Redneck Repartee

By Gary Goettling
High Tech Redneck

Everyone makes fun of Atlanta traffic, but Jeff Foxworthy makes a living at it. "Atlanta's the only place I've ever been where people drive 70 miles per hour, bumper-to-bumper In most places, people do one or the other--but not both," he said, in a voice tinged with awe and hometown pride.

Foxworthy, a member of the class of 1979, said that he has been a stand-up comedian most of his life. But for the past eight years, he's been getting paid for it.

"I was always funny, but I had no idea that you could do this for a living," he said. "All the stuff I got into trouble for doing at Tech is the stuff that I'm getting paid for now. It sure beats working."

It sure sounds like work. Foxworthy spends about 48 weeks a year on the road, doing 500 shows at comedy clubs across the country. He has opened for such top-billed acts as Garth Brooks, Jay Leno, Dennis Miller, Jerry Seinfeld, Eddie Rabbit and Wynton Marsalis. In 1990, he was named Club Comic of the Year by the American Comedy Awards.

He has a strong Atlanta following, and his frequent appearances at local comedy nightclubs are consistent sellouts. Foxworthy returns to Georgia Tech on Oct. 30 for one show at the Theatre for the Arts.

Television is attracting a growing audience for Foxworthy, who received his first national exposure on a 1989 Home Box Office special with Rodney Dangefireld. But the medium's most coveted venue for an up-and-coming comic is a spot on "The Tonight Show." How Foxworthy got there is pure Hollywood.

"I was filling in at the Comedy Magic Club in Hermosa Beach for somebody who got sick," he said. "Afterward, the guy who runs the club came back and asked why I hadn't been on "The Tonight Show." He said, 'I'm going to have Jay come see you'--he was friends with Jay Leno. He had Jay and I work together a the club one night, and Jay got me on the show."

Foxworthy's television credits also include several appearances on "Comic Strip Live" and "Evening at the Improv," a Bob Hope special, and appearances on the Showtime cable channel.

Foxworthy's observational style of humor is pretty clean by today's standards. "I'm not malicious on stage. I'd feel really bad if I ever hurt anybody's feelings up there."

"I talk mostly about my life," he said. "Ninety-five percent of what comics say is true. We elaborate on it and exaggerate it, but we don't sit around and make stuff up

"My brother and I were talking one day and he said, 'Do you remember the time we saw grandma naked?' And I figured that just about everybody has seen a relative without their clothes on, so I put that story into my act."

Foxworthy began accumulating the life experience he would later use on stage while growing up in Decatur and Hapeville, Ga. He enrolled at Tech in 1976 as an industrial management major with the idea of spending his life as an engineer. Fortunately, it didn't work out. He was in his fourth year at IBM, where he did mainframe maintenance, when a group of co-workers urged him to try out at the Punch Line in Sandy Springs.

Jeff Foxworthy
Tech alumnus Jeff Foxworthy

"I'd never even been to a comedy club," Foxworthy said, but after reconnoitering a Tuesday Amateur Night, he decided to give it a shot. He prepared five minutes of material, and called the club to let them know his intention.

"The following Tuesday was going to be the first week of a contest they've done for years called the Great Southeastern Laugh-off," he said. "It's just open to working comics, so they said, 'Why don't you wait until the end of the summer when the contest is completed, then try again on amateur night?'

"At that point I was really had my heart set on going up, so I got all the people that I worked with at IBM to call the Punch Line and ask, 'Is Jeff Foxworthy going to be on Tuesday night? If so, we'd like to make reservations for 30 people.'

"Of course, none of them showed up, but after getting about 50 phone calls, the Punch Line was saying, 'Yeah, yeah, he's going to be on.'

"I knew two minutes into it that this is what I wanted to do," Foxworthy said.

What's more, he won the contest.

For the next several months Foxworthy led two lives. By day, he was the funniest engineer at IBM; at night, he traded mainframes for microphones, polishing his routines at any place in Atlanta that would give him a stage.

On New Year's Eve, 1984, Foxworthy said goodbye to Big Blue and drove to Birmingham, Ala., for his professional debut at the Comedy Club.

"Looking back, it was probably the stupidest thing I ever did," he laughed. "I didn't know how high the odds are against making it, or just how difficult it is. Sometimes I guess it s a good thing not to be armed with a whole lot of information.

"The first year, I was making less than half the money I made at IBM. I was almost living out of my car. I might do a show Saturday night in Sarasota, Fla., and Sunday night in Nashville. It's very difficult in the beginning because nobody knows you, so you don't have any representation--no agents or managers. You're out there on your own, selling yourself.

"My parents thought I had lost my mind--until I started getting on television. Then they were saying, 'You should have been doing comedy all along you wasted all those years at IBM.'"

Unlike many stand-up comics, Foxworthy's early career was remarkably free of hecklers, obnoxious drunks or uninvited stage partners. But there was one time....

"This place on Roswell Road was called Scooter's Neon Cowboy," Foxworthy said. "It had three levels, and you could see down from every level to the dance floor. It was a Christmas party with about 500 people, and I was on the dance floor performing, but nobody was listening. I don't think anybody knew I was there, except for a bunch of drunks on the third level. They were taking napkins and dipping them into their drinks, and then trying to hit me in the head with them. So not only am I performing for 500 people who aren't listening, I'm trying to dodge these wet napkins.

"When I finish, nobody claps. I walked over to the guy in charge and said 'Can I just get my money and go home?' and he said, 'We don't have any money.'

"I was too embarrassed to even fight him about it."

The third-floor revelers at the Neon Cowboy might have qualified as authentic rednecks, a topic in which Foxworthy displays considerable authority. He has written three joke books on the subject, with a premise best summed up by the title of his first effort, You Might Be a Redneck If . . . ("You might be a redneck if your family tree doesn't fork.") A fourth, titled Check Your Neck, is due out in September.

High Tech Redneck

Foxworthy's Redneck series has sold 250,000 copies, which he attributes to the ubiquity of good ol' boys and gals. "Redneck is a state of mind," he asserts. "There's a little of it in everyone." But Foxworthy is sensitive to Southern stereotypes, and avoids them in his books and his act. "I'm not about to say that we don't have more than our share, but rednecks are everywhere. It's nothing to do with where you were raised."

Foxworthy and his wife, Pamela Gregg, also an Atlanta native and an actress, moved to Los Angeles two and a half years ago. "I'm here because of the work," said Foxworthy, who recently wrote a TV sitcom pilot that he hopes to sell and star in. 'Creatively, it is a lot of fun here because you find yourself hanging out and working with people you always looked up to--the best in the business."

Foxworthy said that the hardest part of his job has been learning to control his stage anxiety. "I remember the first night I worked full time, I was introducing Sinbad; he was shoving an eggroll into his mouth as he walked on stage. I told my wife that my goal is to be able to eat before I go on. I used to get so nervous, I couldn't eat on the day of the show."

He gets the most nervous before going on "The Tonight Show." On July 20, Foxworthy made his 95th appearance on the program. He brought some new material, gleaned from his experience as a father to an eight-month old daughter, Jordan.

"You have got to change those diapers every single day. When it says 6 to 12 pounds on the side of the Pampers box, they're not lying--that is all those things will hold.

"Changing a diaper is kinda like opening a birthday present from your grandmother. You never know what's inside, but you're pretty sure you're not gonna like it."

Inside, Foxworthy may have felt like a Nervous Wreck from Georgia Tech; but on the outside, he was smooth, composed, and incredibly funny.

"I'm glad my daughter's cute, because there' ain't nothing worse than people that have ugly kids and don't know it.... My wife and I have friends who have the ugliest kid you've ever seen. They walked out of the pet store with this child and the alarm went off."