Wednesday, March 6th, 2013

Defending Larry the Cable Guy

Every week I'll be writing about a comedian who is wildly successful, yet receives little to no respect in the comedy community. I find this divide fascinating and wonder sometimes how the comedy idols I hold dear, like Paul F. Tompkins for example, are ignored by the masses, while comedians like Larry the Cable Guy are embraced on such a huge level. The easy answer is that just because something is popular doesn’t make it good. But there are a lot of very bad comedians who make a living on the road and they don't become national sensations. The other answer is that these comics have a lot of things working in their favor. Sometimes it is just a preternatural work ethic, or a ridiculous amount of charisma, and perhaps some will even be people who will surprise me with wit and jokes that I had not expected.

The first thing to remember about Larry the Cable Guy is that he is not a real person. The man behind the persona is a man named Daniel Whitney and he was born in Pawnee City, Nebraska and grew up on a pig farm as the son of a preacher. It would not be until he went to college and met his southern roommates that he learned how to perfectly speak in a southern accent.

Daniel Whitney started performing stand-up during his college days and ended up dropping out as his comedy career picked up steam. At around this time he added different characters to his act, one of which was a redneck character called Larry the Cable Guy. Before the inclusion of this character, his act was pretty basic middle of the road stuff. Looking at this clip, Whitney’s act seemed like he had more in common with Drew Carey than any of the Blue Collar boys.

Whitney also used to pop up on regional radio shows calling in as different characters to supplement his income as a comic. One of the shows Whitney used to appear on was a Tampa, FL morning zoo type show called The Ron and Ron Show, starring Ron Bennington and Ron Diaz. As someone from Tampa, FL I can assure you this was a very big deal. As a kid, their billboards were everywhere and Ron Bennington even operated a local comedy club called Ron Bennington’s Comedy Scene. To me, these guys were a bigger deal than any movie star or celebrity. Movie stars only popped up on the screen once a year or so, but these guys were on the radio every day!

After Whitney called in as Larry the Cable Guy a few times, he was soon appearing on the show almost as often. Larry the Cable Guy became so successful on the program that Ron and Ron began a tongue in cheek campaign to have Larry the Cable run for President in 1992. You could even buy Larry the Cable Guy for president t-shirts and bumper stickers in gas stations all around Tampa/St.Petersburg.

It was around this time that Larry the Cable Guy took over Dan Whitney’s act. While one could be tempted to write this up as a Frankenstein's monster kind of creation, in interviews Whitney doesn't seem quite so melodramatic about his loss of identity. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Larry the Cable Guy has made Dan Whitney a very successful and wealthy man. Larry the Cable Guy not only sells out arenas, he hosts TV shows for The History Channel (Only In America) and stars in major motion pictures,(Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector, Witless Protection, Cars 2).

The one thing Larry the Cable Guy has a hard time getting is respect. It’s easy to dismiss Larry the Cable Guy as a stand-up comic. His cornpone, hick persona along with the prevalence of scatological material in his act makes him an easy target. And while his material is not exactly my cup of tea, it is foolish to underestimate his comedy chops. Take the following clip for example:

During an interview some time ago on The Daily Show  Louis CK famously said, “You don’t have to be smart to laugh at farts, but you have to be stupid not to.” Now, I hate fart jokes. I hate the word fart, and I hate that our bodies are constantly undermining us with these gross tendencies. I chose this clip for two reasons: 1. I thought it would be an interesting challenge for myself to write about a fart joke. 2. Most of Larry the Cable Guy’s act is fart jokes. Having said that, it’s a pretty solid bit.

There is always going to be an argument over whether or not it is possible to teach people stand-up comedy. However, let’s say for argument’s sake that it is possible to teach the fundamentals of a joke in stand-up the same way sketch programs teach the structure of sketch comedy. In many ways, the fundamentals are the same. Larry the Cable Guys sets up the premise of the bit by talking about how his grandmother gets the “walking farts”. He acts it out a bit by making small, old lady steps and producing farting noises with his mouth for every step he takes. Now, the stakes must be raised. Grandma is now at the flea market. Stakes raised even more, she is wearing “spandex drawers.”

She farts while wearing the spandex pants and the image is like a mouse running down her leg. Here Larry the Cable Guy produces admittedly humorous imagery to detail what the fart physically looks like. This part gives the audience a release, producing a huge wave of laughter. Fundamentally, this is how you write a joke and it's a good one.

One of Larry the Cable Guy’s most unsung assets is the fact that he's actually a pretty good joke writer. In his 2003 special, Git R Done, Larry tells the audience about a bad experience he had with an airline recently “Only plane I ever been on that hit a deer.” Larry discusses a woman who is given a caesarian after 39 hours of labor, “it’s kind of like running a marathon and finding out you could have used a golf cart.”

None of this should be too surprising. You simply cannot achieve this level of success without some decent writing and performance chops. And while Daniel Whitney is a decent comic, it is performing as Larry the Cable Guy that establishes him as a great performer.

Say what you will about the content of his act, but Larry the Cable Guy as a delivery system is unstoppable. With his southern drawl, ridiculous clothing choices, and know-it-all swagger, Larry the Cable Guy is a comedy force to be reckoned with. When he gets big laughs, Larry the Cable Guy tells the audience, “now, that is funny right there.”

To most critics, the fact that Larry the Cable guy earns such raucous laughter seems to be a mystery. To people who grew up in the south, Larry the Cable Guy brutish confidence is the hallmark of a certain kind of redneck. At once not nearly as smart as he thinks he is but clever enough to know he isn’t as dumb as he appears.

I believe one reason that Larry the Cable Guy has become such a huge star is because he represents a segment of the population that goes largely unrepresented in mainstream media. On most network television shows, we see shapely, photogenic lawyers, doctors, or police officers, all dressed impeccably, but rarely ever see anyone like Larry the Cable Guy. When we do see southern people, which is rare, they are either very wise or very stupid.

This is perhaps why out of the four comedians who appeared in the stand-up comedy film Blue Collar Comedy Tour, Larry the Cable Guy has had most of the break out success. Jeff Foxworthy and Bill Engvall, when all washed up and put together, aren’t that much different than any other mainstream comic, but Larry the Cable Guy looks like the guy who lives next door and has been working on a junked out El Camino for the past three years (Ron White seems to have had the most difficulty breaking into the mainstream, while also being the only one who could be just as comfortable on the alternative circuit as in front of an audience full of good ol’ boys).

Of course, like any successful comic, Larry the Cable guy has that ephemeral quality that is absolutely paramount to hitting it big: likeability. After watching many, many clips of Larry the Cable Guy in preparation for this article, I can say I have groaned a few times, laughed a few, and been pretty outraged in just as many doses. However, I still find myself liking him.

This likeable quality has been instrumental in landing him all sorts of opportunities throughout his career. It was what kept getting him invited back to radio shows throughout the country as a call-in guest. It's what made him a breakout star from The Blue Collar Comedy Tour. It's what landed him a role as a reality show host, film star, and voice in two Pixar movies.

In an interview with The Onion’s AV Club, Daniel Whitney confessed that he never considered roles in film or television and that those projects fell into his lap because they sought him out. It's important to note that in the interview, Whitney doesn't come across as arrogant when he says this, but genuinely surprised that the Hollywood people want to work with him. He attributes his good fortune to his fans and points out that he realizes the only reason many of the TV and film people who want to work with him only do so because they are in it to make money and not necessarily fans of his act.

In the AV Club interview, Whitney also touches on what he thinks of his critics and while he attempts to adopt a nonchalant attitude, he is clearly bothered by the negative attention his act seems to attract. There is something about his redneck persona that grates on critics’ nerves and Whitney has taken some heat for his Larry the Cable Guy persona, most notably in a feud with comedian David Cross. While Larry the Cable Guy is not reinventing the comedy wheel, one suspects that his critics attack for political reasons as much as artistic ones, which is an unfortunate position for a comic to be in who stays away from politics and deals mostly in subjects that are scatological.

However, Larry the Cable Guy does delve into taboo subjects, but when criticized for being racist or homophobic, Whitney shrugs it off, claiming society has become too sensitive and too politically correct for its own good (one of his comedy heroes is Don Rickles). Honestly, I am often torn when the subject of political correctness in comedy comes up. I often err on the side of being too politically correct as I feel that it's only right that we respect all cultures in our society, however after the controversy that sprung up after last week’s Onion tweet and Seth Macfarlane’s Oscar hosting gig, I wonder if there isn’t some truth to Whitney’s claim that we have become overly sensitive today. Whatever the case, the conversation is worth having, but it is doubtful that a politically correct Larry the Cable Guy is going to end prejudice in America.

It feels pretty silly to have spent this much time thinking and writing critically about Larry the Cable Guy. He's an entertainer whose name elicits apoplectic rage and when examining his act, we see that there's really no reason for this. He's a good comic, if not a great one, but his act is original and his performances dynamic, shored up by solid jokes. We may not begrudge him his success, but we do offer him our begrudging respect.

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  • Jason

    I really like this series!

  • Jon O.

    "he hosts TV shows for The History Channel (Only In America)"

    No kidding.

    • Trevor Britton

      The tv show. "only in america". Not that he hosts shows only in america. While i believe he does the latter, the intention was the former.

  • Paulie Walnuts

    I was planning on writing about this very topic,you bastard!Great article!Did you write that brilliant Leno piece too?Because that was another subject I wanted to touch.I need to stop being lazy.And I'm not trying to take anything away from you,because that Leno essay made me gain/lose respect for both of them and was better than what I could have written.And this piece is excellent as well.I want in on the action.Let me do David Cross because I will destroy that over-rated brilliant,comic,actor.

  • Peter Huestis

    Joe Queenan said, in his book "If You're Talking To Me, Your Career Must Be In Trouble", something like, "Clearly, Barbra Steisand is a force to be reckoned with. So what? Kenny Rogers is a force to be reckoned with."

    Clearly, Larry the Cable Guy is a force to be reckoned with.


  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=586534655 Will Harris

    As a supplement to the AV Club interview, you may enjoy a conversation that I had with Mr. Whitney immediately on the heels of that piece running: http://newsreviewsinterviews.com/interviews/cross-words-with-larry-the-cable-guy/

  • MuslimAmerican

    This creep deserves no respect, there's absolutely nothing funny about him. Aside from that, he's a racist, and he's a fraud, the whole "redneck" slang and behavior is an act – just goes to show how mind numbingly stupid his interbreeding childish whitetrash fans really are and how easily they can be pleased. The real comedians deserving of respect in the comedian community are the folks that are actually funny and know how to entertain, George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Paul Mooney, Katt Williams and the like. Leave the jokes like "My suster is so moley/hairy/stinky" in the 1st grade classrooms, where they belong.

    • Dane

      The comics you mentioned as being real comedians are very good, however, you should not be throwing around the world racists so much. It might be applied to you someday or may have already been applied to you and only you and God would know if it were true.

    • Bob61

      Ever heard what your boy Katt has to say about Muslims?
      Take your bigotry back to the middle east.It plays better there.

      • Guest

        Said Bob the Bigot !
        Btw, Bobby, the man said he isn't a Muslim. Have you been letting Fox News melt your brain again ?
        A white American, who doesn't like you as his representative.
        Maybe you should head to the Middle East cracker. And only cowards have handles instead of posting with their real name.

  • Bob61

    Today,I feel bad that he lives in Sanford,Fl.
    Time to move back to Nebraska.

    • jim

      He doesn't live in Sanford anymore. The problems with the world today are right here in this blog. Everything has to degenerate into name calling Bull—-, and stupid political correctness. Who made these rules for society? He is not racist, just says things the way a lot of people think. People need to stop being sensitive babies. If you don't like him don't listen. It is a free country.

      • Bob61

        While you were busy getting your panties all bunchy-like,you missed the point.
        It had to do with his brand of humor,and living in Sanford,Fl,with the Trayvon Martin witch-hunt currently raging.

  • Yousaf M. Shaikh

    He's just your garden-variety bigot. Woop-tee-doo.

    • Dane

      Funny YOU mentioned bigot.

      • Yousaf M. Shaikh

        I'm glad you found it funny.

        • Dane

          Yes, I did. It was almost as funny as an entire group of religious zealots going crazy over a little boy who wanted to name his teddy bear Allah. I though that was hilarious.

          • Yousaf M. Shaikh

            Religious zealouts. They're about as funny as Larry the Cable Guy.

          • Dane

            Larry the Cable Guy never murdered anyone.

          • Yousaf M. Shaikh

            Your point being? Face it…he's a horrible comedian and a bigot. Deal with it.

          • Dane

            I don't really care if he is a good comedian or not, however, just because you say he is a bigot doesn't make it so. It could be a part of his act. The point being is I gather you follow Allah and if there is one group of people who should not be calling other people bigots, it is Muslims or at least some of you shouldn't. I don't have to deal with anything it is you who needs to grow some more. Have a good week.

          • Yousaf M. Shaikh

            Part of his act? Making racy remarks pandering to a group of wild animals is no act. It's bigotry. You know…..like how YOU generalized all Muslims as being "one group of people who should not be calling other people bigots"? Labelling any group in one broad stroke truly showcases your idiocy. As for your brilliant deduction that I'm Muslim, you failed yet again Einstein. Try atheist. I know, I know…..you saw a Muslim name and decided to use that fruit-fly sized brain and you made an assumption. But sadly I've met a few morons like yourself who beleive they know everything under the sun but don't know shit. After meeting (and dealing) with people like you (20 some years ago) I realized no God could screw up so badly.You sir, are an idiot.

          • Dane

            If you recall in my statement, I clarified that SOME Muslims shouldn't be calling others bigots. You are right, I did assume that you were Muslim by your name and if I offended you I will be the better person and say I am sorry. Also, labeling by a broad stroke could mean what you did concerning his audience. Wild animals? Is it because they are white people? Oh, and I agree, I don't know everything under the sun but then neither do you. You spelled the word believe wrong. It is I before E and not the other way around. You may have been typing fast and it slipped by you. No doubt because of you anger over nothing. I as have said before, have a good week and furthermore, have Peace.

          • Dane

            I have to correct myself, I should have at the end of my statement wrote as I said before not I as said before. Well, we are all imperfect and we all make mistakes. Sorry about that.

          • Dane

            Well, I guess my typing got away from me. For example I wrote of you anger and I meant of your anger. Yousaf, I hope that clears things up. Have a good weekend pal.

          • Bob61

            "pandering to a group of wild animals"
            And labeling an entire group whom you've never met as wild animals isn't bigotry.
            Thanks for clearing that up.

          • Howard Hendrickson

            maybe not, but after seeing his act, I almost welcomed death…

  • jim

    What's not to like, he is funnier than lots of comedians. Don't be a snob. Farts are funny.

  • Mark Workhoven

    I think he's a talentless hack. But that's fine, there are lots of comedians who aren't funny. What makes this guy worse is the blatant racism. I agree that some people are overly touchy. But if people are too sensitive or politically correct to be blatantly racist, I think that's a good thing.

  • Howard Hendrickson

    he was funnier BEFORE becoming "Larry the Cable Guy"

  • Snarly_Yow

    He's come full circle, a piece of satire. His "Larry" bit was making fun of rednecks, now he performs for rednecks and they laugh at him. I don't think I've seen a better piece of satire since Beavis & Butthead. And, you're right, his scatological jokes are perfect middle-schooler humor, but his ability to write a fart joke in layers (many, many layers) is absolute genius.