Minstrelsy was the most popular and influential form of 19th century American entertainment; it was the progenitor of popular music, vaudeville, musicals, and stand-up comedy. Overtly racist, actors (originally white but later black as well) in blackface relied upon and perpetuated stereotypes of Southern slaves to coerce laughs from their well-to-do white audience members. The minstrelsy tradition eventually extended its reach overseas and troupes toured in Europe and South Africa. With roots so strong, the offshoots of minstrelsy have survived to affect how America markets and consumes entertainment today. Flavor of Love with Flava Flav, The Simple Life with heiresses Paris Hilton and Nicole Ritchie, and the Jersey Shore each bring aspects of the minstrelsy tradition to modern culture. This paper will focus on the act of a Nebraskan who moved to Florida as a teenager and, with a trove of fart jokes and an intuitive sense of Southern white indignation with political correctness, became America’s favorite redneck.
Larry the Cable Guy’s meteoric rise from floundering radio host in the Florida panhandle to comedy super star hit critical mass seven years ago when he featured as the fourth act among Jeff Foxworthy, Bill Engvall, and Ron White on the Blue Collar Comedy Tour. The movie born of the tour flopped in theaters but was resurrected on Wal-mart shelves, selling over four million, and cable TV, becoming one of the highest rated programs in Comedy Central’s history. The success spurred two additional movies and a television show. Though each of the comedians did extremely well by the franchise, the unsophisticated humor of Larry the Cable Guy, which stood in sharp contrast to the more satirical humor of Foxworthy, Engvall, and White, carried his voice the furthest. Larry went on to star in three films, Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector (2006), Delta Farce (2007), and Witless Protection (2008), as well as lend his distinct accent and grammar to the extremely popular character Mater the tow-truck in Pixar's Cars series. In addition to touring, Larry now produces and hosts the television show Only in America with Larry the Cable Guy. In its second season, episodes have included “Naked Cowboys & Reptile Wrangling,” “Larry & the Superpig,” and “Larry Breeds Mules.” After earning $20 million dollars in the previous tax year, Forbes named Larry to its list of “The World’s 100 Most Powerful Celebrities” in May 2011.
Larry’s humor largely consists of one-liners and offers a simplistic commentary on culture as seen through Larry’s slightly twisted and unfiltered middle-American lenses. On stage and television, he appears in boots, blue jeans, baseball cap, and signature plaid shirts cut off at the shoulder that show a distinct farmer’s tan (which, how he maintains given his aversion to sleeves, is a question best not asked). The Official Larry the Cable Guy Website offers a great encapsulation of the comedian. Upon loading, a digitized Larry manning -- the gas grill on a lawn littered with garden gnomes and air darts --welcomes you to his website, and, to be sure,
“it’s a good un ... chock full of fart jokes and titty jokes and stuff that makes the world go ‘round. And if you don’t like that, then you’re probably just one of those uptight, white, politically correct dickweeds, and we don’t want to deal with you anyways.”Not surprisingly, the website’s primary theme is a glorification of the redneck culture for which Larry has humbly become the unofficial ambassador, including a flash game to whack Larry’s sister’s dermatological moles.
That a fictional character, essentially the classic “country bumpkin” with a few more dirty jokes, could become one of today’s most influential celebrities says as much about the audience’s view of the world as it does the ability of Daniel Lawrence Whitney, the creator, voice, and face of Larry the Cable Guy, to so thoroughly adopt it. Parts of Whitney’s biography closely identify with those of Larry; Whitney is from a rural state and grew up on a pig farm. However, it might surprise his fans to learn that despite Larry’s thick Southern accent and rejection of proper subject-verb agreement, Whitney’s home state is Nebraska, he is the son of a preacher (farming was not the family’s main source of income), and he received a private high school education. At age 16 the Whitney’s moved to Florida, and Whitney made a conscious effort to hone his Southern accent, the first development in the creation of Larry the Cable Guy, based on the speech of his college roommates in Georgia.
The characterization of Whitney’s act as minstrelsy is not perfect. Whitney does do a deadpan job of imitating the worst stereotypes of the Southern redneck. However, his media is marketed as much to the audience he imitates as it is to anybody outside of it. Nineteenth century blackface minstrelsy was a way for whites to dehumanize and to distance themselves from blacks and the tortures they suffered under slavery. There is no real reason to believe that Southern blacks, Northern whites, or Southwestern Hispanics watch Larry’s comedy for any more value than the slapstick jokes. If there is a cultural identification that occurs, it is by Southern, conservative, blue-collar whites whose median incomes have soared in recent decades towards parity with the traditionally richer Northern and Western for the first time since Reconstruction. The new wealth brought with it a search for a means of asserting an independent, tough-minded culture that could succeed without surrendering to political correctness or losing touch with its rural, unpolished roots. A native Mississippian, I worry what it means for the region’s educational aspirations when every other Southern high school male student’s 4x4 pick-up sports a “git-r-dun” bumper sticker. Long the home of the country’s most important and original contributions to music and literature, I believe Southerners can find a more authentic Southern figure to rally around than a Nebraskan with a learned accent.