Who Inherited the Mantle of the Humor of the Old Southwest?

The humor of the Old Southwest was regional in nature, although which parts of the country were considered the Southwest has changed radically in contemporary times. In the 1820s and 30s, the Southwest could have been anywhere from Ohio to Louisiana. The geographical area depended largely on where the moving target of the “frontier” was at any given time. Often the most well known humorists classified by critics as “southwestern” were neither born nor raised in the regional areas they wrote about. Johnson J. Hooper, who wrote the Simon Suggs stories, was born and raised in Ohio; however, he wrote about characters living in the relatively new areas of Alabama and Mississippi. George Washington Harris of Sut Lovingood fame was born in Pennsylvania and was later raised in Tennessee. Yet all of the humorists we think of as part of the Old Southwest school share the same characteristics in their writing. They feature backwoods, uneducated characters (like Sut Lovingood or Simon Suggs) whose vernacular dialect place them in the region of the frontier. They are all what we would call “street-savvy” today. Simon Suggs’ signature line is “It is good to be shifty in a new country.” They live on the outskirts of the law—law that is fluid at best in these areas. They are all primarily looking out for their own personal interests in their exploits. And in addition, the tales themselves most often involve slapstick humor; examples of slapstick include “Simon Suggs’ Daddy Acting Horse” or “Parson John Bullen’s Lizards.” Finally, tales from the Southwest generally have similar, predictable plot lines: the fight, the horse swap or race, camp meeting cons, and courting games.

The primary advantage of slapstick is that it remains transferable to any time and place, making them more easily teachable. When I teach a humor course, students tend to think anything written earlier than their own lifetimes is “not laugh-out-loud funny;” however, the slapstick stories appeal universally. After all, who wouldn’t laugh about a lizard dropping down a fat lady’s dress or a middle-aged man pretending to be a horse (and hooked up to a plow)? But the fact remains that most of the stories included among the Old Southwest have little relationship to the present day. That being the case, one might question the relevance of teaching these pre-Civil War stories in the contemporary classroom. One of the best reasons is that while the situations might have changed for slapstick Southwestern humor’s relevancy, the humor itself is still alive and well, and demonstrated in much more contemporary humorists. James Cox in The Fate of Humor and Walter Blair in Mark Twain and Huck Finn, the two earliest and most well known, have designated Mark Twain’s work as the culmination of the Southwestern tradition in American Humor. In his most recent Collection (Southern Frontier Humor: New Approaches, 2014), Ed Piacentino sees the future of the Southwestern tradition in the authors from the South who come after them. William Faulkner’s Snopeses are nothing more than a clan of Sut Lovingoods or Simon Suggses. Other authors have cited their influence on the grotesques of Southern Gothic humor—the most well known being Flannery O’Connor. It seems clear that these authors have inherited the spirit of the Old Southwest, and even some of the situations and plots as well. However, as the audience for this type of humor shifted, as the frontier itself moved on past what we would recognize as the southwestern frontier, and as technology moved on past the horse and carriage (and even the book in this current moment), the mantle of Southwestern humor appears to belong to stand up comedy.

The fact is, that while we may believe ourselves much more sophisticated than our Civil War predecessors, we still enjoy a good laugh at the rubes from the country. Trucks and souped up cars have replaced horses as both transportation and as competition, spawning jokes about NASCAR’s fans. “People of Walmart” stand in for the country rubes at the camp meetings. But what remains the same is our propensity to laugh at Southern dialects and the cruder humor that was the Old Southwest’s hallmark. Often these stand up the artists who represent humor south of the Mason-Dixon line perform in small comedy clubs or night clubs around the country, but most recently, the Blue Collar Comedy Tour has taken advantage of the explosion of media venues to increase their visibility (and revenue). While these four comedians (Jeff Foxworthy, Bill Engvall, Ron White, and Larry the Cable Guy) are certainly not the only comedians to use the Old Southwest as a jumping off point for humor, they are arguably the most well known.

The most obvious of the four as a contemporary Old Southwest humorist is Larry the Cable Guy (Daniel Laurence “Larry” Whitney). ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Larry_the_Cable_Guy) His stand up comedy routines mirror the cruder humor and situations of earlier Southwesterers such as George Washington Harris’s Sut Lovingood. His act centers on body and bowel humor—the fart joke, the poop joke, and comedy that centers on the humorously dysfunctional family. While he has clearly updated these standards to meet the 20th and 21st century, the hallmarks are present. For a sample of his routine, see this Youtube video:

 

Jeff Foxworthy’s career signature features a series of one-liners following the “You might be a redneck if…”

tag line, to which he added material from existing stereotypes of people and things Southern. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jeff_Foxworthy#Comedy_albums). His routines highlighted the fact that the designation of redneck has less to do with the region of origin and more with a mindset. He began his “redneck” series of one-liners by focusing on Southern country folk, but has since expanded it to include Walmart people from all necks of the woods, demonstrating that your neck might be red no matter where you live; later versions of the bit begin with “Check your neck” rather than “You might be a redneck if..” to accommodate this shift in focus.

Bill Engvall’s early work featured “Here’s your sign..”

These bits are generally longer narratives than Foxworthy’s one-liners, and while rooted in the South, do not depend upon location for the humor. They are more linguistic in nature, and follow a format in which the person who is the butt of the joke asks a question that, though logical on its face, is negated by the statement that comes before, making him or her look foolish.

Ron White (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ron_White) , the fourth member of the group, on the surface seems a less likely match to the 19th century Southwest Humorists. While some of the crudities and more off-color jokes are present in his routine, his language seems more intellectual. He routinely appears on stage with a cigar and a scotch, and offers a more “formal” stage presence. His act distills the Southwest into a perhaps more palatable and sophisticated type of humor—more in line with Mark Twain, whom James Cox, Walter Blair, and others have deemed the culmination of Southwestern humor. His resemblance to Twain’s own lecture work depends upon what Jeffrey Steinbrink has called the “snapper.” During his lectures for the Redpath circuit, Twain used two specific hallmarks of humor—the deadpan delivery, in which the humorist shows no emotion or humor himself, and seems to have no idea what he is saying is funny, and a build up of final one-liners, each one playing off of the previous one. Twain could stretch these to as many as three or four. In his stand up comedy acts for HBO, White has also delivered as many as four related “snappers” through several bits of his routine.


As inheritors of this tradition, we as audience run the risk of equating the level of sophistication of the humorist with that of the unsophisticated country types they depict in the personas they have chosen. This was also often true of the original 1820s and 30s humorists of the Old Southwest. In reality, all of the authors of the Old Southwest from this tradition were well educated—many were doctors or lawyers—yet they chose to represent as characters the uneducated but crafty, shrewd or sly con men of the frontier. In much the same way, Foxworthy, Whitney, White and Engvall’s lives and work bely their stand up images. While their personas might lead one to believe the images they put forward and their personal lives are one and the same, in actuality, all four are clever, well educated (White is the only one of the four who did not attend a university), and well-versed in employing media for purposes of promotion nationwide and even internationally. Foxworthy, in addition to his comedy club work and presence on the Blue Collar Comedy Tour(s), has written several books of humor: three versions of Jeff Foxworthy’s Redneck Dictionary (2005,6,7), How to stink at Golf (2008), How to Stink at Work (2009), and several children’s books. He has appeared on radio in various venues, hosted a game show Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader, a sitcom named after him, and a country music countdown. White has also hosted his own variety show (2005)and has taped appearances on other shows. Whitney has focused more closely on radio, making appearance or hosting shows on stations from WJRR in Orlando, FL. to WHEB in Portsmouth, NH among others. Bill Engvall also starred in his own television comedy did a stint as a game show host for Lingo on the Game Show Network, and made an appearance on Dancing with the Stars.

As the most obvious inheritors of this long-standing tradition, These four gentlemen represent the shift that “frontier” humor has undergone since those pre-Civil War days. For Harris, Hooper, Baldwin, and the others, the only venue for publication/promotion was the newspaper, the men’s magazines such as William T. Porter’s Spirit of the Times, or a book of collected sketches. The addition of media between the 1830s and the present, and these humorists’ ability to know and make use of it, has allowed for a greater saturation of their humor across the country and across the globe. Far from being an artifact, the humor of the Old Southwest is alive and well and living on the radio, television, and Internet.

©  2014 Janice McIntire-Strasburg

Saint Louis University

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One response

  1. Re: “Who Inherited the mantle of the Humor of the Old Southwest?” It is a minor mistake, but the correct title of the story is “Sut Lovingood’s Daddy, Acting Horse,” not Simon Suggs. Tom Inge

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