Q&A: Jeff Foxworthy cracks up the Kennedy Center, blue-collar style

WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with Jeff Foxworthy (Full Interview) (Jason Fraley)

WASHINGTON — “You Might Be a Redneck” made him one of America’s top-selling standups.

On Thursday night, blue-collar comic Jeff Foxworthy cracks up the luxurious Kennedy Center.

“I’m kind of shocked they let me in there,” Foxworthy told WTOP. “‘Redneck’ is a state of mind. It’s that glorious absence of sophistication, so you can dress up on the outside, but it’s going to come out. … (People) always think of the ‘you might be a redneck’ jokes, which even at the heyday was five minutes of a two-hour show. But they were easy-to-remember one-liners.”

Which other topics can we expect to hear in his routine?

“If I thought something or my wife or family did something, I’m gonna trust that other people are thinking and doing the same thing,” Foxworthy said. “It’s a snapshot of what’s going on in my life that year. I started out talking about dating, then being a newlywed, then a new dad, then having little kids. So, that’s what I continue to do. I’ve reached that point in life where the kids are grown and gone. … I have an audience (where) we’ve kind of grown up together.”

Born and raised in Georgia, Foxworthy grew up listening to an array of comedy albums.

“Bob Newhart, Flip Wilson and Bill Cosby, which now you can’t even say his name,” Foxworthy said. “I would memorize them and go to school and do them and get in trouble for it.”

When he began performing actual gigs, he embraced his blue-collar roots.

“The only advice I got in New York was, ‘Yo, Jeff, I don’t want to hurt our feelings, but you’ve gotta take some voice lessons and lose that stupid accent.’ I was like, ‘Where I come from, you have an accent,” he said. “So, I dug my heels in and thought, ‘Nah, this is the way I talk.’ … I had this accent, I wore jeans, I wore boots, I drove a pickup truck, so I was always getting this good-nature ribbing: ‘Foxworthy, you’re nothing but an old redneck from Georgia.'”

One night, after a gig outside Detroit, the creative spark happened.

“The club we were playing in was attached to a bowling alley that had valet parking. I said, ‘Wait a minute, if you don’t think you have rednecks, go look out the window,'” Foxworthy said. “I went back to the hotel (and) wrote ‘Ten Ways to Tell,’ never thinking it was gonna be a book, a calendar or a hook. It was just trying to write stand-up! I went back the next night and did it. Not only were people laughing, they were pointing at each other. I thought, ‘If I can write 10, can I write 20? Can I write 100?’ That was the way the whole redneck thing started.”

The popular shtick led to his debut comedy album “You Might Be a Redneck If … ” (1993).

“Every comedian, you need something they can identify you by, so people started going, ‘Oh, that’s that guy,'” Foxworthy said. “Warner Bros. approached me about doing an album. I said, ‘I don’t think people listen to comedy albums anymore.’ … The guy said, ‘If we sell 100,000 of them, we’ll all be throwing confetti.’ That album sold almost four million copies! … Literally, almost overnight it went from nobody knowing who you were to almost everybody knowing.”

His favorite “redneck” joke is one that he wrote about NASCAR.

“If your son’s name is Dale Jr. and your name’s not Dale, you might be a redneck,” he joked.

He followed up by recording the popular spoof carol “The Redneck 12 Days of Christmas,” replacing the famous “partridge in a pair tree” with “some parts to a Mustang GT.”

“The funny thing is my kids were babies then and they’d never seen the video,” Foxworthy said. “Somebody was putting together a (video) package on me. … My oldest daughter walks in and goes, ‘Dad, you can’t let other people see this,’ because I had on an elf costume with striped leggings, curled up shoes and pointed ears. I said, ‘Baby, this has been on TV a million times.’ … So, I was able to embarrass my children on a level that exceeded most fathers.”

Soon, he landed his own TV sitcom with ABC’s “The Jeff Foxworthy Show” (1995-1997).

“Most people get into stand-up because it’s a great springboard into TV and movies — Eddie Murphy, David Spade or Adam Sandler — but once they do TV and movies, they don’t really do stand-up anymore,” Foxworthy said. “(My) first couple of albums sold millions of copies and ABC was like, ‘Let’s milk this,’ and wanted me to do a sitcom. … I found out I really didn’t enjoy it. It was life-consuming. I wanted to be around my kids and I loved doing stand-up.”

So, he formed the Blue Collar Comedy Tour with Bill Engvall, Ron White and Larry the Cable Guy, his longtime friends from the stand-up scene dating all the way back to 1985 and 1986.

“We all met really early on when none of us were making money,” Foxworthy said. “When the ‘Kings of Comedy’ tour started, there was an article in an Atlanta newspaper that said, ‘This is a show for the urban, hip audience.’ I called Engvall and said, ‘We’ve played all 50 states and there’s tens of millions of people who aren’t urban and aren’t hip. … I think we should do a show for them.’ He laughed and said, ‘What would you call it?’ I said, ‘Eh, the Blue Collar Tour.'”

When the tour took off, they were stunned by the massive success.

“We all cleared three months to do this and we ended up doing the first tour for three years. It was crazy,” Foxworthy said. “We went from Larry and Ron playing clubs, I was doing 2,500-seat theaters, and all of a sudden we’ve got 10,000 to 15,000 people a night. It was so much fun. The only negative thing about being a comic is you’re on the road by yourself — and for the first time in my life, I’m on the road with three of my buddies, we’re laughing all day, doing this at night, and looking at each other going, ‘I can’t believe they’re paying us to do this!'”

Foxworthy proceeded to offer juicy insights on his “Blue Collar” cohorts.

“(Ron) is the most naturally funny person I’ve ever met,” Foxworthy said. “Larry’s a little bit like the fair: after five minutes, you’re gonna feel better about your own family. … Engvall wanted to be famous more than any of us. … So one night, Larry called ahead and got the people to change the marquee in front of the arena. It said, ‘Welcome, Blue Collar boys, Jeff Foxworthy, Larry the Cable Guy, Ron White and That Other Fella.’ … ‘Here’s your sign, Bill!'”

After each comedian performed an individual set, they’d bring out stools for a four-way chat.

“When I was a kid I would watch the ‘Carol Burnett Show’ and my favorite thing was when they got each other laughing,” Foxworthy said. “The guys producing the tour wanted a big musical number at the end and I said, ‘Nah, let’s do the opposite. … Let’s just bring stools out and try to make each other laugh.’ … The first night we were in Omaha, Nebraska. … We brought the stools out and talked for 20-30 minutes, said good night and 9,000 people stood up! We looked at each other like, ‘Oh my gosh.’ That became our favorite part of the show.”

Fittingly, the Blue Collar Comedy Tour wrapped with its final stop at Warner Theatre in D.C.

“We sure did, which proves that it works everywhere,” Foxworthy said. “The people in New York and L.A. were telling us, ‘You guys aren’t hip. You’re not on the cutting edge.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, but we play everywhere! We have an audience everywhere.’ So it was kind of cool for the tour to validate that. I think to this day it’s still the No. 1 viewed thing on Comedy Central.”

More recently, Foxworthy hosted the Fox game show “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?”

“When you host something like that, people think you’re Alex Trebeck,” Foxworthy said. “I’m an idiot. We had a lady on with a grammar question about an antonym.’ … She said, ‘Can you use it in a sentence?’ And I said, ‘Umm … my aunt and ’em are coming over for dinner.'”

No matter what Foxworthy achieves in showbiz, he always finds his way back to stand-up.

“One of the coolest things is that decades later I’m still doing stand-up. I’ve enjoyed other things: I write books, paint, all kinds of other stuff, but if you put a gun to my head and said you can only do one thing, without a doubt it would be stand-up comedy. There’s just something really intimate about it. It’s that live show and you get that immediate reaction. Seinfeld still does it, Leno still does it, there’s some of us, at our heart, that’s just who we are.”

Find more details on the Kennedy Center website. Hear our full chat with Jeff Foxworthy below:

WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with Jeff Foxworthy (Full Interview) (Jason Fraley)
WTOP's Jason Fraley previews Jeff Foxworthy at Kennedy Center (Jason Fraley)
Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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