Southern fried kiddin'
America's new comedy central has moved south of the Mason-Dixon line.
SANDY SPRINGS, GA. — The joke goes like this: One good ol' boy sidles up to another to relate an experience that his mama had – or "done had," to tell it right. Hit by a train, she was out for four minutes and was thought to have passed away. When she finally came to, she told of her amazing vision.
"She saw God," says the storyteller, lowering his microphone and looking up into the stage lights for effect.
"Aw c'mon," he offers as the friend's dismissive retort. "Your mama couldn't even see a train."
The tale comes courtesy of Atlanta comic Mike Speenberg, and the crowd adds hoots to its applause. It's Wednesday night at The Punchline, a squat, gray club between Leslie's Pool Supplies and a camera shop in this jumbled northern section of Atlanta. Comedy giant Jeff Foxworthy got his start here, giving the place a certain magnetism among local joke-slingers hoping to follow his high-grossing act.
In addition to the spectators, a dozen comedians are on hand to take in Mr. Speenberg's show. There's an ex-marine from Pensacola, Fla., spitting sunflower-seed shells in the parking lot; a retired assembly-plant manager fresh from a "comedy combat" win against 13 other acts in Decatur, Ga.; and a former rapper with a confident, Chris Tucker aura.
Tonight they will all be listening – raptly. Speenberg, the headliner, is a rising star who's parlayed his Southern roots into national recognition. Increasingly, it's a model for career success as America's comedic center shifts deep down into the NASCAR belt. Credit the self-deprecating, regular-guy tone or the truckloads of Americana touchstones, from Wal-Mart to Waffle House to the war.
And get used to the accent. Red-state humor – like country music, "dirty South" rap, America's sweetheart Reese Witherspoon, even talk TV's eyebrow-arching über-belle, Nancy Grace – looks likely to keep making deep cultural boot prints.
For two years, redneck caricature Larry the Cable Guy (Nebraska-born Dan Whitney) has been America's top-grossing stand-up comic, outselling Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock. His is the voice of Mater the tow truck in the new Pixar film "Cars." Billboard charts for top-selling comedy acts and albums are dominated by his bare-armed, "git 'er done" work, along with that of Mr. Foxworthy, Ron White ("the Metrosexual Redneck"), and Bill Engvall – all members of the long-running Blue Collar Comedy Tour. Their success – several have new books and DVDs – encourages followers who see themselves as being cut from the same plaid-flannel cloth.
"They're all from the South," says Melvin Hardin, the retiree with the Decatur joke-off win under his belt and an act that he says has grown increasingly Southern.
One of Mr. Hardin's favorite jokes, for example, used to involve what he calls a Southerner's nightmare: yet another Yankee pulling a U-Haul down I-75. "I quit doin' those. Seemed like everybody liked my Alabama jokes better," says Hardin, who is Alabama born.
For Georgians, it seems, Alabama is the big tom at the turkey shoot. Speenberg mentions Birmingham during his act – "It's a good city," he says, eliciting a whoop from a woman at a table in the back.
"It's not that good," he adds, rolling into a litany of Southern discomforts. He describes rat tails and mullets as being almost indigenous. His stepdad, he says, met his mom "at an above-ground pool party." His big, well-meaning dog will defend Speenberg's humble home to the death, he says – "unless you come bustin' in with a vacuum cleaner." His simple, down-home granddad, he says, thinks terrorists are responsible for hurricanes.
A day later in Charlotte, N.C., capital of the New South, the featured Southern comics work similar themes. One, Monte Allen, from a small town near Gainesville, Fla., takes a swipe at Paducah, Ky., where he says the ATMs dispense only bait. He says Southerners always answer questions with questions: "You gonna drive your truck?" Mr. Allen asks himself on stage. A pause. "Does a 50-lb. bag of flour make a big biscuit?"
Then headliner Blake Clark, a comedian from Macon, Ga., who has had Hollywood film success – notably as the unintelligible Cajun football coach in "The Waterboy" – riffs on the lengths to which he must go in L.A. to explain away his Deep South roots and such expressions as "fixin' to" and "up and did."
Mr. Clark jokes about having been born in Georgia and serving in Vietnam – "like being punished with the same thing twice," he says. "I used to have flashbacks [of Georgia] while I was in Vietnam," he says in his routine.
Later, leaning into his microphone, he confides that Georgia's Department of Education, weighing the instruction of evolution or creationism, once declared that "there are parts of Georgia where evolution hasn't been accepted.
"There are parts of Georgia," he growls, "where evolution hasn't happened."
"We just laugh," says Elissa Basco, a University of Georgia junior from Marietta, of the stereotypes. "You know, there's a lot to make fun of." Most people here, as elsewhere, she says, have an uncle who comes close to justifying the joke.
There have always been defined blocs of regional humor, says Joseph Boskin, a professor of history at Boston University who has written widely on American humor. Such blocs retain their identity, he says, even as a more national humor evolves.
"What happens every now and then is that something becomes 'public' " and enjoys new prominence, he says. He cites Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion" as a long-running distributor of Minnesota flavor.
Professor Boskin talks about the almost unknowable "connecting links" that can make local jokes universal. He resists trying to explain the "why now" of the South's rise as America's comedy wellspring.
Could it be some kind of reaction to global politics – a more "genuine" cultural face to turn to the world than that of the over-intellectualizing coasts? A region, once a national punch line, now telling its own joke better than anyone else? The triumph of black-and-white blunt over subtle nuance?
"I'm content to blame it on the Bush administration," jokes noted Southern humorist Roy Blount Jr., "which doesn't seem at the moment to be spreading."
Mr. Blount, Indiana born but Georgia raised, has written about Southern humor's "orality" and its phonetic richness, and of its complex cocktail of ingredients – among them politics, libidinousness, and nostalgia. He finds today's mass-marketed style to be a rather weak blend.
"The Blue Collar guys are so popular, I'd say, because they are so slick and tame," he writes in an e-mail. "They are to Jerry Clower or Brother Dave Gardner (before he went off the deep end) as Mountain Dew, the cloying soft drink, is to buttermilk or moonshine."
But some of today's Southern comics see their work as an honest tribute to a perspective that's very real. Speenberg might dissect Dixie quirks, but he goes broader, too, opining on school lunches, marriage, national politics. And no local-character sendup can cloak his pride.
"When a lot of people think of the South, they think of the South of 50 years ago," says Speenberg after his Atlanta show. "People I know down here are as smart as people anywhere. A lot of the things I say from the stage – things that I feel – just make sense to the common man."