Comedian's blue-collar antics a nationwide success

It’s not easy to launch a TV career if you refuse to live in California, but Dan Whitney aka “Larry the Cable Guy” proves it’s not impossible.

“It’s like wanting to be on Broadway, but you don’t want to move to New York,” says Whitney’s manager J.P. Williams. “But we’ve made it work.”

Whitney’s all about gittin’ ‘er done, parlaying his popular redneck character into a solid TV ratings winner despite being based in his home state of Nebraska.

Comedy Central’s “Celebrity Roast” of Larry the Cable Guy remains one of the highest overall rated roasts for the network, grabbing 4.1 million viewers in 2009. In comparison, the net’s March 15 Donald Trump roast garnered 3.5 million total viewers.

After stints with the WB’s “Blue Collar TV” (2004) and Comedy Central’s “Blue Collar Comedy Tour” specials, Whitney is gearing up for a second season of “Only in America With Larry the Cable Guy” on History.

There was never a doubt Whitney’s backwoods humor had an audience. It was just a matter of finding the right fit. Although riding in the old WB’s solid middle-of-the-road ratings, “Blue Collar TV” proved short-lived. It ran for a full first season, then a broken second season in 2005-06.

“The ratings were not huge, but they were livable,” says AdWeek’s ratings watcher Marc Berman. “This was a show drawing in young males, which didn’t mesh with who the WB’s audience — young female — was. And it fell victim to a changing regime that wasn’t interested in a male-driven, largely Southern audience.”

As for Comedy Central, Williams says execs never took the plunge to offer Whitney or the other Blue Collar crew a talent deal despite the specials drawing good numbers.

“You may not think they are sexy, but they are a business and a brand,” Williams says. “We pull a number, and you’ve got to give it to History because they get that.”

“Only in America” offers a few segments with Larry exploring America’s stories, from taking etiquette lessons from Emily Post’s Vermont heirs to checking out Mark Twain’s celebrated jumping frogs in California’s Calaveras County.

The shooting schedule generally revolves around his extensive comedy tours, which take him all over the country.

“I could film and still live where I wanted,” Whitney says. “And it’s important to me to do a show that takes a good positive look at America.”

In the past, Whitney’s been hired only as Larry the Cable Guy. This series marked the first time he was given a shot at either playing the character or himself.

“For the most part, I do it as Larry, but I will fall out of character if it’s called for,” Whitney says. “If it’s a heartfelt moment, I’m not going to disrespect that. ‘Only in America’ is the most comfortable I’ve been with both the character and me.”

Still, even he’s a little surprised to find the undereducated Larry the Cable Guy on History.

“Me being on the History channel is like Charlie Sheen doing commercials for e-Harmony,” jokes Whitney.

But Dirk Hoogstra, History VP of development and programming, says Larry with a touch of Whitney form a perfect fit for the net.

“Only in America” began as a special “Hillbilly: The Real Story,” hosted by Billy Ray Cyrus. The show exposed viewers to Appalachia’s hollers to explore the colorful and diverse mountain folk.

“Every time we put that special on, it was pulling these big numbers,” Hoogstra says. “So when we were considering how to convert that into a series, Larry popped into my head.”

Hoogstra approached several producers to bring the project with Larry the Cable Guy to History. After a few unsuccessful attempts to attach the comedian to the show, Hoogstra turned to Craig Piligian CEO and producer at Pilgrim Films & Television (“Dirty Jobs”) to land Whitney.

Within two weeks, the deal was signed.

Hoogstra felt Larry/Whitney was key to the success of the show.

“(Whitney’s) a history buff and (Larry’s) got a built-in fan base,” Hoogstra says. “Larry telling American history with a comedic bent works well. And people love him.”

Hoogstra appreciated Larry the Cable Guy’s strong, male-driven audience, but the unknown factor was the comic’s ability to connect as an interviewer.

“It doesn’t always work in a channel like ours to take a celebrity out of context, but he happens to be really funny, curious and his nature is to be inquisitive,” Hoogstra says. “He puts people at ease, makes them comfortable and the history comes through their stories.”

In the freshman season, “Only in America” averaged about 2.4 million viewers per episode, and more importantly, the series increased the numbers in that timeslot by 66%.

“What he did for us is build out a new night,” Hoogstra says. “Having a guy who can build a night is just a huge success story. Now we can launch new series from that night.”

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