There’s nothing like becoming an animated Disney character to take the edge off a guy’s reputation, something Dan Whitney readily acknowledges. Whitney’s comedic alter ego, Larry the Cable Guy, is nearly as well-known for his repertoire of bodily function humor as he is for his familiar catchphrase, “Git-R-Done.”
But his turn as the voice of the good-hearted tow truck Mater, in the new Disney/Pixar film Cars , is Larry’s most family-friendly appearance yet. “Any fan of mine is gonna like it,” Whitney says of the movie, which stars Paul Newman and Owen Wilson, “but the kids are gonna love it.”
Just don’t suggest that Cars is going to introduce Whitney’s redneck, reactionary cable installer to blue-state America. The perception that his success is strictly a red-state phenomenon is something that drives Whitney crazy.
“I don’t believe in that red-state, blue-state crap,” Whitney says in an interview with National Review Online, the southern drawl he uses as Larry flattening out into a gentle twang. “I just say, if something’s funny, it’s funny.”
Indeed, Whitney–a Nebraska preacher’s son, who grew up on a pig farm and has spent most of his life in small-town America–had the nation’s top grossing comedy tour in 2004 and 2005. All those tickets, it can be presumed, weren’t sold in flyover country. Neither were all those copies of The Right to Bare Arms, Larry’s latest album, which debuted at Number One on the country charts in 2005.
Conversely, while Larry–clad in a sleeveless flannel shirt and fishing hook-adorned baseball cap–has become one of America’s best-known comedians, he isn’t necessarily one of the best-loved, even in red states. Larry’s lowbrow humor occasionally raises eyebrows on the popular Blue Collar Comedy Tours he’s done with comedians Jeff Foxworthy, Bill Engvall, and Ron White (the third installment is out this month). “Jeff can do his act in a Sunday school,” admits Whitney. “I’m the guy on the tour who crosses the line a little bit.”
Some contend he’s done more than that. Liberal comedian David Cross took aim at Larry last year in Rolling Stone, complaining about his “anti-gay, racist humor.” Whitney was upset enough to address the charge in his book, Git-R-Done, and alleges the magazine had it in for him from the start.
Certain folks on the left undoubtedly do bear a grudge against Larry, who regularly lambastes the likes of Michael Moore and P.E.T.A., and isn’t going to be invited to march in a Pride Parade anytime soon. Throw in Whitney’s admiration for Reagan, John Wayne, and the National Rifle Association, and his creation becomes, for select observers, the comedic doppelganger of George W. Bush.
Whitney believes that’s reading far too much into things. “I’m not a political person. People like me because I’m approachable,” he insists. “They know I’m the kind of guy that would go out and have a drink with you.”
The chord Larry strikes, in fact, probably has as much to do with other people’s politics as his own. While Whitney was building Larry’s career by doing commentaries on morning radio shows during the Nineties, the comedy clubs were filling with an increasing number of left-leaning performers who believed they had something to say. Inspired by Lenny Bruce and the late Bill Hicks–pioneer of the self-described “comedy of hate”–as well as the growing trend toward political correctness, many comedians made humor incidental in their vitriolic rants against Republicans, Christians, and Southerners. The most tragic proponent of this philosophy was George Carlin, who devolved from one of America’s sharpest commentators to an embittered shouter, almost overnight.
After years of being lectured, it’s little wonder comedy fans across the fruited plain have embraced Larry and his old-fashioned one-liners. You could even argue a parallel between his rise and the growth of conservative talk radio, another case of supply meeting demand for a product that didn’t patronize its audience.
You could argue that, but Whitney won’t. His response to critics, in fact, is more from the libertarian school: “You don’t like what I do, don’t turn on my show. I could never understand why people that don’t like something have to watch it. It’s like Howard Stern. You don’t like Howard Stern? I got an idea. Turn the f**in’ show off.”
That last line transgresses one of Whitney’s two taboos for Larry–“no F-bombs, and no Jesus humor”–but his detractors seem to have left their mark. “There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for anybody, no matter who they are. I know what I’m like in my heart, and I want everybody to like me,” he says. “But Bill Cosby said, if you try to make everybody happy and not offend everybody, you’re never gonna be a success.”
Larry is undoubtedly a success, and about to get bigger still. Those who don’t like it can take comfort in some wisdom from Whitney’s friend, The Daily Show’s Lewis Black: “No comedian,” Whitney quotes him with a chuckle, “has ever made any policy decision.”
–Dan LeRoy is a writer from Connecticut. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Newsweek, Vibe, and Rolling Stone online, and his book about the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique–part of the “33 1/3” series–was just published by Continuum.