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Published November 14 2010

Comedians help redefine working-class entertainment

If you go

“Here’s your sign.”


“You might be a redneck.”

These catchphrases of down-home, self-described “blue-collar” comics Bill Engvall, Larry the Cable Guy and Jeff Foxworthy are firmly fixed in the lexicon of American comedy.

But they’re also calling cards to America’s redneck culture, a social subset painted with enthusiasm for low-culture attractions like NASCAR, country music and a “simple” Southern-fried language.

And though the redneck culture is often ridiculed or ignored by academics or hipsters, the appreciation for the working-class brand of entertainment has, perhaps, never been higher than in the past 10 years.

It’s why these three comedians are household names who’ll attract thousands to the Fargodome at 8 p.m. Saturday. It’s why these comics have made several films, have a Sirius Satellite Radio station and years of successful touring to their credit. It’s also why country musicians like Reba McEntire can have hit TV sitcoms full of Southern folksiness.

But while it might feel like a revival of redneck culture, pop-culture experts say this wave is just part of an ongoing thread of working-class culture that’s weaved into the DNA of America.

“I guess it’s made more of an impact culturally in terms of television and film and things like that,” says Tony Harkins, director of the popular studies program at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green. But he adds, “It’s obviously always been there.”

Robert Thompson, professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University, sees the presence of redneck culture simply as a continuation of a long-standing American tradition. He points to old television programs like “The Andy Griffith Show,” “The Beverly Hillbillies” and “Hee-Haw” as examples.

Before that, there were also popular attractions like Ma and Pa Kettle movies and the L’il Abner comic strip that were full of working-class sensibilities.

“I think the tradition these people are working in is a well-established one,” Thompson says of the Blue Collar comedians. “And it’s one of the basic kind of American themes. After all, this country was founded on people who left the old world, the old world of cathedrals and paintings and museums and huge libraries, and they came here to the new world, you know, to live in sod houses, shoot bears and chop down trees for the first couple of hundred years.

“We’ve got this long kind of strain where we kind of have an affection and a respect and a feeling of sympathy (for the average Joe).”

Bucking stereotypes

That may be, but Engvall, who recently learned that he’s about to become the next host of the “Lingo” television game show, believes there’s been a recent rise in the popularity of the redneck/

blue-collar genre.

“And I think Jeff and Larry and Ron (White) and I were very instrumental in that … We presented a family-based humor that’s clean,” he says.

As he sees it, the Blue Collar Comedy troupe bucked against a stereotype.

“I think for a long time people thought, you hear an accent, you think lazy,” he says. “But we proved that to be wrong.”

They also embraced the term “redneck” and, in the process, helped redefine the loaded word.

“I mean, in the 1960s it explicitly meant racist,” Harkins says of the word.

Thompson says, “What Foxworthy gets credit for, I think, is taking a very charged term like ‘redneck’ and domesticating it, making it more friendly and stripping it of some of its more evil and arch overtones.

“He’s kind of redefined what that term is, and when you go down the list of ‘you know you may be a redneck if,’ a lot of those things we kind of go,

‘Oh, yeah, that is kind of me.’ ”

And that’s not the only way the term has changed.

“I think redneck has sort of … broken out of its regional boundaries and really means kind of rural or even the idea of fly-over country,” Harkins said.

Engvall, a Texas native, also believes the term redneck – as well as blue collar – is something that reaches beyond the southland.

“Jeff (Foxworthy) and I had this discussion that, you know, people have this thing about blue collar and redneck” he says. “It’s not necessarily where you live; it’s just a state of mind.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Shane Mercer at (701) 451-5734