With Jeff Foxworthy’s Southern drawl, populist charm and world famous redneck jokes, he gets his fair share of static from comedy snobs who prefer their standup comics to be more sophisticated and urbane.
But if you listen to a Foxworthy set, you’ll hear a professional at work. Foxworthy is part of a tradition that goes back to the Borscht Belt comics of the 1950s. He has an act, he’s been working it for years, and he’s very good at what he does. Say what you will, the man can write a joke.
Indeed, Foxworthy came up the hard way, working as a road comic for years in the 1980s and 1990s before breaking big with a string of hit comedy albums, cable specials and his television series “The Jeff Foxworthy Show.” Since then, he’s found steady work in television and in arenas with the massive Blue Collar Comedy Tour, along with Larry the Cable Guy, Ron White and Bill Engvall.
Mr. Foxworthy and Mr. Cable Guy are currently touring together with Jeff & Larry’s Backyard BBQ, billed as a night of music, comedy and food. They’re coming to Charlotte’s PNC Music Pavilion Sept. 15 and Cary’s Koka Booth Amphitheatre Sept. 16.
To a large extent, Foxworthy has become “Jeff Foxworthy.” He’s a touring show-biz commodity now, and his conversation is peppered with the kind of folksy bromides that built his brand. But Foxworthy the veteran road comic is still under there, too, and he’s happy to discuss his abiding love for the history and craft of stand-up comedy.
Speaking from his hotel in Salt Lake City before the first night of the new tour began, he spoke to The News & Observer about joke writing, political correctness and hanging out with Jerry Seinfeld and Jay Leno.
Q: You have a very specific style and stage persona, but are there comics that people might be surprised have had an influence on you?
A: Oh yeah, absolutely. I have a show on Sirius (satellite radio service) called “A Comic Mind” where I just want to talk to comics, young and old. Some of my favorite things are just interviewing guys like Bob Newhart or Carl Reiner. I’m just fascinated with comedy and the history of comedy.
For me, early on, I would save my allowance and buy comedy records. I bought every Bill Cosby record I could find, Bob Newhart, Flip Wilson, Jerry Clower. All of those people influenced me.
You know, stand-up comedy is really interesting in that, if you want to be musician, you go to music school. If you want to be an actor, you go to acting school. But there is no comedy school. The way you learn it is by watching other comics, and hanging out with them, and then doing it yourself.
Q: Who are some of the comics you hung with early on?
A: Well, take a guy like Jay Leno. My kids only know him as the host of “The Tonight Show,” but when I started, Leno was like the king of the road comics. To watch Leno work a room back then, you were gasping for breath in the last 10 minutes.
Some of my favorite nights ever were sitting backstage at the Comedy and Magic Club in Hermosa Beach, Calif., listening to (Garry) Shandling and Leno and Seinfeld break down a joke. Jerry going, “Blue is funnier, Jay. It’s a blue car.” And Jay saying, “No, green! Green!” If the audience could hear this, they’d be fascinated at all the thought and effort that goes into every word, every syllable.
Q: Do your jokes tend to evolve gradually or do they come in a flash of inspiration?
A: When young people come to me and ask advice on how to do this, I say, “Write it down.” You think you’re going to remember it, but you’re not. I always have at least three note cards in my pocket. I’ve got a writing pad in the kitchen, next to the shower. It usually comes as a thought.
For instance, I have a joke I’m doing right now. Out of all the cereals, Cap’n Crunch is the most time intensive. If you eat it too soon after you pour the milk on, it will rip the roof of your mouth to shreds. You wait too long, and the captain will put a coating of film on your teeth that a wire brush can’t get rid of. Now that’s just a thought. But I have to trust that, if I’ve thought this, other people have thought this.
Q: Is it easier to write jokes now, to find the ones that you know will work onstage?
A: You would think after 33 years doing this, I would finally know what’s going to work and what won’t. But to this day, I still don’t know. I still have to go down to the little comedy club on a Tuesday night and throw it out there. And they’ll let you know if it’s funny or not.
If you asked me before a show, pick the four jokes that are going to work the best, I’ll be dead wrong on two of them. After 33 years. It’s no different than it was in 1984.
Q: Has our current political climate triggered any particular changes in your act?
A: Well, I’ve always avoided political humor, because no matter which side you’re on, half the audience hates you. You lose half the audience. So my goal is to find what we all have in common. Make everybody laugh.
We’re in an age where everything is so politically correct. People get offended by everything. It’s hard for a comic. I had a lady last year, she wrote to the website, she said she’d been listening to me for 20 years, but I did a joke about a woman with a big butt, and I have a big butt, and I’m not listening to you any more.
Look, I’ve made fun of myself for 20 years. My family, my wife, my kids. Really? We need to be able to laugh at ourselves and right now, as a country, we don’t have that ability.
Q: I’m sure you get this one a lot, but I really am curious: Do you have a personal favorite redneck joke?
A: Well, I was on a radio show one time, it was Sirius NASCAR channel, and the guy said, “Make up a new NASCAR redneck joke.” On the spot. I was like, “That’s not how it works.” But I did, I made one up on the spot and it’s one of my all-time favorites. I said, “If your son’s name is Dale Jr., and your name’s not Dale, you might be a redneck.”
Q: OK, last question: Your mustache is really quite glorious. I can’t grow a decent mustache and it bugs me. When is the last time you shaved off that thing?
A: Sometime in the summer after 11th grade. I’ve been married 32 years, my wife has never seen me without it. I’d like to shave it, but the promoters and the TV people, they tell me I can’t. I’m not allowed.
What: Jeff & Larry’s Backyard BBQ with Bob & the Showgram, Jeff & Larry’s Backyard BBQ with Chairmen of the Board, 20 Ride and Jared Place Music. Plus games and food trucks.
When: 7:30 p.m. Sept. 16. Gates open at 4 p.m.
Where: Koka Booth Amphitheatre, 8003 Regency Parkway, Cary
Cost: $49.50, $59.50