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.