The comedian known as Larry the Cable Guy (Dan Whitney) is the newest, and quite possibly the horniest, in a noble line of redneck philosophers. Following in the tradition of Hee Haw’s Junior Samples, the humorist Lewis Grizzard, and his own colleague Jeff Foxworthy, Larry gives a voice to his own dyspeptic corner of the South. It is possible that this particular corner of Dixie exists only in Larry’s imagination. It consists of strip clubs, flea markets, rodeos, Bass Pro Shops, the Waffle House, NASCAR events, and Long John Silver’s. Dressing for all of them, Larry mounts the stage in a sleeveless flannel shirt, jeans, and a ball cap adorned with a fishhook. “I used to be a lifeguard,” he says, “until some blue kid got me fired.” A dim bulb whose chief interests are sex and food, Larry is an anachronism in the New South. He and his comrades from the film Blue Collar Comedy Tour have revived the ancient art of rednecking, one of comedy’s most venerable forms.
It’s tempting to view the success of the Blue Collar troubadours—the others are Foxworthy, Bill Engvall, and Ron White—as a triumph of savvy packaging. But the comedy speaks to a broadly American condition: the feeling of being left out. Blue Collar was mounted as a rejoinder to The Original Kings of Comedy (2000), a film directed by Spike Lee that featured four black comedians. As Foxworthy explained to the New York Times, “[T]hat show left out the people who were not hip. They’re the ones who wake up every morning and go to work and go to war, and, dadgum, there’s a whole lot of ‘em out there.” A flop in theaters, Blue Collar became a hit on Comedy Central and has spawned a TV variety show. Of the foursome, Foxworthy, Engvall, and White are witty, urbane observers of southern life; Larry is their redneck id. In March, his CD The Right to Bare Arms debuted at No. 1 on the country charts—a first for a comedy album—and remained in the top spot for four weeks. Pollstar magazine placed him as America’s highest-grossing road comedian through July, with more than $15 million in ticket sales.
Redneck comedy—the creation of a cretinous, backwoods alter ego—was once useful in maintaining the delicate social fabric of the South. According to James C. Cobb, a history professor at the University of Georgia, the redneck comedian provided a rallying point for bourgeois and lower-class whites alike. With his front-porch humor and politically outrageous bons mots,the redneck comedian created an illusion of white equality across classes. Thus united, Cobb explains, Southern whites could better band together against common “foes”—newly enfranchised blacks, Northern carpetbaggers, and so forth. Later, in the stew of bus boycottsand school integration, the redneck comedian attained a peculiar grandeur. Upon hearing about Brown v. Board of Education, Brother Dave Gardner, a white comedian, is said to have remarked: “Let ‘em go to school; we went and we didn’t learn nothing.”
The prosperity of the New South has created a market for a milder form of redneck comedy. The old notion of Southern upward mobility, which requires dropping your accent and joining the mainstream, has been writ large across the region. (An exception is made for politicians and college football coaches, for whom a drawl is still a vital part of the CV.) In the face of modernity, there’s a thrill in watching an ornery cuss who clings to the old ways. In the 1990s, when Jeff Foxworthy drawled “you might be a redneck …” he was not merely preaching to those folks who (in his priceless formulation) had ever fought over an inner tube. Foxworthy was also preaching to the newly minted white middle class, those who had ditched the pickup for an Audi and their ancestral segregation for affirmative action. As Cobb puts it, “Now, feeling relatively secure and closer to the mainstream, they rebel against acting respectable, embracing this counterculture hero—the ‘redneck’ who is what he is, and doesn’t give a damn what anybody thinks.” This, in a nutshell, explains the rise of Larry the Cable Guy.
Larry was born in Pawnee City, Neb., in 1963, but, as he is quick to point out, he had moved to Florida by his midteens. He attended the Baptist University of America in Decatur, Ga., and it was there, among Bible folk, that his accent thickened and he began a study of the rural South. Returning to Florida, he created an unruly alter ego—a cable guy—and began delivering comic radio commentaries that inveighed against “evil commie libs and politically correct uptight crybabies.” His voice was a gooey whine; the material was reactionary veering into the racist. (Kim Jong-il, the leader of North Korea, was a “sweet-and-sour commie gook.”) When the news failed to move him, Larry would tweak the nostalgia factories of the South. He read fictitious letters from a Confederate soldier that described the less noble moments of the Noble Cause. (“I got in a skirmish with some Yankee sumbitch and to make a long story short my wiener was blown off. Not a good day. I’ll write more later.”) It was this persona—bluff and crass, almost perversely “Southern”—that he moved from the radio to the stage and then to the Blue Collar Comedy Tour.
Larry is a one-liner comedian. He boasts that he can deliver a joke in as little as eight seconds. He will sometimes follow a joke with, “That’s funny, I don’t care who you are,” or “Git-r-done!”—an exhortation to get something done. Larry has staked out a few moral principles. Onstage, he refuses to say the f-word or take the Lord’s name in vain. In a new book, Git-R-Done,he lists some other principles: support for the National Rifle Association; worship of John Wayne and Lynyrd Skynyrd; an interest in bird-huntin’ and four-wheelin’; sympathy for the Confederate flag; being “first and foremost an American”; and a belief in Jesus Christ. After telling a lurid joke, Larry will often turn to the floor, squeeze his eyes shut, and mumble, “Lord, I apologize”—an affectation he says he picked up from his father, a preacher.
Earlier this year in Rolling Stone, the comedian David Cross charged that Larry’s act was anti-gay, racist, and chock-full of “anti-intellectual pride.” The third charge is surely true (Larry would take it as a compliment); the other two are more complicated. What these arguments often boil down to is one comedian claiming he’s pitching his work on a high plane of satire, while the other claims the pitch is too subtle, or else delivered a bit too gleefully. In this case, I can’t help but think that Cross’ complaint would not be leveled at South Park or his own Arrested Development, which cleverly play with images of race and sexuality all the time, and that Larry’s Southern rube shtick—where the running joke is that he’s anti-intellectual—makes it easier to take his silly proclamations seriously (or else fear that his fans will). “I’m not Will Rogers,” Larry says in a phone conversation. “I mean, Will Rogers was a poet and a thinkin’ man and political.” Fair enough. But two out of three ain’t bad.