Foxworthy Q&A: Comedian wrote first “redneck” joke in Michigan

Terry Jacoby, editor/writer for weloveannarbor.com, recently spoke with comedian/actor Jeff Foxworthy about his upcoming visit to Michigan (DTE Energy Music Theatre, Aug. 25 as part of the Jeff and Larry’s Backyard BBQ Tour with Larry the Cable Guy, Foghat and the Marshall Tucker Band). Foxworthy touched on a number of subjects ranging from writing his first “redneck” joke in Livonia, his charitable side and his lifelong passion for stand-up comedy.

 How did the idea for a Backyard Barbecue develop? “Larry and I have been on tour for about a year and half and about six or seven months ago we were sitting around one day having lunch and I said to him what have you not done that you would want to do. He says, ‘I would like to do a night where there was great food, rock and roll and comedy all in one night.’ Notice he put food right up there at the top. I was like, dude we could do that. He said, wouldn’t you pay to see something like that. And I was like, yeah, I would go see that. And one thing we’ve never done is mix our shows in with some music. And when you think about it, laughter and music are the two things that make you forget about your problems for a little bit.”

How do you mix rock and roll with comedy into one evening? “Well, that remains to be seen. Through the years I’ve opened up for a ton of bands. It’s just a fun night. With this we just kind of go back and forth. We’ll see. If I was offered that ticket I would think what a great way to spend a summer night.”

Jeff Foxworthy. Larry the Cable Guy. Foghat. The Marshall Tucker Band. It’s a star-filled bill. Who goes first and who goes last? “In the old days someone’s ego would be wounded if they didn’t get the prime slot. Now, it’s like who cares. It’s like with Larry and I out on the road. I don’t care. I will go first. It’s not about who sold more records or any of that. It’s whatever makes the best show.”

What are your memories of Detroit or Michigan during your career? “My best one is that Michigan was the first place I ever wrote a ‘you might be a redneck’ joke. I was really stubborn in the beginning. I had people tell me I needed to take voice lessons to lose my accent. I wore jeans and cowboy boots and drove a pickup truck and that’s how I travelled around the country. It was good natured but when I was in New York or LA people would tell me I was just a redneck from Georgia.

“So one night I was playing a comedy club in I think it was Livonia. And they were sitting around calling me a redneck and the club we were playing in was attached to a bowling alley that had valet parking. And I got up and said if you don’t think you have rednecks in Michigan go look out the window. People are valet parking at the bowling alley. And I went back to the hotel that night and I wasn’t thinking about it being a hook or a book or anything. But I wrote 10 ways how to tell you might be a redneck with kind of the understanding that I know what I am apparently a lot of people don’t know what they are. The next night, people not only laughed, they were pointing at each other. I was like, there is a common thread here. That’s how that whole thing started. And it was in Michigan. “And let me tell you, Michigan has some world-class rednecks. You go up to the UP and you’ve got some Hall of Famers up there.”

You’ve been a comedian, actor, writer, game-show host among other things but you seem to always come back to stand-up. Is that where your passion is? “Yeah, I think so. We have a station on Sirius and I was interviewing Brad Paisley just this week and we were talking about that. No one gets into this business thinking you are going to make any money. You hope. You do it because you love doing it. I think my first year I did 406 shows and I made $8,300. So I wasn’t in it for the money. I was blessed that the money came. But 30 years later I still find that I love doing it and I appreciate the craft and the art. It’s still a lot of work.

“The one thing that hasn’t changed and you would think after doing comedy for decades that you would know what works and what doesn’t. But to this day, I still don’t know. But you still have to go to the little comedy clubs with your note cards and figure out if this is funny or is that funny. And if you went with me and told me to pick out the four note cards I thought would be the best, I would be dead wrong on at least two of them. Then the only person laughing is my wife in the back of the room.

“But that’s the magic and allure of it. You still don’t know but the audience is never wrong and they will tell you. Sometimes, you are like really, that’s not funny and other times you are like that was stupid but they have snot on their shirt from laughing so hard.”

In the Jerry Seinfeld documentary ‘The Comedian’ they say because of your celebrity name you get a free pass for 5 minutes. Then, you need to be funny. “Not a lot of people know about that documentary but it truly shows how difficult stand-up comedy really is. Some of my favorite nights in comedy were spent sitting around in the green room at the Comedy Magic Club in Hermosa Beach, Calif., and listening to (Jay) Leno and Seinfeld and (Gary) Shandling argue about whether green was funnier than blue. If the audience had any idea the sweat that went into each joke. When you do it right, it’s effortless and looks like you just thought of it.”

Why do you think your brand of comedy resonates with people? Is it because so many people can relate to the people you talk about? “I was lucky because early on I discovered what worked for me. When I started I didn’t know what was funny. I trusted that if I think it, or my wife says it or my family does it, surely there are other people who are thinking, saying and doing the same thing. To me the biggest compliment is someone coming backstage and saying you’ve been in our house. You’ve taken something that we do every day and don’t even think about it being funny and you made it funny and we can laugh at ourselves.

“What works for me is to find that common thread and find things we all have in common.”

Even though you never publicize it, you spend a great deal of your time supporting the great people in the military and doing charitable work for those fighting addictions. Do you do this for personal reasons or is just a way to give back? “It sounds so corny but I have such a blessed life. I make a fabulous living doing something I would do for free. In my mind, you don’t take that for granted and I feel there is kind of an obligation that goes with that. If you can use your influence to help somebody then you do it. Helping people and being able to get a table in a crowded restaurant are really the only two benefits of being a celebrity. I don’t do it with TV cameras or for the publicity. If someone only does something nice when the TV cameras are on then they probably aren’t doing it for the right reasons.

“The other day I was in Watertown, N.Y. and when I got off the plane I was handed a note from someone who had a friend who was just diagnosed with stage-four cancer and he’s at a hospital only 10 minutes away from where you are performing. So we just swung by the hospital and said hello. It was someone facing some bad stuff and if me stopping by for a few minutes and signing something for him and visit with him to make his day a little better then it’s a no-brainer.”

Does your charitable work off the stage keep you grounded? “I don’t live in New York or LA because I always just wanted to have a normal life. I was one of those guys who took my kids to school every day. If I had a show in Detroit, I would fly back after the show and be up in the morning to take my kids to school. That was very important to me.

“Someone asked me one time that I am an actor, comedian, author so which one am I. And I said those are things that I do but who I really am is a dad and a husband and a brother. What I do changes but who I am hopefully is the constant.”

The common thread in everything you do is making people laugh and forgetting their problems for a few hours. “Yeah, I guess. They say laughter is kind of like the release valve that keeps the boiler from exploding. Everybody watching you is going through some kind of struggle. They might be sick or know someone who is sick or know someone they care about struggling. If you can laugh for a few hours it kind of recharges your battery to go deal with it.”

What: Jeff and Larry’s Backyard BBQ Tour
Featuring: Comedians Jeff Foxworthy and Larry the Cable Guy and musical performers The Marshall Tucker Band and Foghat. With over six hours of entertainment scheduled, the concourse will also feature a full selection of local barbeque options, with games, activities, and other festival surprises.
When: Friday, Aug. 25 (6 p.m.)
Where: DTE Energy Music Theatre

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