Comedian Ron White on jokes, hecklers and stupid people
Ron White is best known for his appearances on the Blue Collar Comedy Tour with fellow comedians Jeff Foxworthy, Larry The Cable Guy and Bill Engvall. But his signature cigar, glass of scotch and conversational delivery has made him popular with a wide audience.
White uses his personal life and experiences as fodder for his observational jokes and stories, while his endearing ability to make fun of himself makes fans feel as though they're talking to an old friend. Balancing the smart with earthy, the profane with the sharply articulated, White's humor is tinged with a native grace that shines through.
White is best seen live, and you can catch him at The Budweiser Events Center in Loveland on June 9. We caught up with White and talked to him about his how to tell jokes, his fellow funny men and stupid people.
Westword: Why did you want to become a comedian in the first place?
Ron White: It never dawned on me that I had the option of becoming a comedian. I come from a little, dirt street town in northwest Texas and they really don't talk about the arts there much on career day. So when I got older, somebody built a comedy club in the town I was living in then, Arlington, Texas. I would drive past it while they were building it, The Funny Bone comedy club. I was curious and I'd done other stage-related things. And I knew I was really, really, really comfortable talking in front of people, which I don't think most people are.
When that club opened, this guy that I worked with went to the first open mike night and came back the next day and he said, "You're funnier than these guys. You need to go do this." And here we are twenty-six years later.
It seems as though you got involved doing stand-up later in life than many comedians. What was your first night on stage like and did you get any hecklers?
You know what? I don't think so. It was sensory overload. There are some points in your life where you go, "Wow, I've put myself in this odd position where I can't stop it now." They just introduced me and I walked up there and talked. It went fairly well and I met Jeff Foxworthy that night. He was the headliner at the club and he came up to me afterward and said, "You are really funny. But you need to put the punch line at the end of the joke." I was like, "Sure!" I only had four or five jokes.
This is how generous Jeff is, he sits down with a brand new comedian, me, and shows me how to structure those things where you say the funny thing last. Which is really important and I don't even remember how to do it wrong because I've been doing it so long now. But it's learned and Foxworthy has always been generous with me and we're still dear friends.
You served in the Navy. Does that provide you with any material for your comedy these days?
Yeah, I was in the Navy the day I turned eighteen. My memory is not good enough for anything that long ago, though. My brain is like a cross between a colander and a Lazy Susan--thin, slow and it leaks.
When you were selling windows, did that provide you any material?
Living life is what provides the material so whatever it is I'm doing. The only thing that can hurt me is not doing anything. I do a hundred and forty cities a year so I'm always traveling, I'm always doing something. We always go out looking for live music after our shows. As long as I stay engaged with everybody else, then I'll create more comedy. It's just when I shut off and stay at home...What helps me is just to keep moving.
You have famously joked about how "You can't fix stupid." Why does stupidity amuse you?
I don't think stupid matters to me any more than it does to anybody else. It was such a popular line but it was really a short joke. When I wrote it, I had a guy that was building a new house. A huge house and there were five bedrooms on the third floor and showers were all cut into these roof lines. So the guys that were doing the showers was a company called Custom Shower Doors. They cut them all exactly the same height but they all looked different and they didn't fit. I asked this guy, "Don't you guys do custom heights?" He goes, "Yeah, we do." "Well, why didn't you do them here?" He said, "Well, nobody said to." He was sitting right there with a tape measure. "You're just going to measure the width and not the height?" He goes, "That's the way it works."
Then I realized he was going to come back and he wasn't going to be any smarter. He was going to be just exactly that stupid when he came back to fix that problem. From that came the line, "Well you can't fix stupid." As soon as I said that, I was like, "Boom, there's the name of your next album, right there, Ron. Way to go. Go have a drink. You've earned it."
Did your comedy start out self-deprecating?
Well it's self-deprecating. Which doesn't mean I shit on myself. It doesn't mean I don't but it doesn't mean that I do. I make fun of myself, you know. I'm an odd character and a flawed character also. And I don't mind. I kind of accept that I have good things and I have bad things and I just embrace it all and go out and live my life and report back.
When the State of Texas declared April 27th Ron White Day, what did you think of that and did you attend some sort of ceremony?
That was pretty weird. I addressed the House of Representatives in the state capital. My mother, my wife and my friends were there. I had to wear a tie, which I never do. I got the flag that was flying over the capital that day and the gavel that they banged when they said it was Ron White Day. My opening line was, "I can't believe you people have to work on Ron White Day." But it was a pretty cool thing. I'd actually been in Austin, the capital of Texas, right, and I'd gone to see this guy Bob Schneider who is a tremendous singer-songwriter and ran into Billy Bob Thornton and we ended up staying up on his tour bus just getting hammered drunk until like six in the morning and I had to do this at eight. I didn't feel very good but it was still lovely.
I actually had a pretty extensive arrest record and I met this guy that was a supreme court justice and I was talking to him. He said, "Yeah, I'm the biggest fan. You know what? The other day I looked up your arrest record and said, 'Most of this is old and petty.' I just deleted it." I said, "Thanks! Could you do that for my tour manager? Because we're having a hard time getting into Canada." He said, "Well, I'll take a look at it." It was a very cool day. Mother was just beaming. As a comedian, over the years you've probably had hecklers. What are some ways you've dealt with them?
I'm not very approachable on stage so I don't get a lot of hecklers anyway. And I'm sharp-tongued. So if I do get a heckler, what I say comes off a little strong. That's with any situation I'm in. If I get pissed, it seems like I'm madder than I should be. I don't tolerate hecklers at all. It's 3rd grade comedy. I could sit there and bash them but I'm a pace, rhythm and timing guy, right, so I bounce one laugh off the next laugh off the next laugh off the next laugh and get higher, and higher, and higher. In theory. If somebody stops that, then I have to start bouncing all over again and I'm not there to talk to one person. I'm there to perform for three thousand people.
When I was in comedy clubs it didn't really matter because people didn't pay to see me anyway. They just paid to get in the comedy club and I'm there. For years and years, you'd battle hecklers, which is easy. It's was like playing ping pong with a chicken. I'm a professional speaker. They just started. And they usually don't get far.
You did episodes of The Gong Show when Dave Attell was the host. What was the act that amused you the most?
I did one episode as a favor to Dave Attell, who is a dear friend of mine. But the weird thing was, they wouldn't let me smoke after they asked me to come on. Not Dave. I said, "That's my M.O. I smoke and drink. I want a cigar and a scotch." They said, "Nope, can't do it." If it wouldn'ta been Dave, I'd have walked out because it's ridiculous. Anyway, it's my signature item so I just like to do it. I said, "Fuck it, I'll do it anyway. Goddamnit." One of the tricks this guy does, he juggles flames on motorized pogo stick. Wait a minute! He's doing back flips with flames on a pogo stick. I'm like, "Jesus Christ, there's your fire hazard, sir!" So anyway, I had a lot of fun with it.
Your comedy is observational. What about that approach appeals to you more so than other forms of comedy you might have done?
I just do it the only way I know how. All I do is try to make people laugh. I don't think of it as styles or I don't have a particular goal. I'm a storyteller by nature so most of that will never change because I don't write like a joke writer. Although the punch lines in my show are certainly jokes, I can't get to them another way. In fact I don't watch a lot of stand-up comedy. Because my pace is so my pace that it screws it up. I have this friend that opens for me, Geechy Guy. He's been around forever. Very funny guy. He's like Dan Whitney. He just tells joke after joke after joke. When I walk out on stage after I've watched him, I sound like him. I'm like, "Goddamnit! I can't even figure out what I'm supposed be with a voice like this." So I have a tendency not to watch comedy at all. Especially right before I walk on stage. It just does something. People talk in a lot of different paces. I have kind of a preacher's pace. Same as Chris Rock.
Like Sam Kinison.
Oh, Sam Kinison, right.
At this point you're a successful comedian. It sounds like you don't check out a lot of other comedy. Are there any up and coming comedians you take on tour?
Well, no. Because my brother-in-law opens my show mostly--Alex Reymundo. We've been friends for twenty-seven years. Or as long as I've been in comedy, I've known him. We started about the same time. He's a great guy and he's a fun hang on the road. So I let him do quite a few of them. But there's no new comics doing it. They're friends of mine that I've known for twenty years. And there's only two or three of them that do it. Those big rooms are very easy for me to work but it's not a really easy show to open. A lot of times they're not seated or you're not used to big rooms like that and you have a tendency to rush things. So I like to have guys that are used to it and mostly it's just my friends.
I go do open mikes so I'll stand and watch whoever's in front of me and there's all kinds of funny kids out there but I don't know them. The next generation of comics will always come. Daniel Tosh, we've known he was fuckin' hilarious since he was seventeen. So everybody knew that would happen eventually and boy did it. So good on him. He's a good guy and he just cracks me up.
It's kind of funny because if you go to L.A. and you go to the Improv or the Laugh Factory, you're going to see a show. Every time I go down there, I'm the fifth most famous comic there. The other club I go to, I'm the most famous comic there by a lot. The other night, it was Dave Attell, Dane Cook, Chris Rock, Daniel Tosh and me. That's a pretty tight line-up! If you put that show on the road, it's about a five hundred thousand dollar-a-night gig so it would be cost prohibitive. But when you go to those places in L.A., and it's the same in New York, you go see those New York comics in those clubs. The big guys. Because we all still have to do it. Just like an open mike, just like a brand new guy. You have to work out the beat to this stuff on stage and you have to be a comedian.
If you want to be a comedian, that's great. All you have do is go be a comedian but you have to go be a comedian. You have to stay on stage all the time. That's why I have to do a hundred forty cities each year. Because I need that kind of stage time to stay sharp. I have to have all that information floating at the top of my head or I'm just not sharp. I can just still do it but I'm just not sharp.
So those dates aren't necessarily all big theaters?
All those are big theaters or theaters. Not all huge. I'll play Radio City Music Hall in New York City but they don't have one of those in Great Falls. You just need that kind of stage time. So if I'm in L.A. I'll do three shows a night. Just like ten minute sets. I'll hop from one club to the other to the other. They're all close. Then do little coffee houses. I'll get on stage anywhere. It's all another skill level. It's different to work those rooms. It's very, very easy for me to walk out into these big theaters full of my fans. They're really soft. So I like to throw myself into more uncomfortable situations and see how I do with that.
I'm not afraid to fail and I'm not afraid of what'll happen if a joke doesn't work. I have no paranoia at all about that kind of stuff. A lot of times I'll go up and do nothing but brand new stuff, nothing I've ever done before. Then I'll have a new list of stuff and not have the beats worked out on any of it. They might be going, "He was like the seventh best comedian there." And I don't care! Because the fact of the matter is it's a comedy club. Three hundred fifty people maybe saw it. I try to develop stuff.
A young comic looks at the stage time like that as precious stuff so they do their open mike stuff in coffee houses and even smaller stuff. So when they get up to there, they're using nothing but their A stuff, their big game. And I'm there to play so I don't do that. It's kind of chicken shit at this level to not go up there and try new stuff. It's not my goal to just go in there and beat them up because I can do that anyway. That's easy. Besides, I've done ten thousand shows. I can do that.
Do you improv a lot of material or do you have it worked out before you hit the stage?
I've never written down a word of it. I write set lists. But I don't ever write my stuff out. If I find an idea or a premise, I'll just start fucking with it to see if I can make it work, you know. Usually if I think there's something there, there is. I just have to suss it out. It's like making puzzles, kind of.
You still perform in small clubs. What is it about small clubs that you appreciate that's a different experience from playing a larger space?
I don't know that there's that big a difference. Bigger spaces are better because there's no waitresses. That was the big hassle at comedy clubs. People are getting their shitty bar food and drinks and they pulled out the tabs and all that stuff. I play at this little comedy club in Ventura, California and any time I have a couple of weeks off I'll go down there and do a long set in that club just to get it all back up to the top again. I have a blast doing it. I don't think it's hard and I don't let them drop the tabs when I'm stage anymore because I can stop it. Just say, "Get it after I'm gone." And they say, "Okay, as long as you'll come back."
What do you appreciate the most about playing the larger rooms?
Rarely does a comedy career catch like this. I'm just playing for my fans. And I don't do that in comedy clubs. I play for whomever is there. Those shows I do in Ventura, they know it's me so they are going to see me. But they're not in the other clubs like when I go to open mike night.
When I walk out on to those big stages there's just...I never thought I'd ever say it, they're Ron White fans. They hang on every word. They're like sea otters. I don't know why I used the words "sea otter." But they're happy, in a good mood and cracking things on their chest. I don't know. It's just so much fun. They give more to me than I give to them, that's for sure. I think there's an energy transfer when you have that many people staring straight at you. Paying attention to you. It changes the way that I feel. It's really uplifting and I'm lucky, lucky, lucky to be able to do it.
Is there anything you've learned from other comedians along the way that you apply to what you do today. Other than what you mentioned earlier about Jeff Foxworthy?
Of course. I don't remember who said it but one of the old comics said, "When you're doing bad, slow down. When you're doing good, slow down." So you have to do it slow. The worst thing that can happen is you can start rushing your pace as a comic. I was a big comedy fan when I was a kid. So I collected comedy albums and I took something from every one of 'em. Probably more from Hicks than anyone else. I would just listen to those comedy albums time and time again from the time I was a little kid. I guess I just liked listening to people laugh because I don't think I understood it all.
But then it was Cheech and Chong and Steve Martin. That guy was almost a parody of a stand-up comic but it was so brilliant and so original it couldn't be stolen. Nobody can hack Steve Martin. And he walked away from stand-up and he was forty-five thousand people a night in outdoor stadiums. He said the reason was he couldn't recreate a parody. He seems to have done alright with other things.
Why did you like Bill Hicks so much?
Bill was a genius. He was the rare individual that can make comedic fodder out of anything. I don't know specifically what I learned from Bill but I thought he was the only comic that mattered when he was alive. He was so much better than everybody else. Just the thought process that went into these beautiful bits. Some of them just dark. Some of them just simple. It was everything and it was all just Hicks. That was a huge loss for me personally when Bill passed. Every time there's something that happens, I wonder what Bill's take would have been.
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