This weekend I got to watch the Comedy Central roast of Jeff Foxworthy. As my readers know, I’m a big fan of roasts in general and I’m pleased to see this old tradition from the Friar’s Club be revived over the last few years by a younger generation of comics. The Foxworthy roast had all the usual suspects – Colin Quinn, Greg Geraldo, Nick DiPaolo, Lisa Lampinelli. These are all New York/Boston comics who are involved in almost every roast. But more than any other I’ve seen, this is a roast I would love to have seen live, or at least see the unedited footage. Why? Because I’m not sure all the insults were jokes.
Foxworthy, you see, is the most successful comedian in history (not the best, mind you, the most successful). He has several multi-platinum CDs, multiple bestselling books, and has headlined the longest running and most profitable comedy tour in history, the Blue Collar Comedy Tour. That provokes a lot of jealousy, of course. But that’s not the whole story. As a general rule, the perception of other comics is that Foxworthy has bought his phenomenal success by staying very safe and middle of the road and by flogging the “you might be a redneck” thing beyond belief. Even Ron White, one of his best friends, said at the roast that Jeff’s next book is going to be called “How to beat a horse to death like no other comedy premise in history”.
I think that resentment is particularly acute among the group of comics called upon to roast Foxworthy. He was being roasted by comics who are everything he’s not – edgy, dark, cynical, pushing the envelope of both taste and social acceptability – and to me it was palpably obvious that a lot of the jokes they were making at his expense weren’t meant in jest. These aren’t the kind of comics who are going to think Foxworthy is clever or funny; more likely they find him boring and mundane and averse to the kind of risk taking that sets great comedy apart. And I can’t say that I entirely disagree with them.
The only thing I would say in his defense, though, is that I at least think he’s being honest. I think his comedy really does represent who he is. Jeff Foxworthy is not edgy, he’s not out of the mainstream, he’s not dark and cynical, and his comedy would probably be much worse if he tried to be. A guy like Nick DiPaolo is dark to the point of being mean and his comedy reflects that. And I’ve seen more than enough Bill Hicks wannabes on stage trying to be what they’re not to appreciate the fact that Foxworthy just is who he is.
I’ll also say this in his defense: I bet he wishes he could get away from the “you might be a redneck” jokes completely. Like Gallagher, he has become trapped inside this his own creation. I guarantee you that Gallagher never wants to smash another watermelon again, but he knows that he can’t not do it without losing the audience. I think the same is true of Foxworthy. And while I think he does very safe, middle of the road humor, working premises that have been worked a million times before, he does work that material much better than most do.
And anything that can be said about Foxworthy can also be said about Bill Engvall, who really is Foxworthy light. He also covers the same ground, but doesn’t do it quite as cleverly as his partner. The real talent among the Blue Collar guys is Ron White, and it’s not close. His comedy is almost an ideal mix of accessibility and edginess, with enough surprises (like his anti-homophobia material) thrown in to keep you on your toes. If there was any real justice in the world, Ron White would get top billing on that tour. But Foxworthy has managed to tap directly into the sensibilities of a mass audience like few other comics have. And the fact is, most people aren’t edgy or original; it’s no surprise that their most popular entertainers reflect that.