A candid conversation with Jeff Foxworthy
'That's always been my number one fear: I don't want to be the old comic that stayed at the game too long.'
After three decades of performing, Jeff Foxworthy’s career is still as strong as ever. The comedian, who toured for three years on the popular Blue Collar Comedy Tour with Bill Engvall, Ron White, and Larry the Cable Guy, still performs all around the country. Widely known for his redneck jokes, his act goes well beyond that to explore the humor in everyday family interactions and human nature.
On top of that, he’ll be back hosting the revival of the popular game show "Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?" this May. Foxworthy is a busy man, but he always loves performing in his hometown. CL spoke to the Georgia native about his upcoming show at the Fox Theatre, the Atlanta Punchline, workshopping jokes, and his favorite gigs.
You’re performing at the Fox Theatre this weekend. You said in a recent press conference announcing the Fox Theatre’s 40th anniversary celebration of “Save the Fox” that, “If God said I only had one show left to perform on this Earth, I would pick the Fox Theatre.” What makes the Fox Theatre special?
I think it's a couple of things. Having grown up in Atlanta, I remember when they had the wrecking ball ready to tear it down. I mean, I had a “Save the Fox” bumper sticker on my truck in high school. I think, growing up, all the shows that I saw there back in those years, whether it was the Allman Brothers, or Skynyrd — it's the first place I saw Dan Fogelberg. I saw Harry Chapin. I was there the night Jimmy Buffett — in fact, it was two nights where he did a live album there — and so that was so much of my experience, and there's just something so cool about it. As somebody that's spent 30 years performing, there's just very few places left like that, those old, ornate theaters. And as old as it is, the sound in there is as good as it gets anywhere, especially for comedy because the best thing is when you can hear the laughs. Like, if I play in an outdoor amphitheater, the laughs don't really come down to you, so what you're doing is, you're watching people. “Okay, all right, they've almost finished laughing; let me do the next line.” But in the Fox, it's like a sweet little waterfall; it just all rolls down there to you.
It is such a beautiful venue.
And as pretty as it is from the audience, looking up and around, it's even prettier from the stage. You just look out and go, "Oh my God. This place is just awesome. Who would have thought of tearing this down?"
Yes, that would be such a shame. Unfortunately, there's another place that I know you have a history with, which is the Atlanta Punchline Comedy Club and it just closed down its original home and is relocating. What are your thoughts on the move?
I think it's just sad. I guess things like that happen. That was one of those places that never had to do with — I mean, I don't know that they ever spent $20 bucks on improving anything with it laughs. So it wasn't like you looked at it and went, "Oh, the décor is so beautiful in here," or, "The floor is so clean," but you think about over 30 years, the people that had stood on that stage and done comedy, it's like the who's who of stand-up for the last three decades. Every comic I knew, that was a special place to them. That room just had such a vibe to it, and even for me, in the days of doing Blue Collar tours where we were playing 15,000 and 20,000 seat arenas, if I was working on new stuff, that's where I would do it. Just go back, like on a Sunday night with 70 or 80 people there, and go, "Hey, is this funny? Is this not funny?" There was just such an intimacy to it. I know they're planning on relocating; I just hope they find something that has that same vibe when they do it.
I've heard from people who've seen you drop in at the Punchline recently that you have an interesting system for working out jokes and taking notes. Could you tell me your process?
Stand-up is a strange job, because you think about it, there's a lot of musicians, and there's a lot of actors, but there's very few people that make stand-up their life's work. There's people that'll get popular for a few years and then they'll just go away, but there's not a whole lot of people that, 30 years later, that's what they're doing. You would think, after three decades of doing it, that as you were preparing and as you were writing that you would know what would work and what wouldn't work. You would think that would be the advantage of 30 years, and you never do. I mean, if I sat there and wrote — and I always write things on note cards — but if I was sitting there with you before I went up at the Punchline and you said to me, "Okay, out of this stack of thirty jokes, which ones do you think will work?" Say I picked five of them or ten of them, at best, I would be 50 percent right, because the things that I think, "Oh, they're going to love this," they stare at you, and the things you think, "Oh, this is just stupid," and you throw it out there, and people are snotting on themselves and you're like, "Really?" That's why you require an intimate little place like that.
So — and I've done this forever — I set up boxes, like, three boxes. I'd have a handful, fistful of note cards. One box was gold, like the Olympic gold. Gold meant, “that's great, that's a keeper;” Silver meant, “kind of a good idea, but you need to keep working on it;" and the last was Certificate of Appearance, meaning, “thank you for showing up; you're never going to be seen again” laughs. So as I would do these things, I'd let the audience — I'd tell the thing, they'd laugh, and then they'd say "Gold!" or "Certificate of Appearance!" And I trust them on that, and I'd throw the thing in there. If it went in Certificate of Appearance, nobody ever heard it again. But the nice thing for me, after 30 years, like if something was silver, and it kind of got a laugh, I could stop and just go, "Okay, is that not funny or you didn't understand what I was?" They would go, "Well, when you started talking, we didn't know what you were talking about." I'm like, "Okay. Let me go work on the setup better," which is kind of weird. Musicians don't really do that, going, "Did you like the chorus?"
For the audience, to me, that's kind of a fun process. I said to them — I'm working with a deal for a Netflix special, and so I said, "When you see this a year-and-a-half down the road, you're going to go, 'I was there the night he was first working on that.'" Obviously, it won't look like that a year-and-a-half later, but it's where it began.
That’s the thing with stand-up, you never know how people are going to respond. But what's good about it, unlike some other art forms where you create something and then wait for feedback, with stand-up, you get your audience’s instant reaction. The feedback is immediate.
That's, I think, the allure of stand-up. I remember in the mid-'90s when I was living in L.A. and doing %22The Jeff Foxworthy Show%22, we actually filmed next to "Seinfeld," and I remember talking to Jerry about that. That sitcom thing is such a grind, and it's just like, rehearse and rewrite, rehearse and rewrite, and then you shoot it, and then you're off doing the next one, so you don't even really have a sense of, “Is it good? Is it not good? Is it funny?” That's what we were saying. That's why, even in the midst of doing that, we would go do stand-up, because you knew two seconds after it was out of your mouth, it's either funny or not funny.
So you do get that instant feedback, and I just accepted a long time ago, the audience is always right. If they say that's funny, then that's funny. If they say it's not, no matter what I think, then it's not. For me, I guess I'm a little bit of a weird writer in that, I don't necessarily sit down and think, "All right, what's funny? What's funny? What's funny?" Hey, if I think of something, or my wife says something, or my family does it, then surely we're not the only ones, because I do think everybody has the thoughts that comedians have, but I think they think it and it just kind of goes on down the river, and you don't really examine it. So for me, when you're doing a show, and somebody goes, "Oh my God, I've done that," or, "Oh my God, I've thought that," you're like, "Yeah. I just grabbed it, polished it up and showed it to you."
You mentioned your sitcom, but in May, another show you work on, "Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader," is coming back. I read in an interview that you said that "5th Grader" was your favorite project that you've done.
Well, "5th Grader"'s my favorite TV thing I ever did, I think, which is so bizarre, because if you had said to me a decade ago, "Would you host a game show?" I would have laughed at you. I'd just been like, "No, that's too cheesy. That's hokey. I don't want to do that." When Mark Burnett called — and that's what he said, "Would you host a game show?" My first response was, "Nah, I don't think so." Then I asked, "What's the premise?" He said, "Adults taking an elementary school test for a shot at a million bucks." I just stopped and went, "That's brilliant,” because everybody's going to think they can do it. If somebody said to you, "Hey, take a third grade test for a million bucks," you're like, "Yeah," and then you find out you can't do it. In fact, it was weird because we did it two or three years on the network, and then we did it two or three years in syndication, but it's been probably three or four years since we filmed any new ones. And it was one of those things that, if I would be at the grocery store or Home Depot and people would come up and go, "They need to bring that '5th Grader' show back." You kind of smile and go, "Yeah, thank you," but in my mind, I was thinking, "They don't do that. Once they cancel a show, they don't bring a show back." So when Fox called in December and said, "If we brought '5th Grader' back, would you host?" I was like, "Really? Yes, absolutely."
Yeah. Very rarely does a network bring back a cancelled show, but lately that’s been a popular trend.
It's kind of one of those things with Fox, once they cancelled "5th Grader," nothing else they ever put in there did the kind of numbers we did. So maybe they just look at it from a business standpoint and went, "Hey, this show hit a nerve with people." I don't know, but it's fun to do. I guess the thing that appealed to me was, I didn't have to act like Alex Trebek and act like I knew all that stuff, and I could still use the comedian part of me to kind of get a laugh and mess with people, in a nice way, but I could still be funny. I didn't have to act like I knew it all too.
If you were on the show yourself as a contestant, do you think you'd get very far?
No laughs. Well in the old version, we got to where we would have celebrities come on and play for charity, and the kids were always going, "Jeff, you should play for charity!" I'm like, "Nah. It's just better if everybody thinks I'm an idiot than to prove them right." Because I had gotten to the point — I had the answers on that bottom card, and I would start a game and go, "All right, let me see how far I would get," and no. By the second or third grade, I was peeking at the answers.
I don’t think I’d do great either. I’m bad a bar trivia. So much of that stuff you learned in grade school was just in one year and out the other after the school year.
You think about some of that math stuff, like geometry and all, we never used that. I mean, you memorized it to take a test, but then your brain said, "Delete!" The brain's a weird thing. I'm thinking, "Why 50 years later do I still remember every word from the Gilligan's Island theme song, but I know nothing about triangles?" Your brain goes, "Keep that. Keep the Gilligan's Island thing, but throw the triangle stuff away."
Yes, we definitely just learned a lot of things just to pass a test. Well if "5th Grader" is your favorite TV project, what’s your favorite thing you’ve done in stand-up?
I'd say the Blue Collar thing, because the only bad thing about being a comic is, you're on the road by yourself. Just all the time, you know? With that, you were on the road with three friends. It was my idea, instead of some kind of big finale to the show, just flip that and bring four stools out and just let it be more intimate. Let people get to see us laugh at each other, and to all four of us, that was our favorite part of the show, just bringing those stools out and going, "Hey, tell this story,” or, “Tell that story." We all cleared out three months on our calendar and we ended up doing that first tour for three years because we were having a ball and the audience loved it. It's one of those things you didn't see coming and just went, "Oh, wow, that was cool." It really was.
Have you ever thought about doing it again?
I would. Ron, when he's on his own, is a lot bluer than the rest of us, and so, with that first one, kind of the cool thing about it was, if the special was on TV, if your parents walked in, you didn't have to turn it off, and you didn't have to turn it off if your teenage kids walked in. In my mind, that's the way I always wanted it to be where it was just funny. I asked Ron a few years ago, I'm like, "Ron, if we ever do that again, would you want to? ..." He was like, "Ah, I can't write 30 new minutes of clean material." I said, "Yeah you can. You did it for the other ones." He replies, "Okay, I'm too lazy to write 30 new minutes of clean material laughs." So, I don't know. Maybe somewhere down the road. It sure was fun.
I remember seeing the first special in middle school and that was my introduction to stand-up.
Yeah, because little kids don't get comedy. It's kind of those early teenage years when you kind of become aware of that, I think.
It's great today, now as an adult, I’m fully immersed in stand-up and I still get to watch some of the people who introduced me to it. For example, you mentioned Ron White, I've seen him so many times around town. It’s a nice surprise to see everyone still working, still doing it.
Yeah. Which, I think we're all lucky that way. Like I said, comics usually have short little windows of people enjoying them, and so I think all four of us have been kind of lucky that we've got to continue to do this, and people still enjoy it. Because that's always been my number one fear: I don't want to be the old comic that stayed at the game too long, where you're on stage and people are like, "Ah, crap, remember when he used to be funny?" I never want to be that guy.
[http://ev10.evenue.net/cgi-bin/ncommerce3/SEGetEventList?groupCode=JEF&linkID=fta&shopperContext=&caller=&appCode=#utma=193113138.2099713344.1427222974.1428950298.1428965920.3&utmb=193113220.127.116.118965920&utmc=193113138&utmx=-&utmz=193113138.1428965920.3.3.utmcsr=google|utmccn=(organic)|utmcmd=organic|utmctr=(not provided)&utmv=-&utmk=222387035|][http://ev10.evenue.net/cgi-bin/ncommerce3/SEGetEventList?groupCode=JEF&linkID=fta&shopperContext=&caller=&appCode=#utma=193113138.2099713344.1427222974.1428950298.1428965920.3&utmb=19311318.104.22.1688965920&utmc=193113138&utmx=-&utmz=193113138.1428965920.3.3.utmcsr=google|utmccn=(organic)|utmcmd=organic|utmctr=(not provided)&utmv=-&utmk=222387035|Jeff Foxworthy. $60.10-$169.85. Sat., April 18, at 7:30 p.m. Fox Theatre, 660 Peachtree St. N.E. 404-881-2100. www. foxtheatre.org.]