While many comics will play to their political or cultural bases, Ron White is virtually impossible to pin down to any one audience. First rising to fame through the Blue Collar Comedy Tour with Jeff Foxworthy and Larry The Cable Guy, he became a hero to conservatives with his pro-death penalty and support-the-troops material. White is far from a right-wing pundit, thought, speaking openly about his drug use and belief that everyone -- including himself -- is a little gay. The 27-year veteran of standup backed that up as the producer of the documentary Bridegroom, a story about the struggles of unmarried same-sex couples dealing with the death of a partner -- which recently won the Tribeca Audience Award for Best Documentary).
When Ron White is at the Temple Buell -- this Friday, when he'll be joined by local comic Josh Blue, he'll bring together an eclectic mix of comedy fans who enjoy his brutal honesty. In advance of that gig, we spoke with White over the phone from Texas, and he shared some stories of his early days as a comic, discussed his crossover appeal, and congratulated Colorado for legalizing marijuana.
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Westword: You play to a lot of conservative audiences all over the country, while discussing some liberal issues -- in your experience, are these kinds of crowds becoming more open to marijuana legalization?
Ron White: My audiences are sometimes conservative, but I openly smoke pot at my shows. I mean, I don't smoke pot while I'm on stage, but I do talk about marijuana as an advocate, and talk about how ridiculous prohibition his. We'll look back twenty years on these ridiculous laws and laugh real hard. They put people in jail, really? For smoking a plant that grows naturally in a ditch? The more conservative people die off and more young people come in, it will change. But it takes generations to change anything.
Congratulations to you guys for changing your marijuana laws, leading the country in a sane reaction to the old prohibition. I have a sister that lives up in the mountains over there, so we visit Colorado a lot, and it's tempting to move up there.
It's looking like we could soon see retail marijuana shops opening up.
That's fucking great, innit? It'll be like Amsterdam. But you know, Amsterdam makes pot smoking boring. A lot of fun of pot smoking is going and buying it, having it. It was an ordeal. The thrill of the chase is over-with.
Along with marijuana, you've also been an advocate for gay rights. Do you think something similar is occurring in conservatives with their attitudes toward gay marriage?
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Yeah. Again, it's generational. The next generation is going to be more tolerant of it, and I'm sure gay marriage will be legalized. I just produced a film that won the Tribeca Film Festival Audience Award for Best Documentary last week. It's called Bridegroom, and it's about gay-marriage and the injustice of two guys living together: One of them dies in an accident, and the other has no rights to anything. So this movie is going to raise a lot of awareness, let people see first-hand the pain and suffering gay couples go through -- you can't even walk into the hospital and see your partner. A lot of the time you can't go to the funeral because of their parents. No rights at all, and that's gotta change.
Do any of the conservative audiences you perform for ever balk at your pro-gay stance?
I do a lot of gay-friendly stuff in my show, and men, women, they all love it. I practice non-judgment in my daily life, and hope other people do the same thing. So they laugh right along with me, and if they don't believe those things they understand that I'm different than they are, and that's okay -- because I can still gut 'em. And when I say it, it makes it palpable for them to taste. And I'm pro-death penalty, too, so they like that.
You're proudly a Texas native, and it's always been a wonder for me that comics always put on a Southern accent when they want to caricature ignorance or foolishness, whereas most any other foreign impressions would be considered edgy or offensive. What is it about that inability to take a Southern accent seriously?
What, like Clinton? Well, Clinton didn't have the thickest Southern accent. I'm talking Deliverance style accent.
He sounds like everyone else from Arkansas. I just played golf with him the other day -- he introduced the film we did Tribeca.
But I don't know. First of all, I don't watch much standup comedy, unless it's the show I did the night before, or someone that's caught my eye. I've been doing standup for 27 years, so watching other people do it is pretty boring. I watch myself do it so I can tweak it. So if people are still doing that [mumbles gibberish in Florida drawl] that's pretty old-fashioned stuff.
You comment on social issues like pot and gays, but you pretty much stay out of politics for the most part. You're not a Bill Maher or Dennis Miller type who comments on the legislators.
Oh god, no. I don't even do topical humor. Every show on television, like Bill Maher, has got twenty writers, every one of them just staring at that same television. So if you're going to get your comedy from that television, you're not going to be doing it at the same level that I do it. It's going to be similar to everyone else. I pull from my own life, so it has an original feel. Their stuff feels clunky and boring, they have structure writers that can sit around and do that shit all day. But not me. I'd rather smoke pot, watch cartoons and play some golf.
Like you said, you've been doing comedy for 27 years, so surely you've seen a lot of changes in standup. Obviously there have been technology changes; you took to the Louie C.K. route with putting your last special up for $5 on your website. Have you also seen any cultural changes over the years? Has it become more intelligent?
The evolution right now seems to be that you don't have to say anything funny -- and that's not a very big step forward. These esoteric young comics that avoid a punchline or a premise. I saw Janeane Garofalo on a show saying that if you do a premise, a stock premise, that you're a hack. And then the next night I saw her on TV and she was like, "So I had this this boyfriend--" Boom! Stock premise! Fuck you.
There's no idea or concept in comedy you could do that hasn't been attacked from some angle. But if you start leaving punchlines out so you'll look cool, I don't get that. But I don't watch standup, anyway, so I don't know what they're doing. I don't watch Comedy Central. I don't enjoy it.
There are some guys I like. I'm doing these shows with Josh Blue, who was in my Salute to the Troops thing, that we do to raise awareness for soldiers and the Armed Forces Foundation. He's a different boy. I'm looking forward it. He's great.
Do you think that a comic like Josh Blue would have been as accepted by comedy audiences twenty years ago?
I don't know. Chris Fonseca had cerebral palsy and was on stage doing comedy at least twenty years ago. But he doesn't have the wit that Josh Blue does. He's just a great comedian, I love him to death. I hope I can follow him! He's real strong. I may let some time pass and let things cool down.
I actually just spoke with Josh Blue yesterday about opening up for you. He said that he only wants the best possible comics opening up for him, saying that it raises the bar for his set and keeps him improving. Do you do anything similar to keep your act strong and avoid a routine?
I just continue to write. My opening acts are always really strong, because I need a guy who can take on a big, big crowd. Which is not that easy to do. I like to have Robert Hawkins open up for me, there's no one funnier than him. I'm not afraid to put somebody really good in front of me. They're all friends of mine, that's the one common denominator of all my opening acts, that we all hang out. That's the only way to get in -- you can't submit a tape, I have to know you. Otherwise it doesn't cross my mind.
That's interesting. Chris Rock once said that you can asshole your way out of any success, that it doesn't matter how funny you are, if nobody likes you you're not going to go anywhere.
That's funny. Chris Rock is great. But yeah, like Richard Jeni, god bless him, one of the funniest comedians that ever lived -- but he was a genuine prick. It turns out it was part of this big ole disease he had. But he was a prick to me specifically. But I loved him. One night I showed up just to watch him -- I was headlining the club the rest of the week -- and I came back to the green room, and I said, "Hey Rich, I just wanted to tell you, man, I think you're the best." And he looked past me at his manager and he said, "How long's he gonna be here?"
You have an image that I'd think so many manly men could identify with -- you've got the scotch, the cigar, you're physically towering. Yet there are so many things, like making fun of your own small penis, or that you're a little gay, that stand in the face of that image. Are people ever disappointed with not being able to pin you down culturally?
Yeah, I don't know. I don't really listen to what they say. There are people who don't enjoy the show, I've rubbed some people the wrong with with it being gay-friendly or whatever. But usually they don't complain out loud, or at least I never hear it. And I never go into a show thinking, "Oh, I sure hope I don't offend anyone." I'm going to be true to my nature. That's the only common denominator for any comic. Whether it's Pryor, Cosby or Carlin, they were true to their nature, that's who they were. Or Foxworthy, he could do a show in a church or a saloon and get the same response -- that's a gift right there. Be true to who you are and it will be interesting. If it's funny to me, then I'm saying it, and that's what got me here. Was that your philosophy from the beginning when you first began doing standup, were you always so brazen with revealing yourself on stage?
Oh no, I had to figure it out like everybody else. I had on a cowboy hat when I first started. I had more looks than Madonna. I had cone titties for one year. My accent is thick now, but I used to make it thicker. Because you just don't know when you start, there's no instruction book. You have to get up there and figure it out. I wore a sweatshirt on stage and got laughs, and then I thought I couldn't get a laugh without that sweatshirt, so I wore it into the summer. People were like, "Ron, I don't think the sweatshirt has anything to do with it."
So many comics today came up over the last ten years performing in bars and DIY shows, which sharpened them up because they had to deal with rowdy audiences. Did you experience anything similar when starting comedy in Texas?
Luckily, when I started in '86 there was already a big infrastructure of comedy clubs. Before that people were doingtThe Moose Lodge and things like that. So I was lucky to be doing comedy clubs for people who liked to pay money to laugh, so it was an easy place to start. But I moved up way to fast. I was headlining comedy clubs after my third year, which was ridiculous. But I maintained it until I could grow and turn it into what I needed to be -- which was someone who was honest.
What are the dangers of coming up too fast?
Well, I got slammed in the Orange County edition of the L.A.Times. There was a picture of me making a face I never make, but there it was in the photograph. And in big bold print it said "Even When White's Not Blue He's Not Funny." Ouch! And I believed it 100 percent, too. You need someone to slam you down sometimes. And the two comics who were there before me were Bobby Slayton and Jerry Seinfeld. So then they get Ron White three years into his career, which is like watching a three-year-old do standup.
Is that a mistake that a lot of young comics make, that they take the criticism too seriously?
No, the mistake they usually make is that they believe the applause and the laughter means they're good. It doesn't. Not at all. Comedy clubs create an atmosphere where people want to laugh, so you can do a very poor job and people will laugh.
The Comedy Corner in Houston -- where Bill Hicks and Sam Kinison and all those amazing comics came up -- if you got up and did an act that wasn't good, the comics themselves would boo you off the stage. They didn't leave it to the audience to decide whether you were funny, if they didn't like you you weren't going to go anywhere. So if you went up there and were like, "Hey, remember Gilligan's Island?" The comics would be like "Boo! Get off the stage!" As a result, a lot of really good comics came through there. Ron White will perform with Josh Blue at 7:30 and 10 p.m. on Friday, May 17, at the Temple Buell Theatre in the Denver Performing Arts Complex. For more information, visit www.denvercenter.org
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For more comedy commentary, follow me on Twitter at @JosiahMHesse.