Plenty of things probably come to mind when you flip through the channels and see the words Only in America with Larry the Cable Guy. Fear. Panic. Morbid curiosity. The sense that you should call your mother and tell her you love her on the eve of imminent apocalypse. But I tried to go into it with the mindset I had when my wife suggested the documentary Helvetica a few weeks ago on Netflix. I didn’t exactly have a burning desire to watch a documentary about a typeface but found the film rather engrossing all the same. And while I don’t have an extensive knowledge of Larry the Cable Guy’s complete oeuvre, I was curious to see if this show might demonstrate a heretofore unseen side of him. The dark side of the “git-r-done”, as it were.
Ostensibly, this show is about Larry’s search for overlooked elements of American culture, things that could only take root on this particular soil with this particularly citizenry. I didn’t expect his version of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, but the idea in and of itself wasn’t completely offensive. The fact that he planned to go to the birthplace of Emily Post as one of his stops gave me hope that this wasn’t simply going to be a redneck-a-pooloza, but perhaps a deconstruction not only of certain American myths and maybe even a deconstruction of Larry himself. And no, before you ask, I WASN’T drinking when I had these thoughts. Chalk them up to “prayer” more than anything else, after accepting the assignment to cover this hour of television.
Over on Science Channel, An Idiot Abroad shows Karl Pilkington traveling the world at the whims of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant. What makes that show work is what makes that group's entire body of content work: It’s utterly unclear if Karl is either in on the joke or is simply and impossibly bewildered by it. But in either case, there’s a curiosity at work in Karl’s brain that give his most obtuse, confused, and occasionally offensive thoughts a slight cushion for the viewer. It’s one thing to be unintentionally offensive. But what Larry does in Only in America is, if not offensive per se, more often than not intellectually lazy.
That stuns perhaps three of you to hear, but it bothered me all the same. The nominal reason to explore events such as the rise of moonshine (and subsequent rise of the motor sport industry), the beginnings of American etiquette, and the history of Calaveras County would be to learn more about them and through said knowledge educate Larry and the viewers at home. That should be an obvious statement of purpose for an educational documentary series, but this isn’t an educational documentary series, so much as a way for Larry the Cable Guy to do stand-up in front of people mortified that they’ve opened up their passions to him.
The one point at which Larry genuinely seemed both engaged in the topic at hand and not condescending toward its participants lay in Dawsonville, Georgia. While the story of NASCAR may be familiar to many, this Bostonian did learn a bit about the link between prohibition, economic necessity, criminal activity, and engineering ingenuity that led a direct path between bootleggers and the technology that made possible the majority of Vin Diesel’s film career. (Think of it as Backwoods Empire.) Seeing the moonshining still was a trip: It was like Pee-Wee Herman’s breakfast-making machine from Big Adventure by way of Ned Beatty squealing like a pig. Larry seemed to feel at home, and while the information wasn’t exactly mindblowing, at least it was information all the same.
But in the latter two segments, Larry seemed more concerned with trying to be the next coming of Sacha Baron Cohen, perhaps not understanding that personas like Borat work because they don’t laugh at their own freakin’ jokes. His one attempt at real gallows humor (involving the fake death of his mother) could have landed had he not instantly cracked up. As such, his humor didn’t come off as subversive so much as crudely confrontational. Had the jokes been remotely funny, perhaps he could have gotten away with it. But since most of them involved flatulence and sisters-in-law, they were tedious, then cringeworthy, and then the worst thing of all: simply boring.
Interspersed with all these pursuits of punchlines were talking head segments that made me long for the days of The Bernie Mac Show, which knew how to make segments like this sing. These segments weren’t any more or less staged/scripted than the in-field ones, but the bright lights of the studio made me think little other than, “Maybe high-definition wasn’t such a great invention after all.” These jokes didn’t actively engage the topic at hand so much as derisively put it down, again making the very notion that this was an intellectual endeavor a complete mockery.
Then again, had the point of the show been, “Look, there’s book learning, and then there’s REAL learning,” then such an antipathy towards the show’s subject matter might have made some sense. If Larry didn’t strive to increase his knowledge base but simply prove that certain people have too much useless information in their head, that could have been something. But to introduce a topic like “etiquette” and learn little beyond the word’s meaning in French means that maybe a television show isn’t the best forum for such a project. It’s not that he couldn’t have learned about the topic in more depth. He just didn’t seem to want to do so.
Or, perhaps, he’s playing a character that doesn’t want to do so. Again, since I’m not a Larry the Cable Guy expert, I don’t know where to draw the line here. I don’t know if he’s amping up his natural persona or slipping into a character during this series. But if he tried to play a dumb redneck in order to lure Emily Post’s offspring into coming off badly, then he didn’t do his job. If he tried to overcome his culturally perceived persona in order to broaden people’s minds about who “Larry The Cable Guy” is, then he didn’t do his job. But if he tried to do the easiest thing possible—take his stand-up show on the road with the goal of making himself, not a small yet potentially fascinating section of American history, the subject of each segment—then he TOTALLY did his job.
- Typical talking head jabber: “These dudes was hillbilly Einsteins!” Also, armpit fart noises. I need some moonshine myself at this point.
- The one time I laughed: when he told a headband-wearing denizen of Burlington, VT that he loved her in Flashdance. Unscripted, unplanned, and actually witty. Felt like a cool breeze.
- Each time those frogs desperately tried to leap away to freedom, I kept imagining them looking at Larry the Cable Guy as a pasty, goateed version of Cthulhu.
- “I shoulda been a history teacher!” The fact that I can’t read this as sarcasm will haunt my dreams for weeks.