Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Frankly Speaking

Country comedy, like country music, trie to keep up with the time

By Michael McCall

NOVEMBER 30, 1998:  Rodney Carrington may wear a cowboy hat and tell jokes with a heavy Texas drawl, but don't expect to hear him on the Grand Ole Opry anytime soon. Even though he spins his tales from the point of view of a rural Southern man, he'll never be called "the new Jerry Clower."

For instance, here's how Carrington describes his annual Easter trip to a Longview Baptist church: "The trouble with going to church once a year is you have all those righteous people looking at you going, 'What the fuck are you doing here?' "

For obvious reasons, Hangin' With Rodney, the comedian's recent major-label debut on Mercury Records, isn't going to earn him speaking invitations to any religious gatherings (something Clower often received). But if anyone represents how country comedy has moved past the age of Hee Haw, it's Carrington. Speaking in a high-pitched, rapid-fire voice that sounds like Ross Perot with Tourette's Syndrome, Carrington is to Jeff Foxworthy what Richard Pryor is to Bill Cosby. His tales are outrageously raunchy, and in the course of a performance, he exposes his thoughts, fears, and aggravations in the bluntest, most colorful terms.

Sexuality, as might be expected, is an obsession. But rather than offer sexist caricatures, Carrington probes his own psyche. One comic song, "Letter to My Penis," hilariously spoofs his worries about potency. ("You used to watch me shave, now all you do is stare at the floor.") Another routine imagines a guy divulging his gayness to a close male friend while the two are on one of their frequent fishing trips. But not everything is about sex, nor are all the stories obscene. Carrington is just as funny talking about shopping for caskets or expressing his hope that God has a sense of humor.

In truth, his methodology isn't that different from the old style of country comedy as represented by Clower, the veteran Grand Ole Opry member who passed away earlier this year. Like Clower, Carrington tells how rural Southerners react to a changing, sometimes confusing world. But while Clower prided himself on his clean language and family-style commentary, Carrington revels in obscenities and pushes the limits of acceptability.

Even so, his foul language doesn't sound gratuitous; it simply sounds like the language he'd use when talking to his buddies. It's pretty obvious that this is simply the way Carrington thinks and speaks, and part of the comedy comes from his lack of self-censorship. "I talk a lot of dirty shit, don't I?" he says at one point on his record.

At this point, the emergence of a coarse country comedian was inevitable. After the success of Jeff Foxworthy, Nashville labels began taking comedy seriously for the first time since Clower's heyday a couple decades earlier. Meanwhile, with some country radio deejays taking on the cruder and more suggestive style of popular syndicated "shock jocks," it was only a matter of time before someone like Carrington surfaced.

Of course, he's not the only new country comedian. Roy D. Mercer speaks in a mushy-mouthed Southern drawl every bit as pronounced as Carrington's and Clower's. Though not exactly obscene, Mercer nonetheless trades in a kind of comedy that borders on offensive.

For the most part, he pulls practical jokes by telephone. Working for a Tulsa radio station, he accepts calls and faxes from people who feed him information about their friends. Mercer then contacts these unsuspecting folks with a business complaint. Sounding as if he's barely containing his anger, he slowly provokes the people on the other end of the line; eventually, he surprises them by asking, "How 'bout if I come over there and open up a can of whoop-ass on you?"

The routines are often hilarious, though at times he upsets people so much that the joke can seem cruel. Even after he informs them that they were set up by a friend, the victims of his practical jokes don't always share in the humor. But Mercer's albums have been wildly popular, especially in Oklahoma, Texas, and Arkansas. His upcoming album, How Big a Boy Are Ya?, Volume 5, will be his first for Virgin Records, as he follows record executive (and big fan) Scott Hendricks from Capitol Records to the new Nashville label.

At one point on the record, he calls a Future Farmers of America leader to say that boys from his troop came over by invitation to neuter a few calves, only they made a mistake and accidentally ruined one of his prize bull calves. Mercer tells the mystified man that he needs $500, which is how much he paid for the animal.

Mercer's upcoming album loses momentum, however, when he engages in conversations with the drive-time disk jockeys who work at the Tulsa station that serves as his home base. His stories about his family's tribulations aren't as sharp as his practical jokes, and the generic music that underscores each of the deejay conversations makes the stories hard to hear and boring to endure.

Another new country comedian, Bill Engvall, received a boost in popularity when he costarred on Foxworthy's short-lived TV sitcom. On Dorkfish, his newly released second album on Warner Bros., Engvall relies on a gentle-natured, observational kind of humor that, like Foxworthy's, is smoother and more suburban than that of his cohorts.

Engvall's topics seem predictable: He jokes about local weather forecasts, quitting smoking, flying in small airplanes, and Spam. He's not nearly as daring as Carrington--which may be why his conventional stand-up style doesn't reveal much about him. Instead, he simply points out absurd aspects of modern life and invites you to share laughs about outlet malls, minivans, Little League parents, and a man taking his wife deer-hunting. For all his mild-mannered topics, though, Engvall's bit about a gay cub scout leader trades on bigoted stereotypes in a way that Carrington and Mercer manage to avoid.

With the recent deaths of Clower, Grandpa Jones, and Minnie Pearl, the era of down-home, corn-pone country comedy has passed. But as should be expected, a new breed has risen. Unlike the simple humor of the previous generation, this is not comedy suitable for kids, grandmothers, or Sunday school teachers. But then, today's country comedy audience, like every other group of popular-culture consumers, has been exposed to modern TV and movies. They're a lot more willing to listen to "a funny motherfucker," as Carrington describes himself--and they're a lot more likely to laugh.

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