The Texas comedian who makes the Blue Collar Comedy phenomenon actually funny.
â€œThat Boyâ€™s Got a Lot of Quit In Himâ€
Comedian Ron White cuts a distinctive image onstage, cigarette in one hand, tumbler of Johnny Walker in the other, a sharp-suit combination of Dean Martin and a wisecracking oilman. Heâ€™s best known from the Blue Collar Comedy Tour, a three-year marathon road show co-starring good-olâ€™-boy comics Jeff Foxworthy, Larry the Cable Guy, and Bill Engvall. The act played to 90 cities, and lit up the comedy world. An accompanying concert film has sold 2.5 million units.
White is the standout of the show. Although from rural Texas, he appeals to urban as well as NASCAR crowds. His sly humor sneaks up on listeners, more witty and adult-oriented than the southern drawl might suggest. On being arrested for drunk in public: â€œAt that point I had the right to remain silentâ€”but I didnâ€™t have the ability.â€ On family: â€œMy brotherâ€™s a doctor, my sisterâ€™s an attorney. And I hate Thanksgiving.â€ On strip clubs: â€œYouâ€™ve seen one woman nakedâ€”you wanna see the rest of â€˜em naked.â€ On paternal approval: â€œThat boyâ€™s got a lot of quit in him.â€
Although a 19-year comedy veteran, until recently White was running a pottery business in Mexico, driving across the border for weekend shows. All that changed when Jeff Foxworthy invited him aboard for the Blue Collar tour. White has since taped a live TV special, â€œThey Call Me Tater Salad,â€ and released a CD, â€œDrunk in Public.â€ His current solo tour sells out theaters across the U.S., and a new TV special for the WB network airs in 2005. We caught up with him over the phone between gigs.
The Blue Collar tour grossed over $15 million. The film is everywhere. Comedy Central is airing the sequel soon. Did you expect it would be so popular?
Itâ€™s bizarre. Two years ago I had a development deal, shootinâ€™ a pilot, living in Beverly Hills on Foxâ€™s nickel in this big suite. We got this [Blue Collar] movie coming out. And I thought, well, this is it. Iâ€™m gonna be so huge a star I wonâ€™t even be able to sleep with myself. And then the movie tanked at the box office. Fox didnâ€™t pick up the series. And Iâ€™m back in Omaha at the Funny Bone, goinâ€™ â€˜Wow. This is one of those donâ€™t count your chickens things.â€™ The thing that dumfounds me, is thereâ€™s no guaranteeâ€”no matter how good you are. Because somethingâ€™s gotta happen to make that happen. And what happened for me was Blue Collar. [To someone else in the car] Yeah, where we goinâ€™? Sorry, my familyâ€™s with me. Iâ€™m not sorry theyâ€™re with me. That may have sounded wrong.
One of your funniest bits describes getting new tires at a Sears, and one of them falling off as you drive out of the parking lot. And how the mechanic must have missed the training on Lug Nut Day. How much of your act is based on real-life experiences?
Nearly all of it, because Iâ€™m not that creative. I just keep my eyes open. I would get sued if that [Sears story] wasnâ€™t true. In fact theyâ€™re suing me anyway. But I like telling the story. They offered me $5,000 with the stipulation that I would quit doing the bit. And I told them to eat a steaminâ€™ bowl of fuck. I believe thatâ€™s the way I put it.
So your style is less about jokes and more about stories.
Iâ€™ve never been much on structure, Iâ€™m not much on sitting down and writing jokes. I can, but if do, they usually suck. Itâ€™s almost like Leno-quality monologue shit, you know, thatâ€™s just pure drivel. If I have a skill, itâ€™s kind of the thing that ten people could watch something happen, and when I told the story, it would be a funny story. If it was a car wreck and people died in it, when I told it, people would laugh. This is even since I was a kid.
You mention Fritch, Texas in your act. What was it like growing up there?
Itâ€™s a part of Texas that had at some point been forsaken by God. Dirt roads, a little hayseed town, about 800 people when I lived there.
I hadnâ€™t been there in 30 years, I was doinâ€™ a show for Hastings Music, their corporate office is in Amarillo. I still have a sister in Amarillo. We went to Fritch to see if I could find my childhood home, which I did. I kinda knew basically where it was, basically what it looked like then. Dad built the house, kinda had a wavy top to it. At first, weâ€™re driving up and down the street, I didnâ€™t notice it. So Iâ€™m going up and down these dirt roads in a big white stretch. People looking at me, going what the hell is he doing here? I went back to find my grandmotherâ€™s house, and it was kinda weird, and then I went to the Dairy Queen, and signed some autographs. It was all just spur of the moment. We ate at a restaurant, where my dad would let us go out to eat maybe once or twice a year.
Anything about Fritch that made you funny?
I donâ€™t think so. I donâ€™t know what makes anybody funny. My uncle was very, very funny. He was a preacher, and eventually became the president of the Southern Baptist Convention. Great guy. Preachers, especially Southern, theyâ€™ve got a great pace. And I was a huge comedy fan as a kid. I listened to everybody. Andy Griffith, Bob Newhart, Flip Wilson, Bill Cosby. And then Cheech and Chong, Steve Martin. I donâ€™t think I even understood the jokes at that age. I just liked listening to the laughter, over and over again. I think that instilled some sort of comedic timing.
You worked for several years as a counselor and public speaker for Houstonâ€™s Palmer Drug Abuse Program. How did that experience help your comedy?
Well, thatâ€™s where I found out that I was very, very comfortable standing up in front of a room full of people. Theyâ€™d have an auditorium full of kids, and I would talk to them for an hour. I would just tell â€˜em what happened to me. I had a pretty respectable drug habit at 21 years old. I would do that sometimes three times a day. It was just like developing a stand-up show. And I was really good at it. The problem was, that eventually they started saying, â€˜Well, drug addiction shouldnâ€™t be this funny.â€™ And Iâ€™m like, â€˜Well you go tell â€˜em your story then. See if they face the right direction.â€™
I would do that sometimes three times a day. Theyâ€™d have an auditorium full of kids, and I would talk to them for an hour. It was just like developing a stand-up show. I didnâ€™t know it at the time, but I would do it so much that itâ€™d just get better and better.
But I didnâ€™t see that as any prelude to show business at all. I didnâ€™t actually do stand-up comedy until maybe five years later, when I was 29.
But you werenâ€™t afraid of getting onstage and being funny.
It was very easy for me. And Iâ€™m a one trick pony, I donâ€™t have any other skills. Itâ€™s a good thing I was successful, because my retirement plan was, â€˜Maybe something neat will happen.â€™
You cut your teeth with some great Texas comedians at the old Comedy Workshop club in Houston. Larger-than-life personalities like Sam Kinison and Bill Hicks. What was that like?
That room was a great room to come up in. You couldnâ€™t be a hack, because these guys would just run you off. Ron Shock, Kinison, Hicks, Jimmy Pineapple. I stopped in there one time and did a set. I had just done Vegas, and I was kinda bragginâ€™. I had been doing stand-up about six months at the time. These guys were really good comics, and they knew I was green, and just an egomaniac. So when I did my set, I mean, nobodyâ€”nobody laughed. I chewed it with a shovel. It was just pathetic. And those guys were in the back chuckling to themselves. I look at it now, and it makes me shake my head with wonder that I would have the gall to do that, in front of some of the best comedians that ever lived.
So whatâ€™s funny to you?
I donâ€™t do anything topical, because Lettermanâ€™s got 19 writers staring at the television, and Lenoâ€™s got 19 writers staring at the television. So I want my comedy to come from someplace other than the television. The good stuff just flips through my mind, real late at night, and if Iâ€™m sharp enough I write it down, cause Iâ€™ll forget it. I have really funny friends, too, And my wifeâ€™s very funny.
I see comedians and actors using whatever stage they have to promote their political views. And man, I donâ€™t do it. I choose not to. If any celebrity ever starts talking about their political views, I quit listening right away because I genuinely donâ€™t give a fuck what they think. Play your little horn, or tell your little story, you know, whatever, thatâ€™s what we pay you to do. Itâ€™s like that chick in the Dixie Chicks. Thatâ€™s fine if thatâ€™s her opinion about the president. Thatâ€™s great. But you better know who your fucking fans are, before you start spouting off, because itâ€™s gonna cost you millions of dollars. It irritates me when people use that platform, use whatever fame to get people to listen to them talk about something else. If youâ€™re in show business, I think you should just do your job and shut the fuck up. Thatâ€™s what I try to do.
Youâ€™re 47 this year. Are you grateful success happened to you later in life?
Aw, you kidding? Iâ€™da been deader than a doornail. They woulda found me with cocaine and a whore: â€˜There he is, folks. Doesnâ€™t he look rich?â€™
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(A version of this story appeared in Southwest Spirit magazine.)