Though a club headliner for years, Ron White has exploded as a comedian ever since he joined Jeff Foxworthy, Bill Engvall and Larry the Cable Guy for the “Blue Collar Comedy Tour” in 2000. While continuing to tour with “the boys”, Ron has also enjoyed increased solo success as well. His most recent album “You Can’t Fix Stupid”, debuted at #14 on Billboard’s Hot 200. A DVD of the same title will be released later this month. He’s also performing this week in a sold-out series of shows at Atlanta’s Punchline Comedy Club in preperation for Blue Collar 3. I talked with the candid Ron about performing stand-up everyday, his friendships with both Larry the Cable Guy and Doug Stanhope and what else he actually does care about.
I’ve heard you say you got labeled Southern early on because of your accent. Did you struggle against being a redneck on stage at first?
I was never specifically Southern. Because of the voice that’s what they call me and they still do. And the show is not very Southern at all. But those are my roots, so I guess things are flavored that way. But I have no problem with it at all, it’s just who I am.
But originally when you performed you had a cowboy hat.
Oh yeah, I still do have it. I just don’t wear it on the stage.
So when did you transition into your sorta-Dean Martin look, all in black with your scotch.
Well, there was always a drink even when the cowboy hat was there. And there was always a cigarette. And the cowboy hat, usually I was dressed up, but back where I’m from, the hat is from a very famous hat maker, the same guy who used to make Stevie Ray Vaughn’s hats. He made all the hats for Lynard Skynard. This guy named Manny Gammage who’s dead now. So in places like Austin, the hat’s got a felt brim but a straw top, so anybody that would see it would know exactly where it came from. It’s a very expensive hat.
So you guys - Foxworthy, Engvall and Larry - were very big in what a lot of people on the coast dismiss as flyover states for a long time and then Blue Collar played on Comedy Central and kind of woke people up. Was it satisfying to have the mainstream industry finally get you?
I’m not even sure they still do. I’ve been a club headliner for 17 years almost. So I always considered myself successful, even though how things are going now I wasn’t. I’ve never been one to look up the ladder. I’ve always looked down the ladder. As long as there’s one guy down there, I’m fine.
So I would see me compared to the other guys I knew. And I didn’t know guys like Seinfeld or whatever. I just knew the other club headliners. I made as much money as they did or more. And I had a good foothold in clubs. I was considered by my peers to be a good comedian. So that’s all I ever strived to do was get some recognition from my peers.
So fame or whatever. That wasn’t an obsession of yours?
No never was. Of course it is now. (laughs) I really considered myself successful then, even though I was broke. But before the second Blue Collar came out or “Drunk in Public” where I really started making money, I lived in an OK house. I ate really good food. I didn’t drink the kind of scotch I drink now, but I drank decent scotch. Now three years before that I was living in somebody’s attic. But I was still happy. I didn’t see it as anything bad. It’s just where I ended up.
You joke about your work ethic keeping you from doing “Blue Collar TV” but you have a lot of stuff coming up. You got an animated show, you got a book, you got the new CD that just came out.
But really that’s the only thing I work on. Yeah, I do write the stories. I sit down with a writer and tell them a bunch of stories and then they’re adding some of my bits. That’s the book. The animation deal is with TBS. When I did the Ron White show last year, which was a special, we did some animated vignettes on it. And TBS was interested in those vignettes, but they were owned by Sony, so who is the studio. They went to Sony and said they would like to talk about doing more animation. So we went into development. So Donick Cary is the head writer and he was with “The Simpsons.” And the director was the creator of Family Guy so it’s got some really great blood in it. So as long as I stay out of the way (laughs), they can get all this stuff done with minimal (involvement from me). I do the voicework basically and if they have something in the dialogue that I just don’t think is funny or if it’s something I won’t say, I just won’t say it. They’ll have to write around it or if I can figure out a way I would rather say it, I write it. But what I spend my time on is the live show.
And everything else kind of falls where it falls.
I’m set up right now to not really worry about anything except new material. I’m off this week, which means I’m not doing any big theaters. But my wife and I are going to Austin and I’ll do Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday two shows a night in a 70-seat comedy club just to develop new stuff. Just to work and I have a lot of friends there who are comedians who will come out and write with me. That’s really the stuff that keeps me grounded is just to continue to work. I have a job.
One of the things I’ve noticed about comics is that as they get bigger, they lose touch with the experiences that got them there. Their act becomes about their act and being famous. Is that one of those things that you struggle now with?
I tell you, you get wake-up calls. And this is just keep your fighting weight. You got to do stand-up everyday. If you want to be as sharp as you need to be, you should be on stage every single time you can get on stage. I don’t live in LA or New York and never will. And there are several clubs there that you can go to if you’re popular and have a big name, and I do, you can get on stage three or four times a night and develop stuff. I can’t do that. And I don’t like to perform in LA or New York anyway, so I just go back to comedy clubs and do it that way.
I watched… not to dis Dennis Miller, I’ve been a huge fan of Dennis all these years – but I watched his last HBO special. You can tell that that’s a guy who’s sitting on his butt in Santa Barbara, wealthy as he could be and then somebody offered him a bunch of money to come out of semi-retirement and do a show. And it looked very awkward. And he did a comb-over joke and I’m like, “C’mon Dennis you used to be the man.” And I’m like, “I better get off this couch and start doing sets or it’s going to happen to me.”
I watched that myself and it surprised me how uncomfortable he looked.
It had me squirming.
Really? I’ve heard some comics say that they actually enjoy watching people bomb, because…
(laughs) On some level you do. I’ve never been one of those guys. I think bad comedy – not that Dennis stuff is bad – I don’t want this to get back to him. Actually, I don’t care if it does or not. He knows it’s true. But there’s nothing more painful than comedy that’s not working, especially when I’m doing it. (laughs) And that happens.
I went out the other day to an open mike night in Atlanta. And I go to open mike nights.
You go to the Punchline down there?
Yeah. I’m off next week and I’m doing shows at the Punchline. All week long. But I went out to open mike night, there was a couple of young guys right in front of me, both of them real funny and I wish I could remember their names. But I was laughing. And I forgot that I’m about to walk up there and try brand new jokes. And these kids are doing their thirty minutes – they’re probably feature acts on the road, they’re doing eight or nine shows a week. This is the thirty minutes they do or twenty minutes of their best stuff. So I’m going to try and follow that, even with my name recognition, with jokes I’ve never even tried.
So out of the three of us, I had the weakest set. But I also know that that work that I was doing will pay off, so I don’t really care. I also like to acknowledge these young kids, because I don’t see a ton of them that I’m really laughing at. And these two guys were just killing me. Real simple and basic stuff with punchlines. So I was just having a good time watching them.
I know Foxworthy saw you early on and worked with you on material. Do you try and pass that along?
Actually those two guys, I wanted to ask ‘em some questions. If somebody asks me… Foxworthy did that. He genuinely did. Foxworthy is a gracious, very patient man. And I may fall short in some of those categories. If I think somebody’s funny, I’ll certainly will give them the time of day. And if they ask me a question, I’ll give them the best answer I can. But in this business there are no answers and there is no book on how to get to where I am. I don’t even know how I got here.
The biggest piece of advice that I give young comedians is: If it’s your goal to get where I’m at, go do something else. Because you’ll never get here. Never. The odds are so bad. Because not only do you have to be a really, really strong comedian but you also have to be lucky. And most people don’t get that combination. And it didn’t look like I was either. So unless you really love doing it for the sake of doing it. I never thought I’d make a nickel at this. But I thought it’d be a very cool hobby to have.
So twenty years ago I’d sell windows during the day and I would get out on stage where I could. I would invent gigs. At a Holiday Inn, I’d call two other people and call it a comedy show. Perform for six people.
Some people would argue that’s making your own luck.
At that point of my career, I was so in love with being on stage that money had nothing to do with it. If I could do it, literary, for a meal, I thought I was beating them up. $25 worth of food.
Does you act change very much when you’re performing for a 17,000 seat theater as opposed to an intimate comedy club?
Well right now, I’m doing those two things for two different reasons, so they’re a lot different. The 17,000 I did one time a couple of days ago with the boys, I was just trying to get the set down for Blue Collar 3. Which I already have and we’re going to film that next month. And when I’m doing a comedy club, I’m developing new stuff. So now no two sets are ever alike.
I have too much stuff in development. For the first fifteen years, I would write three jokes a year. But they were good. So all I would do is get better at telling those jokes. So that show developed and it was great and it got me where I am today. But now I got to work. Because I don’t got fifteen years to write the next one.
I’ve heard you describe yourself as just a really funny storyteller.
Even as a kid, if I told a story, it would be a funny story. And that’s the gift. Whether it’s a big gift or a little gift. At first, it seemed like a little gift, now it seems like a big gift. But that’s also something that can’t be taught at a comedy class or anything. So that’s something I can tell somebody how to do. And it’s not that rare. Most people know somebody that whenever they tell a story, it’s funny. Everybody knows funny people. Well I was just a funny person. And then I had the drive to do this. You might be really funny but you might be scared to death of the stage. And I was just drawn to it. That’s where I wanted to be.
With you selling windows… my father was a traveling salesman and I know part of that is being able to tell a story.
Absolutely. That was why I was a good point-of-contact salesman. My last show is almost worded like I’m talking to one person. Almost. Not exactly. I just heard another reviewer say that and I went back and listened to it, and it is kind of like that.
So no matter what the size audience your performing for, it’s like you’re trying to just please that one person you’re telling the story to.
It does kind of listen that way.
Did you have a favorite comedy album that you listened to growing up?
I had a lot. I was a big fan of comedy. When I was a little kid, we had “Football” which was an old Andy Griffith record. That was a great record. (Note: The actual record title was “What it was, was Football.” Released in 1953, it’s currently unavailable but you can hear some of “What it was, was Football” here and read an illustrated account of it from Mad Magazine) We had a Bob Newhart record that was very, very funny. And as a kid I would listen to these over and over. I wouldn’t say I was a collector, but I had every Bill Cosby, Cheech and Chong, Flip Wilson, Steve Martin, Richard Pryor – anything I could get my hands on. I would listen to over and over. And I’m sure that’s where I developed a sense of comedic timing. Maybe, unless I was born with it. And I’m sure all of those artists have influenced me in some ways. And even today, I’ll still plug in a Bill Hicks tape even though I know it and laugh like crazy.
I’ve heard Chris Rock say he carries an iPod of all comedy albums when he’s working on a new special.
I always noticed when I was younger that if I was listening to a lot of comedy records I was funnier. Even though I wasn’t saying what they were saying. So I guess I get that. I would never think of that. But I got (Mitch) Hedberg in the DVD player in my car…
Did you ever work with Hedberg?
Were you surprised when he died?
It wasn’t surprising to me at all. What was surprising to me is the day before when he didn’t die. (laughs) Hedberg was never one that was long for this planet. And anybody who knew him, knew that. And I didn’t know him well, I just really, really liked him the times we did spend together. I was actually, and still am, really good friends with Doug Stanhope. Stanhope and he were best friends. So when I would see Doug I would also see Mitch and we would do a lot of sets at the same place. I always thought he was the most bizarre comedian that I’ve ever seen.
One time, they were in Nashville, him and Doug. And they were going to go do an audition for this thing, that if you do well, you can get booked into colleges. I forget what it’s called, because I never did it. And Mitch’s set was right behind Rodney Carrington’s set in Nashville and I was just thinking to myself, “that is just a horrible spot.” And it turned out that it wasn’t. It was a bunch of college students. And even though Rodney does very well – he’s a good friend of mine also. Mitch went up behind him and just slayed. Mitch wasn’t all that dependable an act, because some people didn’t think he was funny. So if he had a real high energy, hopping around act – kind of a Dane Cook thing – going on in front of him, he wouldn’t do well. You had to be careful who you booked him with.
When you are doing Blue Collar, is there a particular way that the comics have to flow to work?
Larry’s impossible to follow now. He’s got the biggest fan base. He goes last, just ‘cause Jeff doesn’t want to do it. (laughs) Jeff goes third. I go before Jeff and Bill goes first. And there’s really no reason for that. I think it does flow good that way. I wouldn’t care if I was going first, last, doesn’t matter. We’re all making 25%. Just whatever it takes to get it done.
So to speak.
Actually, I didn’t say that, did I?
Yes, you did. (laughs) That’s actually brings me to a question. I know you’re friends with Doug Stanhope. Doug had that letter on his site that he wrote to Larry about people shouting “Get-R-Done” during his set.
Right, he doesn’t like it…
Does that happen when you’re performing? And do you not like it yourself?
It doesn’t happen to be hardly at all, oddly enough. Although we have tons and tons of crossover fans, our basic fanbase is not the same, mine and Larry’s. But I only hear it once at a show, maybe none. I could only imagine how frustrating it would be, especially for a comic like Stanhope, to just listen to it over and over. And then if somebody yells it out, people laugh. So then they’re encouraged. “Well I’m going to do and I’m going to get me one of them damn laughs! Get-R-Done!” (laughs) I could only imagine. I know Dougie gets angry. Because I’ve read some letters I couldn’t even believe. But I think he’s precious.
You mentioned earlier that you don’t like doing clubs in Los Angeles or New York. Is it that the audiences are different? What is it about that?
No. It’s really old animosity. I would go out there as a young comic and just try and get on stage. Even though if you do a set at the Improv on Melrose in Hollywood, I genuinely think they give you five dollars. I think you have to fill out paperwork. (laughs) Well I don’t need the five bucks. And if they had been kinder to me when I was coming up, I’d feel more obliged to do set when I was in town.
Now I do huge theaters all over Los Angeles. So I love to perform out there. Also I will be the first Blue Collar guy… I’m doing the Beacon in New York. And did the Warfield in San Francisco, which nobody else will go to. Sold out two shows in minutes. So I don’t mind those places. They were just never friendly to me. They didn’t want to participate and now I don’t need to participate.
I see a lot of people say that they don’t like Blue Collar comedy except for you. Do you have any idea why that is?
No. These guys are the biggest comedians in the world. Most people do like them. I just have a little bit of a crossover audience. Larry and I used to do shows together after Blue Collar called the Rough Around the Collar tour, which would have been huge. We were acts people wanted to see, cause we were just 10 minutes on the first one. People were ready to rumble. And we would switch off closing them. And his fans are more rabid than mine are. His fans dress like him. They talk like him. And the nights I would close the shows, they would just pout. I mean, literally, pout the whole time that I was on stage that he was already gone. To the point, where I’m like, “Man, if you want to close all these shows, go right ahead.”
I’m not really a Larry the Cable Guy fan, so it’s fascinating to me how people have embraced it..
The trick is with Larry, whether you love the content, don’t love the content, it really doesn’t matter. He is a great pace, rhythm and timing comedian. I don’t care who you are, you’re probably not better than he is. I don’t care if you’re David Cross, Dane whatever his name is – he’s probably a better pace, rhythm and timing comedian. And that’s fun to watch. It’s fun to watch somebody who’s done 10,000 shows, do their craft.
Now does he do a lot of fart jokes and whatever, sure he does. But it’s Larry the Cable Guy. (laugh) And it’s so well done with such great pace. It makes me laugh. I would never spend too much time trying to figure out why people like him.
He’s a genuinely gifted comic. Very good at what he does. And you can probably tell a very good friend of mine and I have no animosity that he’s a bigger comedian that me. What I’m surprised at is that I’m as big a comedian as I am. (laugh) I still don’t look up the food chain, I just look down.
I heard you mention Dane Cook there. What did he say about the Blue Collar Comedy tour?
Oh I don’t know specifically. It upsets Larry when people say things about us. I, on the other hand, would never know because I play golf and drink, and I don’t have time to listen to the fidder fodder that goes around on the Internet. I just don’t participate. I don’t sit around reading reviews. I don’t care. I genuinely don’t care what other people think about my craft, because it doesn’t affect me.
But I realize that when Cook’s out there trashing the Blue Collar Tour, that he’s mainly trashing Larry but you’re also trashing me. This is probably going to go too far. If you’re going to start trashing another comedian, which there’s no call for in the first place (I know David Cross and Larry have a rift going too) but if you do, then we’re going to take a look at your material. And it better be great and it’s not. It’s punchline-less, he’s very very charming. My manager thinks he’s funny. If you are going to be throwing rocks, then we’re going to take a look, and it better be great. So if you’re not Bill Hicks, and he ain’t, then I would just shut-up. He also makes gillions of dollars.
(Ed’s Note - Just for clarity, Ron is talking about Dane Cook here. Not David Cross. I’m not sure if he feels the same way about David, I didn’t ask. Just wanted to clarify because I see it’s already been confused.)
He has one of those insane rabid fanbases too.
Unbelievable. And I have no animosity against him (for being a bigger comedian). Don’t pay attention to it. Go get ‘em Dane.
I know you stay away from politics. But I know some in the media try and label the Blue Collar Guys as a right-wing phenomenon.
That would be a mindless easy thing to do. And fairly accurate. (laughs) Actually more accurate with the other three guys than me. I’m kind of an asexual, libertarian kind of a guy. Then I also go out of my way – I did a USO tour at Thanksgiving, doing military bases in Belgium and Germany supporting the troups, because we do live in a country that has to have a military and those kids have to do what they’re told. So I went over there and did a bunch of a shows.
But I don’t care what people label us. It doesn’t matter. I don’t think about it. If somebody writes a story about it, I don’t read it. The whole world could be falling apart in this little country club community that I live in, and I wouldn’t know. When I’m not on the road, if I’m off, I’m just sitting here. If not, I’m working on my show. Who likes it. Who doesn’t like it. I wouldn’t know.
It’s sophomoric. It’s like the original open-mike night I was a part of. People would get caught up in who’s who in that little tiny community and it took ‘em forever to realize it doesn’t matter. There’s no line. You’re going to go where you’re going to go. And it’s not going to depend on who you slam or who you do anything else with, you’re just going to go where you’re going to go.
So you can get caught up in who likes you, who doesn’t like you. Are you popular or are you not popular? I don’t even read my own e-mail. My wife reads them just to monitor my own behavior on the road. The other day she said that somebody wrote me a rantingly evil note about the fact that they came to see me in Knoxville and I didn’t do anything off Blue Collar and I didn’t do anything off Drunk in Public and they were pissed. And she read it to me and I was, like, “Honey, I don’t give a shit. That’s one person’s opinion. They shouldn’t even be able to talk to me.” It wasn’t very long that you had to get out a pen and a piece of paper and stamp. Now all you got to do to blurt out your mindless opinion is to get on the keyboard.
What I care about people coming to the show. What’s the response of those people as a group. Well that particular Knoxville show, I just snotted that crowd. Doing all this great new stuff. Well, whether it’s great or not… but at one point I’m in the wilds of Alaska giving a grizzly bear a rimjob and a reach around. That’s fucking comedy right there. (laughs) I’m playing this bear like a trombone. People are dying. So who wants me to do Tater Salad again.
And you can hear it on the album. I think comedy can diminish sometimes the more you hear it.
Absolutely, it doesn’t carry over like a song. But I can remember when I was 18 years old I went to go see Steve Martin when I was in San Deigo. And he didn’t do anything off of “Let’s Get Small” . And I was disappointed because I would have liked to see him do some of that stuff. So what I’m going to start doing at the end of my shows is take a little barrel with old bits in it, roll it around, pick one out. (laughs) “Here we go… oh, one off the bottom shelf. Oh well.”
Ron White’s Official Website is tatersalad.com.