That’ll Learn You: In Defense of Country Comedy
“But we’ll all be equal under the grass,
And God’s got a heaven for country trash.”
For the most part, sketch, improv and stand-up nerds know their comedy. However, I can’t help but notice there’s are certain hole in many comedians’ knowledge: country comedy. Fair enough, I suppose. Maybe most people who grow up on Long Island didn’t grow up tuning into Leonard’s Losers every week (a radio program in which, in a throaty Southern accent, the titular character picks the losing college football team of a given SEC/Big Ten match-up. Look, you had to be there). Comedy fans often make the mistake of thinking there’s no brains behind these comedies or that the show is taking the position of the characters it’s skewering, ignoring the subtle social commentary of these country comedies. There are some country comedies you just have no right to overlook.
Let’s start with the best. If haven’t watched King of the Hill, really, I have no words for you. I hope you’re thinking “duh,” but I have heard comedians refer to this show as “that redneck show.” Despite its 13 seasons, I still think this is one of the most underrated shows ever to appear on television. Hank Hill is the perfect lead for a country comedy: an old-school guy set in his ways, but also a practical man and caring father that can sometimes be roped into his son’s rose growing competition or voicing one of the Manger babies, his niece’s Christian puppets.
What King of the Hill truly accomplished was showing family who’s default settings were country and conservative, but who were able to grow and adapt to a new millennium, if reluctantly. King of the Hill featured episodes about all of the huge events in a country person’s life: going to the Sturgis, South Dakota Harley festival, a trip to country’s DisneyWorld — Branson, Missouri — and, of course, a trip to Nashville FanFest (and I can tell you these references are right on because my family members have been to all of these). But the show was ultimately a brilliant character comedy that shows us the inner workings of your average American family with a stubborn dad, megalomaniac mom and under-achieving, dreamer son. And it’s where I first heard of the country of Laos.
Of course, country comedy has deep roots and I would be remiss to not mention Hee-Haw, which, we can just admit is a mixed bag. Sometimes the comedy relies too much on changing words that start with the letter “C” to the letter “K,” for instance “korn” for “corn” (Get it? That’s not spelled right!), but absurdist comedy fans will find some truly bizarre bits on Hee-Haw. One of the longest running bits, “What’s For Supper, Grandpa,” entails interrupting Grandpa Jones as cleans a glass-less window pain to ask “what’s for supper, grandpa?” and then Grandpa Jones lists some menu items in rhyme. That’s all that happens. Post-modern comedians, meet thy ancestors.
Hee-Haw also showcased a true comedy legend: Minnie Pearl. Pearl (which was the stage name of actress Sarah Cannon) was a caricature of a Southern, country bumpkin’, but her comedy was also honest and intelligent. Her act focused on stories and characters from her hometown, “Grinder’s Switch” (a fictionalized version of Cannon’s hometown, Centreville, Tennessee). Pearl was really a storyteller, who used only her humor and life story to build a comedy empire — her show had 50 year relationship with the Grand Ole Opry.
Country comedy has a long-standing tradition on radio (like the above-mentioned Leonard’s Losers) which is alive and well with the “Big Butter Jesus”) and Tim Wilson (“Jeff Gordon’s Gay” – an amazing send up of homophobia among NASCAR fans).
And look, I can’t force you to think that “You might be a redneck if you’re watching this on a TV that’s on top of another, broken TV” is funny –- but I can vouch it’s accurate.
For now, my blue collar comedy tour is complete. I hope I have broadened your comedy horizons. Ultimately, this is about safety. I know a lot of comedians travel through out the United States doing improv and stand-up, and I once saw an improv scene at Harold Night at UCB in which an improviser referred to Dale Earnhardt as “Number 24.” I don’t have the time or space to explain how wrong that it, just know this: there’s places in American where they’ll shoot you for that. And I’m not stopping them.
Caitlin Tegart is a comedian, writer and director often sighted at the Upright Citizen Brigade Theatre and CaitlinTegart.com.