Ordinarily, the headliner shambles out onto the vast stage in ratty jeans, filthy cap and plaid work shirt with the sleeves torn off. Tonight in Minneapolis, it’s the same getup, but he glides onto the stage on a Polaris four-wheeler like Caesar entering Rome on a chariot.
“Git-r-done!” he growls as he hops off the machine, letting the long gutteral drawl hang in the air with twinkling eyes. Will he start out complaining about last night’s foul chili dog? Only indirectly: “Ah tell you whut, ah ain’t been this excited since ah found a quarter in muh poop.”
The sellout crowd roars approval. Larry the Cable Guy is home.
Celebrating his 20th year in comedy (“and my second year of making people laugh,” he’s quick to add), the artist formerly known as Dan Whitney stands as the world’s most visible — and polarizing — rube humorist.
Year after year he tears up America’s arenas as one of the all-time highest-grossing road acts, and a dominating cable presence. Meanwhile the college-educated revile him, and mainstream media have no use for the politically incorrect good ol’ boy who rattles off 10 jokes a minute and even stands behind the groaners: “That’s funny right there, I don’t care who y’are.”
To his buddies in the disbanded Blue Collar Comedy Tour and current Them Idiots Whirled Tour — with three years of record-breaking cross-country treks spawning hit movies, specials and CDs — Larry is solid gold.
“The first time I ever saw him perform, it was as close to a rock concert audience as I’d ever seen in comedy — guys cheering and fist-pumping,” recalls Bill Engvall. “It’s not my audience, but God, it’s great for him. The people who love him, love him without reservation.”
Adds Blue Collar/Idiots brethren Jeff Foxworthy: “He was used to doing these little clubs, and the first night we’re in an arena with 10,000 people. I remember thinking, ‘I hope he can handle this,’ and we pull the stools over and I look at him and think, ‘He’s not shakin’, he’s not sweatin.’ It was like he’d been doing it his whole life.”
J.P. Williams, who manages Larry, Bill and Jeff, sums up his cable guy as “hard-core, NASCAR, grass-roots middle America.”
The made-up character has real-life roots. “I grew up on a pig farm in a Nebraska town of 1,200,” says Whitney. His preacher father taught him verbal rhythms, and he learned where to draw comic lines while listening to storytelling farmers. “There were f-bombs flying and lots of ‘sons-of-bitches,’ but there wasn’t a lot of J.C.’s or G.D.’s.”
He dropped out of college to work the Florida circuit. “One night a bunch of jokes fell flat, and looking for something to do, I said, ‘Does this guy ever come over to your house?’ And I kinda pulled my pants up and stuck my gut out, and said, ‘Hey, did yew order cable? Wull, somebody’s ordered sumpin ‘ere. Don’t worry, we’ll git-r-done.’ And I did this five-minute routine and it killed.”
“Larry” began calling in to local radio stations and developed a following. “I wanted to do social commentary like Archie Bunker, but I wanted people to like him. It was the Howard Stern principle of saying something funny but also a little shocking, so people would gasp and then go, ‘Ah, that’s just him, he don’t mean nuthin’ by it.’ If you do that, they’ll tune in again.
“And this was the ’90s on radio. You could do pretty much anything you wanted as long as you didn’t cuss. Larry was political — I wasn’t! But I started taking all of my usual jokes, slowing down the pace and adding this thick drawl, and it was just killing.”
When the comic sought new management, Williams stepped in. “I got him on the path of realizing he was being undersold,” says Williams. “He was making $5K a night when he should’ve been making $20K.”
Now the Cable Guy routinely rakes in 10 times that as he lifts the veil on his family’s most intimate details. “Y’ever seen your parents havin’ sex? Happened to me two days ago. That’s the last time I go onto that website. … My wife said, ‘let’s run upstairs and have sex,’ I said, ‘you gotta pick one, I can’t do both.’ Ended up having sex on the couch downstairs — pissed off the manager of the Holiday Inn, I tell you that. … My momma just got a butt lift and I think it got lifted a little too high — she farted and made a sound only dogs could hear.”
He’s everyone’s brother-in-law or co-worker who makes us wince: “Gas prices are higher than a bunch of Mexicans at a Los Lobos concert.” “Ah’m as happy as Jim Nabors with a whole wheelbarrow full of butt holes.”
“Larry’s an equal opportunity offender,” Foxworthy chuckles. “He just picks up on the things we all say. You laugh at Larry and then shake your head and go, ‘I can’t believe he said that.’ ”
Even harder to believe is the merchandising of the ubiquitous catchphrase. To its creator, “Git-r-done is an all-American work-ethic phrase. Whatever you’ve gotta do, give it 110%.”
But he tosses it in at arbitrary, crowd-rousing moments, and Engvall recalls, “Foxworthy and I would look at each other: ‘What the hell does that mean?!’ ”
“He has a hook with no punch line, and people love it,” says Williams, and it makes Larry the most licensed comic on the circuit by far. “It’s well beyond T-shirts and underwear, whether it’s mud flaps for tractor trailers or press-on belly buttons, tattoos or lighters that light up ‘Git-r-done.’ At one point, east of the Mississippi in convenience stores alone, he was probably grossing about $20 million a year.”
Despite his wealth, perhaps no one in show business lives a simpler life. He resists L.A. and New York, splitting his time among Florida, Nebraska and Wisconsin and accepting only gigs that fit around his family’s activities. His Git-R-Done Foundation has donated millions to child advocacy causes, families in crisis and the fight against hip dysplasia (a condition with which the Whitneys’ son was born).
Yet Rodney Dangerfield got more respect. Williams still burns at the failure of Comedy Central, after huge ratings for Blue Collar’s specials, to package a talk show or animated series. “They’d rather put all their money behind people like Demetri Martin and Sarah Silverman because they think that’s what’s fuckin’ cool. … Their arrogance of not respecting the brand! To build it and then walk away, where’s the sense in that?”
Executives, he believes, “don’t want to go to Hollywood parties and have someone come up to them and say, ‘You greenlit that show?’ ” (Williams brought his next special, “Them Idiots,” directly to CMT.)
Letting media scorn roll off his back, Whitney gets a little defensive when charged with working blue. “I just counted my act the other day. I did 368 punchlines, and probably 340 of them I had already done on ‘The Tonight Show.’ And they always say, ‘Oh, he does all those fart jokes.’ But one of George Carlin’s most famous bits was a fart routine.” The criticism “actually makes me want to do more fart jokes, to piss ’em off,” he says.
“I try to follow Steve Martin’s rule. He had some jokes that were really clever, and some that were flat-out stupid but they were funny. So I try to take really good, well-written jokes, and then mask them with something that’s stupid and ignorant.”
Foxworthy says: “Even if you don’t like his act, if you ever sat down with him, you’d like him. He’s one of the kindest, sweetest people.”
Williams concurs: “This guy has more charm in his pinky than most of the people the networks hire.”
The manager says about all his Blue Collar guys, “They’ve never forgotten where they came from. They have a sense of respect, which they’ve earned, but never one of entitlement.”
Whitney would consider straight acting some time, maybe the sort of thing Dangerfield did in “Natural Born Killers.” But for now he has his one-nighters, and the just-renewed History series “Only in America With Larry the Cable Guy.” In between, he and his wife manage the philanthropy.
“Entertainment is entertainment, but this is real life. And when you can take your job and give back, it makes you feel so flippin’ good.”
So what does he want on hi
s tombstone? Quickly blurting and withdrawing one idea (“I think some other comic said that first”), he thinks hard as you await the inevitable twist on “Git-r-done.” But as so often, Larry the Cable Guy surprises.
“This ain’t funny,” he growls. “I don’t care who y’are.”
Larry the Cable Guy: No universal appeal, no problem | Americana as viewed through Larry’s lens | Git-R-Done Foundation’s wide reach | Larry the Cable Guy’s rise from rube