Laugh, according to creed

Laugh, according to creed
A hirsute man sits in plain view on the toilet, straining. His wild pawing at the walls is accompanied by the sort of explosive sounds that go over big at a fourth grade lunch table. But this man is on a date, giving the sad-eyed woman on the other side of the door a horrific earful. Before the scene is over, the man, looking like somebody’s idea of a cartoon trucker, has availed himself of hand towels in lieu of toilet paper. Exiting the bathroom, he delivers his bon mot, “You might need a shop vac in there.” This, for those who don’t know him, is Larry the Cable Guy and he’s coming to the John near you. The country’s reigning comic, whose humor has nothing to do with installing cable but whose success has everything to do with TV, will play the JPJ on Thursday, November 16th.

The scene is from Larry The Cable Guy: Health Inspector, the oddly titled movie that was released earlier this year. With its tiny box office earning ($16 million, according to published reports) it is one of his few failures. Larry is the nation’s No. 1 touring comedian; he’s on the road in support of his second comedy album, The Right To Bare Arms, which recently debuted at No. 7 and has since followed his first record in being certified gold. The first two Blue Collar Comedy Tour movies, starring Larry and his pals Jeff Foxworthy, Bill Engvall and Ron White, are the two highest rated movies Comedy Central has ever shown. Forget “South Park,” Dave Chappelle, or Jon Stewart. America seems to love Larry.

Perhaps you have never heard of Daniel Lawrence Whitney? But you have undoubtedly heard his chewing tobacco-flecked catch phrase, “Git-R-Done” or seen it on a beer cozy or a thong. Whitney, who makes his “hey boy, wut chew lookin ayut” accent a centerpiece of his flatulent humor, is 43, and he first started work on his “Southern” accent 27 years ago when he moved from Nebraska to West Palm Beach, Florida: “I’ve always been a dialect chameleon, so I started speaking with a thick accent,” he writes in his book Git-R-Done. And apparently it suits his brand of equal-opportunity-offensive humor. “I feel more comfortable in a Southern dialect,” he says.

But back in the day, when he was still billed as Dan Whitney, it was more leisure suit than blue collar that informed his comedy. A video clip from the ’80s has him under a “Comedy from the Caribbean” banner wearing a poofy green silk shirt; pleated, taper leg khakis; and blazing white sneakers (the only hint of Southern-ness his curly mullet). A stint on a morning radio station show as a “cable installer” spawned Larry The Cable Guy in the early ’90s just as the country elected a white trash president from Arkansas. But it would take the ascendancy of a C student with regular guy credentials as fake as Whitney’s accent for Larry the Cable Guy to become a big star.

A modern L’il Abner, Larry walks on stage with a kind of stupefied shuffle, like a big, slow child. Stomach extended, one hand in his pocket, he’s wearing a sleeveless flannel shirt and camouflage hat adorned with a fishhook. “You buhleev thayut?” he asks his audience repeatedly in his exaggerated redneck drawl. And there are surely plenty among us who regard the modern world with Larry-like bewilderment.

Larry The Cable Guy, who neither installs cable TV nor mentions it in his stand-up movies or book, nonetheless brands himself as a “Blue Collar” comedian who speaks for “honest, hardworking Americans”—those who are hard at work presumably at things other than Larry’s stock-in-trade, namely fishing, cleansing his bowels and pondering his genitalia.
Larry describes his phrase “Git-R-Done” as “talkin’ about a blue collar work ethic and nothing more.” His constant use of the term “blue collar” in a time when there are fewer blue collar jobs in America then ever before, is almost anachronistic. It may not explain why people find Larry funny, but it does a lot to explain why so many people keep tuning in. Just as Larry The Cable Guy probably can’t program a VCR, let alone get you Showtime, so “blue collar” no longer says much about a person’s job. Blue collar is a set of beliefs.

Larry speaks to the group that laments the loss of something they think of as American values, but which might more accurately be called the rise of multiculturalism. In Sunday Money, his book on NASCAR, Jeff MacGregor writes that in dire times like these NASCAR is “a retreat into an oversimplified, antihistorical past in a fairytale world that never existed.” Larry’s comedy operates the same way, speaking to people afraid that their jobs will be sent overseas, and that English will disappear along with them. Just as the slick urbanism of the New South has made it hard to define a “real” Southerner these days, so have many Americans been forced to redefine what the New America might be. As the world changes they seek stability and an identity. Larry offers them a ready, and entertaining, model.

Like almost all modern standup, Larry’s comedy parrots and dilutes a recognizable set of political leanings. To Larry everyday common sense is being turned upside down by “evil commie libs and politically correct uptight crybabies.” Put a suit on him and Larry could be Bill O’Reilly. Larry is “first and foremost an American.” He likes country music, four-wheelin’ and bird huntin’. He loves John Wayne, Ted Nugent, and “all branches of the military and the NRA.” Ronald Reagan is his hero. Larry believes that evolution is a (probably incorrect) theory, and that global warming is a lie spread by “enviroqueers.” He writes that NASCAR is “the last truly American thing that political correctness hasn’t damaged too much.”

But this is comedy, not politics, so Larry doesn’t have to burden the NASCAR dads with too much detail. The finer points of Syria’s endorsement of Al-Qaeda or the American government’s failure to avert terrorist cells in this country are best subsumed in a statement like this one, widely quoted by his critics: “The Republicans had a Muslim give the opening prayer at there (sic) convention! What the hell’s going on around here! Is Muslim now the official religion of the United States!…First these peckerheads fly planes into towers and now theys (sic) prayin’ before conventions!…Ya wanna pray to Allah then drag yer flea infested ass over to where they pray to Allah at!”

This brand of humor brings with it some internecine warfare within the world of comics. Granted, disputes among comics rank next to TomKat’s baby in terms of overall insignificance. It’s not exactly Murrow vs. McCarthy, but David Cross, whose currency is a kind of vague hyper-intellectual social criticism associated with the Left, took on Larry in a Rolling Stone interview last year. “He’s in the right place at the right time for that gee-shucks, proud-to-be-a-redneck,
I’m-just-a-straight-shooter-multimillionaire-in-cutoff-flannel-selling-ring-tones act. That’s where we are as a nation now. We’re in a stage of vague American values and anti-intellectual pride,” Cross said.

Larry fired back, “America’s sick of payin’ good money for a comedy show that only earns one laugh every 12 minutes because the comedian onstage is too busy demonstratin’ how much smarter he is than his audience.”

But Larry’s audience is not restricted to working Joes and Southern hayseeds. It is much more likely that Larry’s audience is made up of white-collar family guys—smart guys—who live in the suburbs of Atlanta or Charlotte and work for large multinational corporations. For most Larry fans, their blue collars and red necks are things of the past, if they ever really existed. They live in the New South, the new, post-9/11 America, and the new, flatter, smaller, world, and they feel like they don’t really fit. Life, they think, is supposed to be simpler. Life used to be simpler. Larry offers them that simplicity, and a “real” identity. Larry is their Alter Id.

Everything Larry says sounds familiar. It sounds a lot like another fake Southerner, a good old boy from Crawford, Texas, who was born in Connecticut. A regular guy whose father was head of the CIA, vice president for eight years, and president for  another four. All of this sounds exactly like the nostalgia for a simpler, hard-working America that has allowed real blue collar Americans to vote themselves into poverty. “Git-R-Done” sounds a lot like “Mission Accomplished.” In his book, Larry talks about that phrase and its use among soldiers in Iraq. “Our soldiers have sent me all sorts of pictures showin’ ‘Git-R-Done!’ plastered on tanks, jeeps, Humvees, helicopters, and the titties of Iraqi whores. That’s Awesome! …They’re saying ‘We’re Americans and we’re comin’ to kick your dictator’s ass so you can have some sense of freedom.’” This sounds frighteningly similar to America’s current policy on the war.

To be fair, Larry is not an overtly political comedian (although he does devote 29 pages of his book to a chapter called “Politics”). His stage act is largely devoid of any serious messages. As he says in his book, “My fans come out to laugh over nonsensical bullshit and have a good time. Comedians don’t have to make deep political points or talk over anyone’s head.”

But today people are looking to comedians to make political points. At the start of his shows, Larry is introduced as “The man who should be president of the United States.” It is a sentiment that is mirrored on many websites about another popular Comedy Central regular. Red state or blue, Larry The Cable Guy or Jon Stewart: Comedy is the new battleground for politics, and in these complicated times both our president and our Cable Guy are peddling simplicity.

Larry the Cable Guy performs at John Paul Jones Arena Thursday, November 16 at 7:30pm. Tickets are $42.75. 888-JPJ-TIXS.

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