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.Skip to next paragraph
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"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.