Jeff Foxworthy's Stand-up Comedy: a Celebration of Shared Experience

written by Bill Kopp

Today, five-time Grammy nominee Jeff Foxworthy is a household name. Three of his 1990s-era stand-up comedy albums went Platinum; he's appeared in music videos by "Weird" Al Yankovic, Alan Jackson and others. As an actor (The Jeff Foxworthy Show) and presenter (Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?) he became a familiar face on television. He's worked in film, too (Blue Collar Comedy Tour: The Movie). For four decades he has brought his stand-up comedy to live audiences all over the world.

But in 1984 he was (really) a 9-to-5, blue-collar worker in midtown Atlanta, doing maintenance and repair of mainframe computers for industry giant IBM. Yet at the urging of his co-workers, one evening he visited popular comedy club the Punchline, entering a stand-up competition. When Foxworthy won first place at the Great Southeastern Laugh-off, his comedy career began in earnest.

How do you develop new material, and how do you work it into your set?

To this day, if I have an idea or a group of ideas, I always go down to a local club. I've never found another way to do it.

But I don't want to go on a Saturday, because Saturday audiences laugh at everything. I want to go on a Tuesday night when there's 30 or 40 people in there. Because they'll be honest with you. If you throw something out and nobody laughs, it's like, "Did I not explain that right, or did I not?" And they're like, "No, it's just not funny."

That's part of what makes stand-up such a fascinating thing to me: I've been doing it 40 years, and I still can't tell you what people are going to laugh at, and what they're not going to laugh at. Sometimes I go in with a thought or a premise and I think, "Oh, this is hilarious!" And you throw it out there, and... nothing. Crickets.

And sometimes I think, "Well, this [joke] is kind of stupid." And you throw it out there and people are beating the tables and laughing. And you're like, really? But that's what makes it so fun. It's kind of like being with a woman that you can't quite figure out: That's what keeps her interesting. And stand-up is kind of the same way.

Do you find that if something works somewhere that it'll pretty much work everywhere?

Well, I think sometimes audiences' experiences are different. I remember real early on, I was at the Punchline in Atlanta, and I was watching a comic from New York. They were doing all this material about the subway, and it just wasn't working very well. And they came offstage and they said, "Oh, these people in Atlanta are stupid!" And I said, "Well, they're really not. We don't have subways, so they don't know what you're talking about. No more than I could go up to New York City and talk about bass fishing or bow hunting." We don't have that shared experience.

When I'm thinking about things to talk about on stage, in the back of my mind, I always have that [memory].

I got bitten by a copperhead about six months ago. And my thought was, "I've got to get a bit out of this." A, to pay for the antivenom, but B, because it is an unusual thing; you need to talk about it. I think a lot of people have the thoughts that stand-up comedians have, but they don't do anything with them. They have the thought, and then they go on with the rest of their day. Whereas comics grab it and go, "Yeah, why do we do that?" Or, "Has anybody else thought this was weird?"

To me, one of the favorite responses is for somebody to come back after the show and say, "Oh, my gosh, I've done that," or "I've said that," or "I've thought that." You made them laugh at themselves, kind of.

That's the great thing about art and entertainment, when you can make something that connects and resonates with people.

Yeah, I 100% agree. I don't know how the people on the outside view comedians, but I think some people probably think, "Oh, they're just a bunch of silly idiots." Well, comedians are kind of fascinated because by nature, they're curious people. Most of them are really well-read, and they deep-dive on things.

At the end of the day, you're studying people. I think no matter which side of the political spectrum you're on, we probably agree on 85% of the things: what we want out of life, what we worry about, whatever. And we hit a point where all we do is argue about the 15% that we're different on instead of celebrating the 85% that we have in common.

I think we may be headed out of it now, but we've been in a period where people have to be right. And if they have to be right, that means you have to be wrong. And nobody wants to have that conversation, so both sides end up defensive. And the truth of the matter is, we're all wrong about something, and we're all wrong about a lot of somethings. Because nobody has life figured out.

We kind of lost that ability to laugh at ourselves. But if we would all land there, I think we'd eliminate a lot of this yelling at each other. And at the end of the day, we don't have to agree on everything. And you don't have to decapitate somebody if they don't agree with you.

If you hadn't entered that competition at the Punchline back in '84, what do you think you'd be doing today?

Wow. Nobody's ever asked me that.

I don't know. I think if I had stayed in the corporate world, I would have been miserable. And I've thought about that. Would I have quit that and gone and done something creative? I think I probably would have; I love to draw and paint. That's something people don't know about me.

And then I thought, "Well, maybe I would have ended up in advertising or something," because that's where you get to be creative and be funny. I think I could have done that. But I might have ended up taking care of somebody else's farm, and been totally happy doing that.

Had you remained with IBM, you'd be long since retired. Do you foresee yourself retiring from the stage at any point?

I guess at some point you have to. Even when I was starting out, I would sometimes watch old comedians and think, "Oh, I remember when they used to be funny." I would always tell my wife, "Tell me when I'm not funny anymore; I don't want to embarrass myself like that."

And she would always say, "Well, if you'll just listen, you'll know." So now I listen because I don't want to stay too long at the dance.

But it's like the other night when we were sold out. You get to the end and everybody stands, and you're like, "Well, I guess I got a few more shows in me, right?" I still enjoy it when those lights go down and they shine that flashlight on the floor. I'm over the airline travel and I'm over the hotel rooms, but when I'm out there, it's just fun. These people paid money to hear what I have to say, and that's quite humbling.

Somebody asked me not long ago, "What do you think when you're about to walk out onstage?" And I said, "I'm about to go talk to my friends." Which is probably kind of a weird thought, but that's what I think.

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