Cultural Elite Blues

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I used to subscribe to a ton of magazines. All the usual suspects: The Nation, The American Prospect, Mother Jones, Ms., and so forth. Reading about politics all the time eventually got depressing (and expensive!), so I let most of those subscriptions lapse. I still get Mother Jones, which usually has pretty interesting fare. But my very very favorite magazine (after Legal Affairs, which regrettably stopped publishing earlier this year) is The New Yorker. Which is odd, because The New Yorker is really hit or miss in terms of my interest in the topics. Sometimes I’ll leaf through a whole issue and not read one article. But two things keep me coming back: the sheer variety of topics, and the fact that when a New Yorker article is interesting, it’s also damn good, and long enough to really enlighten. I get so fascinated by New Yorker articles sometimes that my husband will ask me a question and I won’t even hear him.

This happened again just last night when I was reading the current issue. (Oh, I forgot to mention the other wonderful thing about The New Yorker – it’s a weekly magazine. By the time you get around to finishing one, there’s another one waiting for you to flip through). There was a really engrossing article inside about the Blue Collar Comedy Tour. I have seen the group advertised on Comedy Central as I fast-forward through the commercials of TiVoed Daily Show episodes. I might have been dimly aware that Jeff Foxworthy is among their number. But I really didn’t know much beyond that, excepting perhaps the self-knowledge I’ve developed over the years about my own sense of humor that this would decidedly not mesh with it.

I wish I could link to the article, but The New Yorker is pretty stingy with their online content and there’s not even an opening paragraph available. But basically, it was one of those wonderful meandering articles the magazine often publishes, covering the rise of Foxworthy and his compatriots, and focusing especially on their agent, one J.P. Williams, and his interactions with the industry, including details of deals with Comedy Central, which has picked up the group and showed their work to good ratings.

Not surprisingly, there was a lot of red-state, blue-state stuff in there too, and I finished the article feeling like I had learned something interesting that I hadn’t known about before, but also feeling irritated and bothered by the huge gulf that separates me from seemingly most of the rest of the country. Not just politically, but culturally (or are those the same thing?). I mean, I’m hardly unaware that the fact that I read The New Yorker at all makes me seem to fit a stereotype. But why is that? It’s a great magazine. Why aren’t other people interested in it too?

In particular, I bristle at the word “elite.” There’s no faster way to get under my skin, except perhaps to wave a flag in my face (wink, wink), than to accuse me of that. Especially because I know it has some truth to it, in a strange convoluted way. That’s the conundrum — I feel that this conflict is unnecessary, but I still have feelings that reflect my participation in it.

In that vein, then, the reason that the Blue Collar Comedy article really bothered me is that it said that Hollywood types are really uncomfortable with the content of the shows, have always been surprised at the reception they get, and only embraced them because their act makes money. Frankly, I relate to that, and I don’t relate to the Blue Collar guys. I don’t find jokes premised on the idea that married men are emasculated to be funny. I don’t understand the appeal of the phrase “Git R Done” (or even what it means, really). I don’t find bathroom humor at all amusing, whether it’s Adam Sandler or Larry the Cable Guy. (The one exception is the 1980s sitcom The Golden Girls, which had some amusing moments in that vein). Not to mention the racist and homophobic elements, whose unacceptability goes without saying. I wouldn’t deign to watch the Blue Collar Comedy Tour, and I don’t understand why anyone else would either.

In fact, the quote from the article that I read aloud to David and found laugh-out-loud funny was this one, from comedian Doug Stanhope: “Blue-collar comedy is about the poverty of imagination and the celebration of complacency. But it just goes to show that if you serve this country wet sh*t on a buckled paper plate, people will line up for it in droves.” I said to David, “that’s about the size of it.”

And it’s not just the Blue Collar Comedy guys, either. I have a distinct memory of my ex-boyfriend who I dated in law school telling me in some detail about the WWF event to which he had to take the residents of the group house where he worked. My eyes were wide with horror and disbelief that anyone would find this entertaining. But the venue was packed, and everybody just loved it. “Bread and circus,” I remember him saying. And I smiled knowingly, secure in my conviction that, well, I was too good for that kind of crap.

I guess I should just embrace the elite label since it apparently fits me so well. But there’s a way in which it is too oversimplified to be at all descriptive of my life or the lives of my friends and colleagues. And I suppose that what haunts me is the possibility that the redneck label also distorts more than it describes. On some level I know that this must be the case, but one thing’s for sure: the Blue Collar Comedy troupe has done little to enlighten the rest of us about what lies beneath the stereotype they’ve been so successful in perpetuating.

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17 Responses to “Cultural Elite Blues”

  1. juvenal_urbino Says:

    I’ve never seen the Blue Collar guys, either, but comedy is in the eye of the beholder. I, for instance, have never understood why anybody found “The Golden Girls” funny. It seemed to me like an octogenarian rehash of “Three’s Company,” which wasn’t all that funny the first time around. It even had the same 4 characters: the ditsy one, the sex maniac, the sensible one, and the [even] older parental figure who doesn’t quite understand this younger generation. Oh, the jocularity! But that’s just me.

    I wonder, Sandi, if you don’t like toilet or racial humor, why you tivo “The Daily Show,” a typical episode of which has both those things.

  2. Al Sturgeon Says:

    Okay, I’ll be the bad guy and admit to laughing very hard at the first Blue Collar Comedy Tour. I will add that they shouldn’t have “Ridden Again” – the first was one of those events that didn’t need a sequel (imho).

    I think Foxworthy has some classic one-liners (usually prefaced by his classic phrase), but outside of that, I’m not a big Foxworthy fan. And I don’t find Bill Engvall (of, “here’s your sign” fame) very funny, though my wife thinks he’s hilarious. Like Foxworthy, he’s found one phrase to beat to death, and every once in a while he has a good line (e.g. a man in the parking lot trying to get his car unlocked with a clothes hangar, someone asks him if he locked his keys in the car, he replies, “no, I’m hanging it up to dry”).

    But in the first Blue Collar blowout, I’ll admit to laughing so much it hurt at both Ron White and Larry the Cable Guy.

    Ron White is the classic funny drunk. (Sandi/Juvenal, what are your opinions on drinking humor?) There are scary drunks, embarrassing drunks, sloppy drunks, and funny drunks. Ron White (imho again) is one of the funny drunks. His run-ins with bouncers and the law were hee-larious.

    And Larry the Cable Guy just won’t let you catch your breath from laughing. Sandi, I could see you disliking much of his comedy due to the subjects of many of his jokes, but I think at times you’d laugh at his overall lampoon of Southern stupidity. (His sexual humor led him to talk about edible underwear, which he terms, “eatin’ britches.” He always buys a few extra in case he gets hungry on the way over to his girlfriend’s house and wishes they came in “biscuits and gravy” flavor.)

    Okay, test time. Can I rescue this comment from “biscuits/gravy eatin’ britches” references?

    Comedy, as Juvenal reminds, is in the eye of the beholder, and I think it depends on what you behold when you look at guys like Ron White and Larry the Cable Guy. I think alcoholism is a real problem in this particular country, so when I’m laughing at Ron White, I think he is betraying the silliness of drinking. Others laugh at his jokes because they love being drunk. I can laugh at Larry the Cable Guy making fun of Southern ignorance, seeing it as something to aspire beyond… Others laugh at his jokes because they think that’s the way everyone ought to be.

    I guess it all depends…

    I’d add one more thought: the Blue Collar guys are of the biggest genre of comedians that aren’t into satire. They just stand up to make people laugh, not to teach a lesson. They’re obviously successful in finding a large contingent of people who are willing to laugh at what they say, and since their objects of derision in large part aren’t minority oppressed groups, I don’t have a big problem with them at all.

  3. Sandi Says:

    Juvenal, I don’t recall bathroom humor on the Daily Show. Racial stuff is definitely contextual — for me, I have to know who it’s coming from and how they really feel to loosen up enough to laugh at it. Which brings me to what Al said about the lampooning thing. Comedy is definitely in the eye of the beholder … and it’s just as easy to have your prejudices reinforced as challenged, depending on the perspective you come from in listening to it. I.e., Archie Bunker was probably more popular with people who thought he was right than people who thought he was wrong, even though the creators of the show intended his character to be satirical. Given that, comedy is always a dicey business. It’s great to laugh, but I always hate to think of people who don’t really understand where something like that is coming from and taking away that their ignorance is hunky dory. Even the Simpsons can be taken this way (my father and brother see it in very simplistic terms) despite the fact that it is brilliant social commentary NOT meant approvingly. On the other hand, though, it’s easy to think something is meant satirically (is that the right word?) when it really isn’t necessarily — I thought South Park’s writers were progressive when I saw the first season. Turns out they’re apolitical and really don’t care about anything.

    But I guess I intended my essay not to really be about the group themselves, since I have not seen the show and know only the content that was in the article and what little I might have been exposed to in the commercials. I was talking more about feeling sort of cut off from most other citizens of this country and that I don’t really know what to do about it. The article was just what got me thinking about that and so I used it as a frame for my post.

  4. Sandi Says:

    Al, you don’t think that some of the things they say about women are insulting and mean-spirited? Perhaps the writer picked out the very most inflammatory bits to include in the article (although I would not have suspected that because his overall tone was quite sympathetic to them), but what I read definitely made my eyebrows crinkle. The whole bit about “gay or married” is wrong on so many levels. I’m sure they don’t do racist humor because the social context has changed such that you can’t get away with it. Which is not to say that they are personally racist — I’m sure they aren’t — but you did say that they were there to make people laugh, not to teach, and they certainly pander to the reigning stereotypes of the moment, so if this were 1956 instead of 2006 … I wouldn’t be surprised if that was included. My Latin professor in college said that people laugh at what makes them uncomfortable. That always seemed about as good an explanation as any other I’ve heard. Still yet, in my view there are some things that are beyond the pale to joke about.

  5. Al Sturgeon Says:

    I think I know the feeling you’re talking about, Sandi, though I can’t claim the power of my experience of it relative to yours (since one cannot know those sort of things). You know where I live and work and must know that I feel “cut off” to some extent on a regular basis. I most often don’t know what to do about it either. I do know it is a very weird feeling to feel lonely in a crowd. But I’ve felt it a bunch.

    I’ll sound all sappy and get a bit religious (of all things), but my approach when I haven’t been depressed about it has been to try to learn how to love the people from which I feel so different. Easier said than done, but that’s been my way of thinking.

  6. Al Sturgeon Says:

    Probably says a lot about me that I don’t immediately call to mind a lot of jokes demeaning women. This is NOT to say they weren’t there – or prominent. Just a sad reflection on what I notice.

    (I do remember a funny bit Foxworthy did on how his wife actually runs things at his house. How he noticed it one day when she simply said, “it’s cold in here,” and next thing he knew he was up changing the thermostat. How’d that happen?!)

  7. juvenal_urbino Says:

    I also know that isolated feeling, and also have no useful suggestion for what to do about it — other than learning to be content in one’s isolation.

    I don’t recall bathroom humor on the Daily Show.

    I was lumping genital humor and bathroom humor together. They certainly do a lot of the former. I can instantly think of half a dozen major bits (so to speak) they’ve done in the past few months, not to mention all the one-liners.

  8. Sandi Says:

    I don’t mind genital humor so much. 🙂 Every once in a while the Daily Show will have things that make me wrinkle my nose, but not too often. I love Jon Stewart.

    I guess it’s hard for me to accept being isolated in this way because I believe that to some extent there is a lot of misunderstanding and misinformation rather than real difference. I’ve known tons of people who call themselves Republican because they don’t know any better, but it doesn’t really reflect their beliefs. And more than that there’s just a lack of education and within education, a lack of critical thinking skills. I wish that more people had access to a good education because I think that would help too.

    It would be easy for me to just say the hell with most people, and I am often tempted to do so. But I think I still hold out some hope. That’s why the fact that I feel trapped in a stereotype not of my making bothers me.

  9. Terry Austin Says:

    I’ll bet that if one Googled “genitals and Golden Girls” this comments page would be the top return.

    At least I hope so.

  10. Terry Austin Says:

    So of course I tried it.

    Not even close.

    Didn’t crack the Top 10 (pages of search returns).

    Don’t ask.

    Don’t ask.

  11. Capt MidKnight Says:

    Just got back in town, so I’m probably in on the tail end of this post, but here’s my take on the “Blue Collar” guys.

    I think what makes you laugh has a lot to do with your origins and experience. When Foxworthy first started, I loved him because he was talking about people I grew up with – he once said that Rednecks thought the NASA Moon landing was a fake, but that Wrestling was real. I grew up in Arkansas during the ‘50s and ‘60s watching “Gorgeous George”on TV and I know exactly what he meant. He was once told by an audience in Michigan that Rednecks were only a Southern phenomena. “Please,” he said,” I’m doing this show next door to a bowling alley that has valet parking.” When ask to define “Redneck,” He said that it just means a “Glorious lack of sophistication” which can be found anywhere.

    As for the rest of the “Blue Collar” crowd, I usually get some good chuckles the first time through, but it wears out on me pretty quick. Part of the reason is the increasing use of what I’ll call “profanity,” a term that means different things to different folks. I’ll admit that part of my dislike of most of the “Blue” material comes from my fundamentalist upbringing, but, beyond that, it’s just gotten boring. “OK, you’ve shown that you know and are willing to use all the profane expressions that mark you as a cutting edge comedian and social commentator, but can’t you put together a single declarative sentence, or even order a cup of coffee without using any four letter words?”

    There are actually people who can use profanity with a little style and eloquence, and I enjoy reading or listen to them, upbringing notwithstanding, but most of today’s comedians are not in that number. I realize that they are mainly playing to their target audience, but I usually end up feeling like I’m listening to a bunch of Junior High kids trying to impress each other. A sign of Geezerhood, I’m sure.

    Maybe one of the reason that many of the old comedians and comedy shows still make us laugh, years later is that, since they weren’t allowed to use profanity on TV or in the movies, they had to be more creative to make us laugh without it. What do you think?

  12. Sandi Says:

    I think that profanity is definitely overused. It works best when used for emphasis, to make a statement more strongly, and when used rarely. The funniest stories are generally not the most profane ones. Hence the reason I would not see “The Aristocrats” no matter how many good things I’ve heard about it (and from cultural elites, too — the New Yorker review was quite favorable).

  13. Terry Austin Says:

    Wasn’t there a study a while back that said sixty-something percent of Americans feel they use profanity too frequently?

    I think I read it on MSNBC.com. I’d paste a link, but I’m too ^*%$#@ lazy.

  14. juvenal_urbino Says:

    Jerry Seinfeld makes a point of not using profanity in his standup, specifically because, he says, it’s become too much of a crutch.

  15. Terry Austin Says:

    So, to continue my streak of posts with lame attempts at humor, Seinfeld thinks he can be funnier than other comedians with his &%#*! tied behind his back?

  16. Capt MidKnight Says:

    As far back as I can remember – 50 years or so – cutting edge comedy was aimed at making fun of or ridiculing the prevailing social order and complaining about real or perceived restrictions on freedom of expression, especially restrictions on the use of certain kinds of language. You had folks like Lenny Bruce in the late ‘50s and George Carlin in the ‘60s with his famous “10 words you can’t say on TV” bit among others. BTW, I just saw George on an HBO Special a few days ago. Still as foul mouthed as ever, but now it sounds really weird coming out of some old dude that looks like your grandpa.

    On through the ‘60s and ‘70s, as the avant garde in political, social, and environmental thought shifted more to the left, the humor and satire went with it, still playing off the older, more conservative people and institutions. Like everything else, though, eventually things swing the other way. I remember the first time I heard Drew Carey. He is a blue collar ex-Marine from Cleveland and made his career out of being the opposite of everything the current “Beautiful People” crowd were doing. When many of them were heavy into environmental causes, Cary did a bit on the Tonight Show where he said something like “Well, I celebrated Earth Day here in LA yesterday. I got out my ‘73 Chevy oil burner, drove out through the National Forrest, and hit a deer.” He had Carson and his buddies falling down. When he talked about a winter snow storm in Cleveland, he said “I was running around in the back yard with a can of hair spray in each hand thinking “To hell with the grandkids. I’m cold now.” “Where is that Global Warming when you need it?”

    Sooner or later, most cutting edge, “progressive” trends that are the darlings of comedians and satirist achieve more mainstream status and become targets in their turn. Maybe part of the appeal of the Blue Collar Comedy Tour guys is that they make fun of modern people and social conventions that sometimes take themselves too seriously.

  17. progresswear.com Says:

    The New Yorker article was great. And scary. P.T. Barnum was right.

    Thanks for posting all the quotes. As The New Yorker refuses to put much content online you were my choice of linking as I reference in the article Michael Moore, come get your shirts on the Progresswearblog.

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