My first exposure to what would become branded as Blue Collar Comedy was when I was a little kid attending a church talent show in Moundsville, West Virginia. There was a guy who donned a tucked-in flannel and just went up and read a bunch of Jeff Foxworthy’s “You might be a redneck” jokes off of index cards. He killed, and I connected, because those jokes seemed like they were written about the very people I grew up around. Soon after, I learned about Larry the Cable Guy, mainly from hearing people say “Git-R-Done” when preparing to embark on basically any task.
Whether you like their comedy or not, there’s no denying that these guys made a big impact on American pop culture. They’re two of the biggest selling comedians in history. They still sell out huge venues. They have a large, loyal fan base – one that I used to be a part of. I could say that over the years my tastes changed, but the truth is that I’d just become a comedy snob. When preparing to talk to Jeff and Larry about their latest collaborative album We’ve Been Thinking, I went back and watched their old specials. I laughed hard. Really hard. Their folksy stories and fart jokes made me happy. It was an escape. I had forgotten that in the world of comedy there’s still a place for good old-fashioned Southern storytelling and goofballery. It was a pleasure to revisit their back catalog and talk to them about the early days of their budding bromance, how they found their signature styles, and how they’ll do whatever it takes to protect the purity of comedy.
How long have you been at this?
Jeff: 33 years. If we’re going to be honest, I think a lot of people get into standup because it’s a great springboard for TV or movies. Once they do that, they don’t really do standup anymore. I’ve been lucky. I got to do all that stuff. But after all these years, if you put a gun to my head and said, “Alright, you can’t do but one thing,” it would be standup.
Larry: I’ve been doing this for 30 years. It’s been an awesome career and I’ve got a great fan base. My main focus was always my act, but my main focus now is my family and being a good dad, trying to raise some good kids. Every now and then I get to go out, but I get to come home.
Jeff: My fear as a comedian is that I never wanted to be the standup who stayed at the dance too long to where people are like, “Remember when he was funny?” I’ve seen those guys and you just cringe for them. The only way I know to postpone that is to put in the work.
So you’re not thinking of retiring anytime soon?
Jeff: God, no. I like it too much. I wouldn’t be upset if I never did TV again, or if I never wrote another book. But if I couldn’t do standup anymore, that would just be depressing. When they say your name and you walk out, there’s nothing in the world like it.
Larry: We just finished We’ve Been Thinking, and now that I’m done with the tour I’m going to kick back a little bit. I’ll start writing a new act here in the next few weeks and start going up onstage and trying five minutes, ten minutes, fifteen minutes. But my priorities are a lot different than people who are just starting their career or people who are in the middle of their career. I’m at the tail end of mine.
Jeff, you said that you found your voice early on, but was there ever a period where you experimented with other styles or stage personas?
Jeff: Oh, yeah. I think everybody does. Right when I started doing it is when Steven Wright kind of got popular. I remember talking to Seinfeld one night and saying, “Crap, I don’t know what my style should be. Should it be like Steven Wright? Should it be manic? Should it be…” Jerry said, “If you do it every night for ten years, suddenly you’ve got a style that you didn’t even realize you had.”
Before you were Larry the Cable Guy, what was your act like?
Larry: They called me “The Freight Train of Comedy.” I was a one-liner guy. I would go up and in two minutes hammer out 15 jokes. As soon as I finished the punchline I was onto something else while they were still laughing. People would say, “Holy crap, what was that?” and someone would say, “That was a freight train coming through.” Dom Irrera used to say I had the funniest, fastest 15 minutes of standup comedy and then after that it was all downhill. My early career as Larry the Cable Guy is what I used to do on the radio. It was completely theater of the mind. I was a radio character that I came up with. The whole thing was political, but my act was nonsensical one-liners. Doing Larry the Cable Guy onstage came by accident. I got billed as Larry the Cable Guy by my buddy Les McCurdy at McCurdy’s Comedy Club in Sarasota, Florida. He was the first one to put that in my billing and we sold out two shows. I couldn’t follow the character because the character was so huge in Florida. He came up and said, “Can you do your whole show like this?” I said, “Yeah.” I went onstage dressed the way I drove over. I drove over in a pair of lace-up Roper boots, jeans, a cut-off sleeveless Nebraska Cornhuskers t-shirt, and a NASCAR hat. I basically took my act, slowed it down, and then in order to do it like my character on the radio, I had some papers with me and some commentary on news items that I incorporated into the act. I used to do 10 to 12 minutes of politics, but finally cut it out because I was never a political comedian.
Jeff, on the album you mention that you don’t know if you’re ready to announce your run for president, but you feel like now would be the time because it seems like anybody could. I know you don’t get too political onstage, but how do you feel about how things are going right now?
Jeff: I always avoided the political stuff because when you get into it half the audience hates you. My job is to make everybody laugh. I think standup comedy is important because we’ve got a country that doesn’t even use critical thinking. It’s all emotional reaction. I think it’s important for us to hold things up and say, “This is dumb.” Laughter doesn’t make the crap go away, but it kind of recharges your battery and enables you to go out there and deal with it. We’ve become so polarized. If you’re a Democrat you’re pegging left and if you’re a Republican you’re pegging right. Really the solution to most of this stuff is in the middle somewhere, and we’ve totally lost the middle. The middle is where the conversation needs to be.
Larry, when you have a joke that you know people might cringe at you always say, “I don’t care who you are, that’s funny right there.”
Larry: I’ve always been under the impression that if you don’t think the joke is funny or you think the joke is offensive, then move on to a comedian more of your liking. Shoot, there’s comedians getting fined now in Canada for jokes. Comedians better start speaking up. Jeff still gets letters or messages from people every now and then about how dirty or offensive he is because he had that Bible show and has the audacity to say the word “hell” onstage.
Jeff: I think people are uptight and overly sensitive now, which makes it hard as a comic. I remember a woman several years ago sent an email to the website and said, “I’ve laughed at you for 25 years and then you did a joke about a woman with a big butt. I have a big butt, so I’m not going to buy any more of your stuff.” I thought, “Okay, you’ve laughed at my family, you’ve laughed at me making fun of myself, you’ve laughed at my kids and my wife, but you don’t have any sense of humor involving yourself?”
Larry: I think it sucks to be a comedian now. I’m glad I started when I did. You want to tweet something out that you think is funny, but you’re scared that somebody’s going to come down on you. That’s not the way it’s supposed to be.
But personally, I can’t be above admitting if I’m wrong or if I said something that was incredibly shitty and truly hurt someone.
Larry: If it wasn’t funny and was just hurtful, yeah. I get that. In my act I used to do retarded jokes and that kind of stuff. I don’t do them anymore because I had kids and became a father. Before I had kids I didn’t understand the hurt that someone raising a mentally handicapped kid would feel. I just thought it was funny. I made a conscious decision in my life to not do them because I grew as a person and I didn’t want to be hurtful in that way. But do I apologize for doing them? No, because at the time I didn’t know any better. The best way to apologize is to just not do it again and move on. Do I begrudge other people who do those kind of jokes? No, because they’re going to have to learn on their own.
At what point did you meet and start working together?
Jeff: We first met in 1986. Growing up in Atlanta I was a huge Braves fan. The Braves did spring training in West Palm Beach, Florida. During spring training I booked myself at a club called The Comedy Corner in West Palm Beach because I wanted to go during the day and watch the Braves spring training. Larry was one of the local comics, kind of a house MC there. He was a huge Braves fan. We had no money so we couldn’t afford to buy tickets but we would get up, go to Dunkin Donuts, buy a cup of coffee and a donut, and then when the players were walking in – this was 1986 so there wasn’t the security there is now – they would just open the gates. The players got there way before the fans would, so we would just kind of walk in, sit in the stands, have our coffee and donuts, watch them do batting and fielding practice. By the time noon rolled around it was game time and we were already in there. We’d watch Braves games together and talk comedy all day and then do shows at night. We just hit it off. From the first week we just made each other laugh.
Larry: Jeff used to come down two weeks a year. It was a blast. We grew up pretty much the same and laughed at the same stuff, the absurdities of things. We would sit there in the stands and he would kind of lean over out of the blue and say, “Hey, did you tell Edna to bring that potato salad up on Thursday?” I’d say, “She didn’t say nothing about it. I know she gets worried about that mayonnaise, so she may wait ‘til the morning.” We would literally make up a conversation between two old Southern guys. Right then we knew we had a lot in common.