The Blue Collar Comedy gang went their separate ways six years ago with the release of One For the Road. But it’s a lucrative franchise, and Jeff Foxworthy, Bill Engvall and Larry the Cable Guy enjoy each others’ company, so it was bound to resurface in some form. Them Idiots: Whirled Tour is not quite the Blue Collar Comedy Tour, but it’s damn close. Ron White is gone, and his sly wit with him. His absence makes this a much more PG affair, more in line with the network standards at CMT, on which Them Idiots originally aired. The new guy is host Reno Collier, a younger, real-life Hank Hill eager to please both the audience and his employers.
Foxworthy, Engvall, and Larry the Cable Guy deliver with fast-food consistency; sticking to the script is what has made them millionaires several times over. Every comedian works to develop an identity and establish an audience, but where some pander with a shtick – the catchphrases, the marketing-driven subject matter – others focus on an engaging voice, allowing the audience to see the process through which they filter the world at large. Here’s where it gets complicated: the Blue Collar comics, to some extent, rely on both; the success or failure of the comedy lies in the balance between voice and shtick.
Foxworthy and Engvall are very similar comedians. Each has his own franchised catchphrase (Foxworthy’s “You might be a redneck if…” and Engvall’s “Here’s your sign!”), both are talented storytellers, knowing how to spread out punchlines so there are no lulls in tales that are several minutes long, and both portray themselves as the Blue Collar Everyman for which they named the original tour.
Those skills are utilized on Them Idiots. The centerpiece of Engvall’s set is a story about getting called for jury duty. He fights to be released from it, which turns out to be a mildly humiliating exercise. The bailiff asks for an autograph, but the judge not only asks him what he does for living, but whether or not he’s successful. Not even the possibility of him using the trial as fodder for his act gets him off. It’s solid stuff, well-written and well-paced.
Foxworthy has been writing redneck jokes for page-a-day calendars since 1990, and reveals the secret of his deep well. “Sadly, the answer is all I do is go to family functions,” he says. He recounts going to a cousin’s “hurry-up” wedding in Alabama that was also BYOLC – bring your own lawn chair – and the altar was the redwood deck of an above-ground pool. Again, the story is well-written and well-paced. It’s a good balance between that shtick – the redneck jokes – and Foxworthy’s voice as a storyteller and a guy nonplussed by the depth of his own family’s redneck tendencies.
But Engvall and Foxworthy both indulge in dull, pandering material that is beneath their abilities. At some point during their respective sets, each talks about henpecked men whose women withhold sex. Both are frustrated by tech support. Engvall doesn’t like the automation, and Foxworthy is bothered by the fact that the support staff is in India. These routines are surgically targeted at the Regular Joe audience and have been covered in the same way by any number of comedians for a decade. They are so rote it’s hard to imagine they are anything but calculated to be part of the Blue Collar image.
Of the three, Larry the Cable Guy possesses the worst balance between voice and shtick. The shtick extends to his uniform: the camouflage baseball cap and the ever-present plaid shirt with the sleeves torn off. He sprinkles his set with corny colloquialisms, saying he’s madder than a blind guy at a silent movie or a hunchback at a limbo contest. He flashes more brand names than NASCAR. And he adapts street jokes, like his bit about running his cart into a midget at Walmart. When Larry asks him if he’s okay, the Little Person replies, “I’m not happy,” to which Larry inquires, “Well, which one are you?”
The character is tiresome, but Larry is more adept with shorter jokes sprinkled through his set. He says he looks good for 48, adding, “You know how I stay so young? I read at a third-grade level.” Unfortunately the positives get overwhelmed with clichés, some of his own making. The most surprising thing about him is revealed in the traditional Blue Collar ending when all three comics come out, and he unveils a beautiful singing voice and hidden passion for show tunes.
Foxworthy, Engvall and Larry the Cable Guy provide ample ammunition for critics who would dismiss them, which is a shame, considering their abilities. But that’s part and parcel of creating a franchise and keeping it afloat. Shtick is just easier to sell.