Born in farm country in Nebraska, Dan Whitney gravitated to comedy at a young age, and spent years developing a variety of characters onstage and on the radio. One of those characters—an exaggerated hick type named “Larry The Cable Guy”—caught on beyond the local club circuit, spawning albums and movies, and landing Whitney a spot on the Blue Collar Comedy Tour alongside fellow accented jokesters Jeff Foxworthy, Bill Engvall, and Ron White. Currently, Whitney can be heard in theaters reprising his role as the voice of Tow Mater in Cars 2, and he can be seen on the History Channel (and on the first-season DVD set) as the host of Only In America With Larry The Cable Guy, in which he travels the country trying out odd jobs and hobbies. Whitney recently spoke with The A.V. Club (as himself, not Larry) about Only In America, his comedy influences, and his response to the people out there who just can’t stand The Cable Guy.
The A.V. Club: How much input you have into what you do on Only In America?
Dan Whitney: If there’s an idea I come across that I really want to do, I’ll see if we can work it out. There are some things I’m trying to set up now. Like, we’re going to Alaska, because I think there’s some cool stuff up there. But generally, I like the producers to pick the stories, because I like it all to be spontaneous. All I want to know is where we’re going. I don’t even want to know what we’re doing, because that makes it funnier. Once I get there, I’ll write an introduction for what the show is going to be about. They say we’re going to be in Charlotte? Okay, we’ll be in Charlotte. We get there and they kind of tell me what it’s going to be about, but they don’t tell me who I’m going to talk to or what I’m going to do, which is how I want it.
AVC: Have you ever been in the middle of shooting a segment and thought, “Man, this sucks?”
DW: I end up enjoying all of it, honestly, because the interaction with the people is what makes it fun for me. But there have been some shows where I’ve gone in and said, “Well, how am I going to make this funny?” Or even interesting. Like when I went to Vermont, to the syrup place. Number one, there’s been like, 5,000 shows done on how to make syrup. And here I am with a guy that looks like Bob Hope, but he’s not funny. [Laughs.] So yeah, I was in this factory, bottling syrup, thinking to myself, “This is going to be difficult.” They all end up turning out really funny, but there are times where I’ve said, “This is frickin’ bullshit. Nobody gives a shit about how you take syrup out of a fuckin’ tree.” [Laughs.] Know what I mean? Pardon my French. But it ends up being good. You get a lot of facts out, so they all end up being good.
AVC: There are times on the show where in the heat of the moment, you—I don’t want to say “drop character,” but you do scale it back.
DW: No, you can say it. I drop character all the time. That’s one of the reasons I’m doing this show. When you go on Wikipedia, it says something like, “Every time you see him, he’s in character.” Which is such hogshit. I get so sick and tired of Wikipedia. People write their own crap on there. I’m out of character all the time. The only reason I’m ever in character as Larry The Cable Guy is because that’s what I’m hired to do. In my movies, obviously they hired Larry The Cable Guy to be Larry The Cable Guy. When I do my shows, I’m Larry The Cable Guy. When I do Jay Leno, it’s: “Please welcome Larry The Cable Guy.” The History Channel’s awesome, because they asked me, “How are you going to play this?” And I said, “I’ll tell ya, it’s going to be like when I’m hanging out with my buddies or when I meet people.” Y’know? Sometimes there’ll be an accent when I need to have an accent and be funny. Then other times, when I’m in a serious conversation, I’ll drop the accent.
Like when I did the show with the Art Car Parade. This is one of the ones where I said, “This is really going to suck,” but I had a great time and it ended up not sucking. I met this guy who’s typical of what show is about: “Only in America.” It was this Jewish guy from Israel, who all he could think of from the time he was a little kid was that he wanted to be an American. He wanted to move to America and be an American. So finally when he was old enough and he knew what he was doin’, he got him a green card and came to America with absolutely nothing. And he met this girl from Mexico who had absolutely nothing. Both of them worked hard and went through the channels, and I think within five years, both of them became citizens of the Untied States. Now the guy’s a millionaire because of woodworking, and it’s the perfect American story, and it’s awesome.
So when I was talking to this guy, I dropped character for most of the show. When I started to tell a joke to the guy, I would dip down into character, because that’s what I do. But dude, that guy and I were shedding tears about his story. I mean, we were. That’s what the show’s about. And so the History Channel gives me a chance to be myself a lot, which I really like. People go, “Oh, he was out of character!” Hey, it’s no secret. I’m not trying to be in character 24 hours a day.
AVC: “Larry The Cable Guy” was originally one of several different characters you did in your act, correct?
DW: Oh yeah. I did an old lady from Boca Raton, I did a gay guy. Jeez. I did a state trooper. I did a ton of stuff, y’know. It was radio. I was never a full-fledged part of a morning show, but when I had days off, they’d let me come in and be a sidekick, which I actually loved, because it helped me learn how to write stuff. What I would do was, I had them put a phone in, and anytime I picked the phone up, it went right to the hotline. I would pick the phone up and do, like, Bing Crosby. [Laughs.] Stupid shit, y’know? But it was fun. Larry was the only character I was doing in my act, too, and it just took off. I never thought it would take off like it did. But it did.
AVC: Was it just a matter of people responding to Larry and you writing more material for him? What made that character pop for you?
DW: Well, he’s just fun to write for. And I’m good at it, because I grew up with that. Wasn’t hard to write for him; wasn’t hard to get into character. I’ve been doing that character since I was 14, really. I grew up on a pig farm with nothing but 50- or 60-year-old cow farmers, so I was always able to drop in and out of that accent and that character. I enjoyed it from the start. I’d hook up with Jeff Foxworthy, y’know, with his background there growin’ up in Georgia and me growin’ up the way I did, and we used to sit at Atlanta Braves spring-training games together and riff jokes off each other and tell funny stories. It was just a fun thing to do.
AVC: What about the drawbacks to sticking mainly with this character? Some critics resist broad Southern types.
DW: Naw, man, critics? I don’t do my show for critics. Early on I did, because I’m a nice guy and I like to be liked by everybody, and I thought, “Hey, I’m just making people laugh, what’s the big deal?” There have been all different types of comics that appeal to all different types of people. Why rail on me? But yeah, they really don’t like Southern acts. But like I learned from Jeff a long time ago, who gives a shit? [Laughs.] I really don’t. I could care less what a critic says. A critic doesn’t buy a ticket to my show. Or if he does, fine. But that’s not who I perform for. Critics do what they do. Critics make a living ripping apart things people create, and if they go out and create something, they’ll see how it gets ripped apart too. That’s just part of the business. Whatever.
AVC: Why do you think there’s such animosity toward redneck-type characters?
DW: I have no idea. Jeff gets it too. Some people say we’re making fun of these types. Well, that’s funny, because this is how I grew up. Everybody I know knows somebody like Larry. Even in my own family, and with friends of mine, we laugh at it, because we go, “Ah, man, that’s just like Darrell.” [Laughs.] We know this guy! And he’s a great guy, but it’s still funny. We do things differently. We say things differently. I’ve got friends that make great points and are smart as whips. I will put them up against anybody, intellectually. It’s just that they go about saying things differently with their accent, which I find hilarious. Doesn’t make ’em bad people. Doesn’t make ’em stupid.
Look, what I do onstage, there’s maybe .0001 percent of the population that acts like that. I talk like that because it makes me laugh, and because I know a couple of people that talk like that. They’re really that Southern. And they do funny things. I love ’em; they’re awesome. They’re good people. I don’t judge people by their accent, or how they word things, or how grammatically correct their speech is. Some of the smartest men in the world couldn’t spell. I judge a person by their character. But people seem to think the minute you talk with a Southern accent, you’re in the Klan. [Laughs.] Which is ridiculous.
I mean, who knows? Some people are just angry people. I’m not an angry person; I’m a happy guy. I enjoy making people laugh, and that’s what it’s all about. And if people don’t understand that and they want to ridicule it, then more power to them. I don’t give a shit. I’ve got two great kids, I got an awesome wife, I got a great career, I got a lot of great fans, and that’s who I need to be concerned about. None of it could have happened without my fans. I was able to start a foundation—The Git-R-Done Foundation—about a year and a half ago, and we’ve already given away $8.3 million to kids and soldiers with spinal injuries, and also for abused kids and for kids and adults with hip dysplasia.
So that’s what I’m about. Some people, they just tear apart anything. I mean, they can’t even give me credit for doing a good job in Cars 2. There was one critic who said it was the worst movie Pixar had ever done, and the main reason? “Too much Larry The Cable Guy.” [Laughs.] Now that’s just a guy that’s bitter. That’s just a guy who doesn’t like me. The dumbest statement I read this year was, “Congratulations, Pixar, Mater is your Jar Jar Binks.” I just want to confront the guy and go, “Yeah, did Jar Jar Binks make $10 million of merchandise sales?” You know? They just say shit to say shit. They’re not even informed. Y’know, both Cars are great. They’re really great movies. John Lasseter loves them. People love them. We made $440 million worldwide, so evidently somebody liked it.
AVC: When you were first starting out, who were you trying to pattern yourself after? And who do you look to now among your peers?
DW: I was always a fan of the old-style comics. I loved vaudeville. I loved Milton Berle, Dick Shawn, Phyllis Diller, Don Rickles, Charlie Callas, all those guys. Hilarious. I love the Bing Crosby and Bob Hope movies, and Abbott & Costello. My television influences were Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Benny Hill, and Hee Haw. When I was a kid, the first album I bought was A Wild And Crazy Guy by Steve Martin. Either A Wild And Crazy Guy or Let’s Get Small. Whichever one came out in 1977. Always loved Steve Martin, because that’s my type of humor. Very goofy and stupid jokes, but a lot of cleverness as well. That’s a good mix.
When I started doing stand-up, I’d do mostly one-liners. A lot of quick jokes, like, “I used to be a lifeguard until some blue kid got me fired.” [Laughs.] Then right after that joke, I’d go, “I went to the doctor for a checkup and he said ‘Oh my gosh, you need to lay off fast foods.’ I said, ‘Is my cholesterol bad?’ He says, ‘No, your farts are killing me.’” Y’know, I can go from the blue-kid joke to the fart joke, and I find them both funny. I don’t think every joke has to be so dadgum cerebral. I mix it up really good, because that’s the kind of humor I like. I like the goofy one-liner type stuff.
But those guys influenced me, and then later on in life, I loved George Carlin. The later Carlin is when I really got into him. George Carlin became just a bitter old man, and instead of punchlines, he was just bitching. That was the funniest I’ve ever seen him. He would get so pissed that he would just say shit, and his facial expressions really made me laugh. He was really funny toward the end. I think my favorite comic now is Nick Di Paolo. His material is awesome, and he’s a nice guy. I’ve known Nick for a long time. We used to do a lot of stuff in Boston together, up in Nick’s Comedy Shop. There’s three guys who really just belly-laugh me, and that’s Dom Irrera, Nick Di Paolo, and Jeff Foxworthy. They’re all even funnier offstage. Just hilarious.
AVC: Are you working on anything new?
DW: Man, you know what? No. I’m just doing the show for History Channel. I’m in the middle of the second season. I’ve already done way more than I ever thought I would do in comedy. Honest to God. I never thought any of this would happen to me, so anything I do is icing on the cake. I don’t really search for new things. People just come to me with the stuff. I didn’t pursue this TV show. They came to me. With the movies, too; I never pursued the movies. I never thought I would do any movies. They come to me with the ideas. It’s been really, really cool. I’ve been fortunate, I’ve been blessed, and I attribute my success to all my fans. People want to do things with you when you have a big fan base, and I have a great fan base. Regardless if they like you or not, the people who make movies and TV like money. [Laughs.] They like to do things with you just to get a cut.