There were four show business folks I had ID’d for potentially writing about today. I decided to kick three of them down the road ’til next year, and to give all of today’s attention to Dan Whitney a.k.a. Larry the Cable Guy (b. 1963).
There aren’t many in my social set who’d give Whitney’s comedy the time of day, and who may well be appalled that I ever would do so. But as few (no matter their persuasion) seem able to grasp, the examination of a phenomenon isn’t the same thing as embracing it entirely, or even at all. And on the flip side, a criticism of same isn’t the same as “cancellation”.
America has become so fragmented that it’s entirely possible that many of my readers don’t even know who Larry the Cable Guy is. Whitney came to prominence with the character around 20 years as part of the Blue Collar Comedy Tour with Jeff Foxworthy and others. His character (and it is a character that he plays) is a Southern redneck, and he’s known for his catchphrases “Git-R-Done”, and “That’s funny right thar, I don’t care WHO you are” and such like. In my piece on Charley Weaver and numerous similar posts, I have bemoaned the death of rural rube comedy, forgetting perhaps that Whitney is maybe the country’s foremost current standard of that tradition since the death of Jim Varney. Like the latter, Whitney is also in films, such as Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector (2006), Delta Farce (2007), and Witless Protection (2008), and the voice of Mater in the animated Cars movies. If Hee Haw were still on, oh boy, would he be on it, for he is absolutely the spiritual Godson of Junior Samples and Minnie Pearl.
I’m the last person anyone would ever accuse of being the salt of the earth, so those who don’t know me well may not suspect me of being one of Larry the Cable Guy’s people. I’m from generations of country folk on both sides; the actual Deep South on my dad’s side, and New England on the other. (If you think Yankees wouldn’t be a good audience for Whitney, think again. Early in his career he did a radio show in New Hampshire, and I can picture that audience digging what he does like so many clams or potatoes). Whatever your background, there is joy in feeling culturally represented. But given the arc of history, I also fully understand why people of other cultures would be wary of a comedian like this, even to the point of boycott. I moved to New York, after all. Most people who do that do so with the idea of being exposed to as many different cultures as possible. “We need to MEET each other,” said Steve Krantz (Epstein) in his moving show, which I’m still thinking about a week later. But I’m sure (know for a fact) that people of color, women, the LGBT community, non-Christians, etc. feel they have ALREADY more than met my people and are pretty flippin’ tired of it. (In particular the segment of my people who make up Whitney’s audience and make such a noise about not wanting to meet people who aren’t like them). I’d be a fool to try to persuade people who’ve been mortally insulted by the MAGA crowd to embrace them, and wouldn’t want to. The olive branch needs to come from the side of the belligerents, and it needs to be genuine.
In fact, I haven’t checked out any of Larry’s shows since the red baseball caps came into our lives, for fear of what I’d encounter. I’d been a (qualified) fan in his earlier years, but I also know who his fans are, and that the comedian (or the character he plays) is apt to make jokes about people he doesn’t understand. I’ve always remembered a revolting crack he made about Yoko Ono that bugged me. (I’m doing a post on Yoko tomorrow for her 90th birthday that will show where my heart lies). It happens to be Whitney’s 60th birthday today. And while there has always been plenty in his act to make me cluck and scowl, I have never been able to bring myself to dismiss him entirely. Why? Because individuals from my group need to be evaluated as individuals, just like members of all other groups. I’m sure you’ve never given it a minute’s thought (which is kind of the point of this post), but Whitney didn’t vote for Trump. And he got in trouble with his fans for making a pretty non-political crack about Marjorie Taylor-Greene on Twitter just the other day. He’s the farthest thing from a flaming liberal, of course, and is just the type to make mean, demonizing remarks about Hillary and AOC in his act. But he went with Ron Johnson in ’16, and for those of a fairly conservative bent, that was one of a small handful of conscientious choices that could be made at the time. I’m not asking you to care, but it’s worth stressing that he is not the character he plays.
Thus, a modest proposal. Larry the Cable Guy is not unprecedented. He reminds me quite a bit actually of a famous character from 50 years ago: Archie Bunker. As with Archie, there is satirical power there, and, though it’s subtle, Whitney does have fun at his own character’s expense from time to time. And yet, as happened 50 years ago, there’s an entire fan base for the character who thinks the heinous things he says are just great, full stop, which is completely unfortunate. In Whitney’s case, it’s, like, his whole fan base. And comedians like to be popular, so he quite naturally plays to his base. But the bottom line is that he HAS that base. And it just so happens that this base aligns almost perfectly with a certain political one. Which means that, believe it or not, Whitney is actually extraordinarily well-positioned, better than almost anyone I can think of, to do some good in this factionalized country. Furthermore, by all accounts, he’s not a bad sort. I believe, or I suspect, that he has a heart that can be touched.
Now, what I am suggesting is tricky. One false move and you go the way of the Dixie Chicks. They did the right thing, and they were forthright about it, and their career suffered. I wouldn’t volunteer another performer for career suicide, nor judge them too harshly for not doing so. And I’ve heard him speak in interviews. He’s just an ordinary guy who can make people laugh, not some Bernard Shaw. But I bet there are things that he can do, little things, subtle little seeds he could plant in the minds of his audiences during his act that could make the world a better place instead of a worse one. Whether he ever does it is a different proposition. But I’m optimistic enough to hope for such things and regard them as possibilities.
Just putting that out there. Or…what’s the expression? “Let’s get this thing accomplished?” No, that isn’t it. “Make it so, Mr. Chekov?” No, that isn’t it, either. Oh, yes! Wait, I have it! “Git-R—“
For more on variety entertainment, please check out No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.
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