry would be portrayed on the show, whether something would come back and haunt us, with people getting blown up and burned,” says Bruce Swiecicki, senior technical advisor for the National Propane Gas Association (NPGA). “We would take it upon ourselves [NPGA staff] to watch the show, discuss it and if necessary communicate to the folks who were writing the show.”

Propane Resources supplied series producers with safety training material and encouraged them to keep propane in a positive light, recalls Pat Thornton, part of Propane Resources’ wholesale supply and hedging group. This training program elicited questions about the industry concerning salaries, technology and whether employees belonged to unions, among other issues. In exchange for the information, producers would send “King of the Hill” T-shirts.

Early in 1998, in the program’s second year and during the peak of its initial popularity, a local Fox news station featured Propane Resources for helping Hank Hill with his propane facts, Thornton remembers. The story was made available via satellite to other Fox affiliates around the country. Word spread of the industry’s involvement in working to keep propane in a positive light.

“We expressed concern that they would ultimately portray propane as a source of danger, as happens in other shows,” Thornton says. “Sure enough, later that season, there was an episode where the Mega-Lo Mart blew up as a result of a propane explosion.”

Positives aplenty
While that episode drew NPGA’s ire, many within the industry believe “King of the Hill,” led by the straight-shooting Hank Hill, has been a positive, accurate reflection of the industry.

“Over the 10-plus-year run, ‘King of the Hill’ put propane and its positive aspects at the top of people’s minds, and the reruns will continue to,” Thornton says. “There were many times when Hank would talk up the benefits of propane. One time he led a prayer for a bunch of Boy Scouts and wrapped up the prayer thanking God for ‘clean-burning propane to heat our homes.’ He would promote propane benefits in his meetings with prospective customers.”

Swiecicki adds, “Thankfully, the main character works at a propane company, and the shows I’ve seen, he’s portrayed in a favorable light. He’s a levelheaded guy, the typical father-knows-best kind of guy. He leaves a favorable impression on folks. I hope so, anyway.”

Kate Caskin, senior vice president and chief marketing officer for the Propane Education & Research Council (PERC), says PERC employees have followed “King of the Hill” over the years. They were interested to learn the words “clean, efficient and reliable” have been used on the show to describe propane.

“Those are the attributes that differentiate propane in the marketplace, and that really became the anchor of our message through national advertising and outreach efforts,” Caskin says. “[Show] producers were actually paying attention to the work the propane industry was doing to market itself.”

Swiecicki adds, “The show in general stuck pretty true to the technical aspects of propane, in terms of the equipment and terminology they used. They tried to be as realistic and honest as possible, in terms of addressing propane and the hazards with it. It’s a credit to their research and their ability to keep an open mind, to accept advice and to utilize it.”
Texas roots

“King of the Hill” utilized a particular aspect of its research and honored its Texas roots with constant references to the Texas Propane Gas Association (TPGA). Show creator Mike Judge, the voice behind Hank Hill, is an Austin, Texas, resident.

“The ‘Texas Propane Gas Association’ might be on a billboard, or they might have a gala sponsored by the Texas Propane Gas Association,” says Jackie Richards, TPGA’s regulatory and legislative affairs director. “They do mention our association a lot through different episodes.”

In its January 2006 magazine, TPGA published an interview with Judge, the 46-year-old cartoonist and director, whose other popular projects include the “Beavis and Butthead” animated series and the movie “Office Space.” He was born in Ecuador, raised in New Mexico and now lives in Texas.

Growing up, Judge says propane “seemed to be everywhere,” but he admits to not knowing much about it and instead relied on research for the show. He knows mistakes were made along the way and expressed regret for the propane-explosion episode.

In choosing Hank’s profession, Judge used his own educational experiences. He was pushed toward science, earned a physics degree and expected “the red carpet” and “great jobs” to follow. When that didn’t happen, he noticed other solid jobs that a high school guidance counselor might look down on – a propane marketer, for example.

With “King of the Hill,” Judge says he wanted to respect the blue-collar mind-set, reveal how people could have good jobs without having to work in a cubicle and make sure the show was “always on Hank’s side.”
In the end, people noticed.

“I didn’t know where [Hank’s job] came from, but I thought it was unique,” says Jerry Sullivan, manager of Martin LP Gas in Kilgore, Texas. “He was typical of this industry, kind of like myself. You care about what you’re doing and what you’re selling and believe in it. He was always trying to do what’s right – he was just always getting into a bind doing it.”

Sidelights
A humorous nature and quirky characters allow viewers to have fun with the show, which won an Emmy Award in 1999 for Outstanding Animated Program.

“People always bring up Hank Hill when I say I work in the propane industry,” Thornton says. “So recently I named my fantasy football team ‘Hank Hill’s Heroes,’ and I’m proud to say we won the Super Bowl!”

Sullivan’s customers have mentioned “King of the Hill,” and some ask whether it’s his favorite show. His son has been a fan.

“I always talked about business around my son. He knows about propane, and he’s been around propane dealers and salesmen all his life,” Sullivan adds. “When he was in the Army, his buddies kidded him about the show. Some of them were calling him little Bobby.”

“King of the Hill” became a family topic for Swiecicki, whose father, Walter, and son, Ryan, enjoy the show. Daily of American Propane even wonders whether one of his employees became a fixture on the show.

“We thought one of the characters came from one of our employees,” he says, recounting the writers’ visits to his office. “In the summer, the employee wore black T-shirts, and he may have been wearing a black T-shirt” during the writers’ visits.

Daily says it’s only speculation on whether writers formed the character Boomhauer following their visit to American Propane.

 

Brian Richesson

About the Author:

Brian Richesson is the editor in chief of LP Gas Magazine. Contact him at brichesson@northcoastmedia.net or 216-706-3748.

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