Dispatches from the Creation Wars

The Jeff Foxworthy Roast

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.

Comments

  1. #1 John Lynch
    June 5, 2006

    Ed,

    Lots to agree with here. I really detest the whole “Blue Collar” comedy riff, but accidentally ended up seeing Ron White’s “They Call Me Tater Salad” one time and enjoyed it a lot. Boy, was I surprised!

  2. #2 Gretchen
    June 5, 2006

    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.

    If they’re made to make people laugh, they’re jokes. But that doesn’t mean they can’t also be sincere. And it was my impression that that is basically all a roast is– insults made in a humorous fashion by people who know the subject well, whose jibes are funny at least in part because they’ve got truth to them.

  3. #3 Ed Brayton
    June 5, 2006

    Well yes, they were funny so they were jokes. But what I meant was that, in contrast to most roasts, I think in this case they actually meant most of them. In most cases, the roasters and the roastee are friends and it’s all in good-natured fun. I just think that in this case, they were from very different sides of the comedy world and the roasters genuinely didn’t like the guy (but had to play along for TV).

  4. #4 Gretchen
    June 5, 2006

    So, you think all of the comedians who roasted Pamela Anderson actually like her?

  5. #5 RPM
    June 5, 2006

    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”.

    Yeah, and Ron White’s one to talk. The tater salad bit was funny the first 783 times I saw it. Now it’s just annoying.

    So, you think all of the comedians who roasted Pamela Anderson actually like her?

    None of them think Pam’s funny, but they’d all fuck her. Jeff Ross would even use his own dick.

  6. #6 Troy Britain
    June 5, 2006

    And I’ll bet was some real jealous resentment behind the jabs at Hefner’s roast (lucky SOB).

  7. #7 Troy Britain
    June 5, 2006

    Dammit! “I’ll bet THERE was real jealous resentment…”

  8. #8 daenku32
    June 5, 2006

    I still remember laughing over myself a decade ago watching Foxworthy on HBO.

    Out of the blue collar comedy I’ve been watching in the past couple of years I don’t think I’ve really had the same experience with any of them. I still haven’t quite found Ron White funny. Silly perhaps, but not really funny.

  9. #9 natural cynic
    June 5, 2006

    …jealous resentment behind the jabs at Hefner’s roast (lucky SOB).

    You must not have seen The Girls Next Door or whatever on E. Gawd, what a trio of airheads.

  10. #10 Ed Brayton
    June 5, 2006

    Gretchen wrote:

    So, you think all of the comedians who roasted Pamela Anderson actually like her?

    Most of them don’t know her, I’m sure. But that’s not really what I’m talking about. This is an inter-comedy business thing. Comics, like other entertainers, can be extremely catty toward each other and there are real divisions within the business. I just found that fascinating here because I know how Foxworthy is viewed by other comedians.

  11. #11 flatlander100
    June 5, 2006

    On Foxworthy:

    Hey, lay off. The man is in show business, and show business is the business of putting fannies in seats. At clubs, at “concert” perfromances, on couches at home in front of the tv. He found a winning [in the market] forumla. If those who’ve never played to more than 20 people in the local Comedy Club in East Overshoe, Missouri [bingo follows the last set] want to convince theyselves they are artistes unrecognized for their briliance and too advanced for the vulgar herd to appreciate, fine with me. Whatever helps get them on the bus to the next show. But snarking about someone who hit the big time with [what became after he plowed the ground] “formula” humor…. Jealously plain and simple so far as I can see.

    As for White, like not a few others, I’m hard put to find much to laugh about. But hey, diff’rent strokes for diff’rent folks.

  12. #12 Ed Brayton
    June 5, 2006

    I’m not particularly anti-Foxworthy, and I thought I made that clear. I think he is what he is, but he does it well. There’s a place for comics like that, and they are inevitably going to be more popular than comics who appeal to a narrower audience. I much prefer more pointed, opinionated comedy. I prefer comics who butcher sacred cows of all types. But Foxworthy isn’t that type of comic because he isn’t that type of person. He’s just an average guy, like most average guys, but he manages to make his observations of average guys funny. And he does that style of comedy better than anyone else. I like really dark humor, and that’s not something Foxworthy can do because he’s just not a dark person.

  13. #13 Mephisto Stormbane
    June 5, 2006

    Foxworthy is a true example of middle-of-the-road inoffensiveness. Comedy has a weird set of standards and formulae for success. Historically, the most popularly successful comedians of the darker, edgier side have been black: Richard Pryor, Chris Rock, and now Dave Chapelle. The most popular white comedians have been easily digested stuff like Foxworthy, and Seinfeld (referring to his standup, not the show, which was good), or prop-based silliness like Gallagher and Carrot Top. And of course all that isn’t even to bring up the gender aspect: women in comedy usually seem to be, for some reason, gay, black, or straight white women doing comedy about being a straight white woman.

    I’d like to see more rebellious comics entirely populating these roasts. Imagine, Foxworthy or some other banal standup being torn to shreds by David Cross and Brian Posehn and Janeane Garofalo and George Carlin. If only.

  14. #14 chrisberez
    June 5, 2006

    “How to beat a horse to death like no other comedy premise in history”.

    God, that’s genius. I’ll be laughing at that for quite a while. I admit that I loath Foxworthy’s comedy. Whenever I see him I cringe just like I do when I see Carrot Top. I think you’re right about Engvall, although I’ve laughed at some of his “Here’s your sign” jokes. Ron White I can like just based on his look alone. He has that same Gary Busey might-snap-at-any-minute look about him that makes me laugh whenever he’s on screen.

    I would really like to see this Foxworthy roast,

  15. #15 FishyFred
    June 5, 2006

    I’d like to see more rebellious comics entirely populating these roasts.

    Two words: Lewis Black.

  16. #16 James Killus
    June 5, 2006

    One of the sublime sequences in “The Aristocrats” was the performance of Gilbert Gottfried at the Hugh Hefner roast. GG had tried a 9/11 joke too soon after the event, bombed with it, then obviously said to himself, “Hey, you think that was in bad taste? Watch this.”

    To a certain sort of person (and we all know who we are), fall on the floor funny.

  17. #17 Ed Brayton
    June 5, 2006

    Oh god, the Gilbert Gottfried thing from the Hefner roast was brilliant. And Gilbert is truly the anti-Foxworthy. There’s nothing accessible about his act, it will appeal only to those with the darkest and least squeamish attitudes. But I’m telling you, if you go see him live and you have that kind of sense of humor, you will absolutely love it. And if you’re a Foxworthy fan, you will hate every minute of it.

  18. #18 Pieter B
    June 5, 2006

    Foxworthy is the white Bill Cosby, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Not my cuppa all the time, but enjoyable under the right circumstances.

    Ron White is one comic I haven’t ODed on yet. The same three or four shows of his were in heavy rotation this weekend, and I found myself snerking aloud to the same jokes two or three times, even when only half-listening.

    A Ron White/Lewis Black double bill would be a natural, wouldn’t it? I’d kill to write the marketing material.

  19. #19 Ed Brayton
    June 5, 2006

    Pieter B wrote:

    Foxworthy is the white Bill Cosby, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Not my cuppa all the time, but enjoyable under the right circumstances.

    I wouldn’t put Foxworthy anywhere near the level of Cosby. Similar in that they are both very accessible and inoffensive, but Cosby is one of the truly great comics in history. I don’t put Foxworthy anywhere near that level, his financial success notwithstanding.

  20. #20 Pieter B
    June 5, 2006

    Foxworthy isn’t close to Cosby at his peak, but Cos hasn’t been close to his peak in a couple of decades or more.

  21. #21 Ben
    June 5, 2006

    Gilbert Gottfried actually does clean comedy from time to time (see his Comedy Central Presents set from a few years back), but his dirty stuff is definitely anti-Foxworthian.

    Foxworthy actually reminds me of (a Southern) Jay Leno: very middle-of-the-road, will-this-play-in-peoria material, which, of course, makes money but also makes for dull comedy.

  22. #22 JeffB
    June 5, 2006

    Maybe I just don’t get roasts. I’ve watched a few on CC and I rarely find them funny. The one exception is when they roasted Chevy Chase several years ago, Stephen Colbert got up there as a nobody (though he was on The Daily Show at that point) and was absolutely hilarious.

    Other than that, though, bleh.

  23. #23 mythusmage
    June 6, 2006

    “If your family tree don’t fork…”

    That’s middle of the road?

    Obvious is easy, it takes talent to sneak it past you.

  24. #24 Pieter B
    June 6, 2006

    “If any member of your immediate family has died shortly after saying ‘Hey, evvabody, watch THIS‘” . . .

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