Comedic carpet bagging

If even Hoosiers are impersonating hillbillies … you might just be in the midst of a redneck comedy craze.

Blue collar is suddenly big money on the stand-up circuit, with Jeff Foxworthy’s all-star team of Wal-Mart jesters generating more than $85 million in sales and rentals of their straight-to-DVD feature Blue Collar Comedy Tour Rides Again. A solo-concert film by trouper Larry the Cable Guy — which cost a mere $62,000 to produce — has earned another $15 million. The Billboard comedy chart, created last year in part to accommodate the country comedy explosion, is dominated by red-staters riffing on NASCAR, flea markets and fat people. Git-r-done, boys.

But what’s good for the gander is good for the goose, so three female comics last year banded together to form the “Southern Fried Chicks,” an estrogen-powered version of the Blue Collar shtick. The tour is a virtual comedic congress, with each performer representing a single segment of the white Southern population: Leanne Morgan plays the suburban role, Karen Mills is the edgy urban voice and Etta May is, according to the Chicks’ Web site, “plain white trash.”

“You gotta do what you know,” says Etta May.

Etta May’s biography begins in Bald Knob, Ark. The youngest of 10 children born to a farmer and homemaker, she cut short her education to marry a truck driver. She balanced motherhood with a series of thankless jobs, finally finding her inner comedian while working as a bingo caller.

“I’ve always been — and I think a lot of Southern people have always been — a storyteller,” Etta May said in a recent phone interview. “In the South, it’s ‘Let’s go to Dairy Queen and get us a vanilla cone dipped and then go visit relatives.’ Etta Maybe it was just the time I grew up in, but that’s how I learned to tell stories.”

Critics have praised Etta May’s act, naming her heir to a long Southern tradition of exaggerating rural roots for laughs. The Augusta (Ga.) Chronicle admiringly grouped her with Minnie Pearl and Tennessee Ernie Ford, two middle-class Tennesseans who “how-DEE’d” and “pea-picked” their way into Southern hearts.

Etta May certainly looks the part. Her roomy floral blouses are 100-percent polyester and her hair is always hidden beneath a patterned bandanna. “The other girls won’t shop with me because I always want to go to Wal-Mart,” she says of her fellow Southern Chicks.

Her green slacks fit a little less snugly since she dropped 100 pounds. As she says in her show, “You know you’re getting fat when you sit in the bathtub and the water in the toilet rises.”

“We’ve heard these jokes before … but Etta Etta May has a way of having you believe she has lived the life she’s mocking,” a reviewer wrote last year.

How to lose friends and offend comedians

So it comes as something of a surprise that this self-proclaimed “Reigning Queen of Southern Sass” isn’t from the South. Brenda Ferrari, the childless former sitcom writer who performs as Etta May, was born and raised in Iowa. She’s hardly even a southerner by Iowan standards: She graduated from Lincoln High School and Grand Valley College in Des Moines, smack dab in the center of the state.

But Ferrari decided the big bucks and the belly laughs lay below the Mason-Dixon Line. After years of struggling as a bit performer in Los Angeles, she invented her alter ego, a creation that earned her an American Comedy Award in 1999.

As Etta May told The Rocky Mount (N.C.) Telegram: “I think everybody, deep down, if you really asked them, they’d want to be from the South.”

Comedians aren’t known for their honesty, of course. No one would be shocked to learn a priest and a rabbi never actually shared a rowboat. But most audiences would be surprised to discover Jerry Seinfeld isn’t Jewish, Roseanne Barr isn’t fat or Bill Cosby isn’t black. Ferrari’s embrace of the Etta May identity — no matter how funny — raises some interesting questions about authenticity and ethnicity in comedy.

“There’s nothing inherent in the adoption of a comic persona that connects it with minstrelsy, but of course there’s always a danger that the adoption will play for laughs on the stereotypicality of the person being impersonated,” Michael Pickering, co-editor of Beyond A Joke: The Limits of Humor (Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming), writes in an e-mail interview.

More to the point, jumping ethnic lines is a sure way to lose friends in the insular world of stand-up comedy.

In a Seinfeld episode that is better remembered for a subplot about George’s girlfriend and — yada, yada, yada — spawned a hit catchphrase, Jerry becomes chagrined when his dentist converts to Judaism for the jokes. “This offends you as a Jewish person?” a priest asks. “No,” Jerry says, “it offends me as a comedian.”

Chad Riden, a comic who runs, says the Etta May caricature isn’t very popular with female Southern comedians who’ve carved out their own niches in hillbilly humor and feel their work is being unfairly outsourced. Their collective dismissal reminds him of the old Pace Salsa commercial, in which a bunch of cowboys reject a blend from “New York City!”

“I think a lot of these disagreements about who’s real and who’s not are petty bickering,” Riden says. “I’ve heard people talk about Dane Cook because he jokes about being drunk and he only drinks hot tea with honey. Who cares? But I know a lot of comics look down on that approach.”

Staying in character

It’s impossible to ask Ferrari about her comedic carpet bagging, since she steadfastly refuses to come out of character: Asking her about growing up in the Midwest is like asking Clark Kent for directions to Superman’s ice palace. Her publicist didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The good folks of Bald Knob, Ark. (which, incidentally, is a real place: The historic strawberry farming town markets itself as “where the Delta meets the Ozarks”), aren’t quite so reticent. “She’s supposed to be a comedian?” asks office manager Bertie Yates, who answered the phone at the Bald Knob Chamber of Commerce. “Hold on, I’m asking an old timer if she knows her.” Told Etta May wasn’t really from Bald Knob, Yates wanted to know how she could get in touch with her. “I’ve never heard of this, but I don’t like it,” she said.

Ferrari isn’t the only Yankee comic who’s found fortune in a Southern drawl: Larry the Cable Guy was born Daniel Whitney in Pawnee City, Neb. Whitney experimented with different personas, ranging from an aggressive Brooklynite to a pratfalling lummox, before finally finding inspiration in his years at Baptist University of America in Macon, Ga. He double-booked himself at clubs as Dan and Larry before the Larry character finally won out.

“A lot of comics see the Southern thing as being a commercial product,” says Riden. “But they’re making money doing it, so it’s hard to knock it.”

The comics who are displeased with the rush to board the redneck comedy train imagine its practitioners to be conniving impostors motivated by money. But Riden painted a more pathetic picture, suggesting those who have mastered the form now feel trapped by it.

Riden performed with Etta May a few years ago. After the show, he and a few other comics hung around the club for drinks. He noticed a sad-looking woman in the corner, scanning the newspaper for something else to do.

“I remember it took me awhile to realize it was Etta May, out of costume,” Riden says. “She seemed kind of down. She told me, ‘Don’t ever be a character, because once you start, you can’t stop.'”

[Hanna Miller is a contributing writer.]

The Southern Fried Chicks will play at Diana Wortham Theatre Saturday, Oct. 1 at 8 p.m. Tickets cost $28/adults, $26/seniors and $23/students. Student rush tickets ($10) are available on the day of the show based on availability. Call 257-4530 for more information.


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2 thoughts on “Comedic carpet bagging

  1. Charles Cress

    I love Etta May. But it seems her Web Site is not functioning. I have tried several time to get to it, but can not connect. I would like to fine out about finding her DVDs and CDs…She is the greatest female comic I have ever ran accross..

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