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A Southern Comic With True Grits - Grizzard Isn’t Just Whistling ‘Dixie’

DAVID TREADWELL, Times Staff Writer

It’s Saturday night at the Gen. James White Memorial Civic Auditorium and Coliseum, and Lewis Grizzard is knocking ‘em dead with his biting brand of down-home Southern wit, excoriating everything from women’s libbers and punk rockers to Yankees who think Southerners talk funny.

“I’ll be honest with you,” he says in his deep-down Georgia drawl as he sits center stage on a stool, dressed in a tuxedo, flashy cummerbund and tie, and black Gucci loafers with no socks. “I don’t understand the women’s movement. It’s got me totally confused . . . first time I heard the name Geraldine Ferraro, I thought it was Flip Wilson’s sports car.”

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But if feminists leave him confused, he says, punk rock performers leave him absolutely bewildered. “If Elvis came back today he wouldn’t even be noticed --he didn’t bite no heads off no bats the way they do. Elvis may have shaken his pelvis, but he never, by God, showed it to anybody on stage.”

‘Language of Nuance’

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As for Yankees who think Southerners talk funny: “They just don’t understand that the Southern way of speaking is a language of nuance. You take the word naked . It means you ain’t got no clothes on. But sometimes naked just won’t do. You need something a little bit stronger. So we change that word just a little bit--and we say nekkid . Naked means you ain’t got no clothes on. Nekkid means you ain’t got no clothes on and you’re up to somethin’ . . . Vanessa Williams was nekkid !”

If you haven’t heard of Lewis Grizzard (pronounced GrizZARD like lard, not GRIZzard like gizzard), then you probably don’t know what grits and greens taste like. But south of the Mason-Dixon Line, this 39-year-old Atlanta Constitution columnist, humorist, author and stand-up comedian is the hottest thing since pickup trucks, hailed as a “Faulkner for plain folks” and “this generation’s Mark Twain.”

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At a time when the world most Southerners grew up in and loved is changing beyond all recognition, Grizzard stands tall for all that used to be holy: God, family, unliberated women, homemade biscuits, country music without violin choruses, hand-held funeral parlor fans, the Confederacy, beer in long-neck bottles and gays in the closet.

A Lucrative Business

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It is a kind of redneck nostalgia rooted in his upbringing in Moreland, Ga., a tiny rural community in the red-clay country southwest of Atlanta. And he has parlayed it into a $500,000-a-year business.

His column is syndicated in more than 200 newspapers; his seven books, which include such titles as “If Love Were Oil, I’d Be About a Quart Low” and “Elvis Is Dead and I Don’t Feel So Good Myself,” have sold more than 1 million copies; and his live comedy album has shot through the 100,000 mark and is still going strong.

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“I basically haven’t understood anything that’s gone on in the world since about 1968,” Grizzard said as he attacked a hearty breakfast of fried eggs, bacon and cheese grits at his $360,000 contemporary home in the pine-studded hills of suburban Atlanta one morning after his return from Knoxville. “The family has gone to hell, television is strange, nothing seems to make sense any more.

“Grown men wearing earrings, for example. Now, that’s the one thing that shakes me up the most. Grown men should not wear earrings! That’s in the Bible, in Deuteronomy, right next to the chapter that says: ‘Thou shalt not put cole slaw on barbecue.’ ”

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But you don’t have to be from the South to be hooked by his humor or his feeling that the world is going to hell in a hand basket.

A New York publisher, Villard, is putting out his newest book, the first time Grizzard has used a publisher outside of Atlanta. Set to hit the book stands this fall, it is entitled “My Daddy Was a Pistol and I’m a Son of a Gun” and recounts his touching and often hilarious relationship with his father, a much-decorated war hero who took to alcohol, deserted the family when Grizzard was 6 and died in 1970.

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“He was a great man at one point but seven years of combat in World War II and Korea got to him,” he said. “There’s nobody could tell a story like him, though. Hell, I’m still stealing his material.”

Projected TV Sitcom

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Embassy Television, a Hollywood production company, is contemplating turning his experiences as the sports editor of the Chicago Sun-Times into a television sitcom. Grizzard has already submitted a 13-page treatment around which the projected series would be made.

“I nearly died in Chicago,” he said. “It was pure culture shock. Nobody speaks English in Chicago. And cooooold! Everybody walks around bundled up in coats, and you can’t tell the men from the women.”

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To be sure, there are plenty of Southerners--particularly in the more sophisticated centers of Dixie, such as Atlanta--who feel Grizzard is an embarrassment to the region and wish he would find another profession.

“I wouldn’t go to see one of his shows or buy one of his books if you paid me,” said Garrett Fisher, 35, an Atlanta engineer. “He represents that good ol’ boy mentality that we’ve been working to get away from for the past half-century.”

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Louise Moreland, a physician’s wife in the affluent Buckhead section of Atlanta, agrees: “I think he’s a negative reflection on the South. He talks to people outside the South, and they think he’s typical. I’d like to think he’s atypical.”

Bitter Responses

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His columns often provoke bitter responses. Once, when he wrote a column sympathizing with a man who had been arrested for patting a woman in tight pants on the behind as she bent over to put her clothes into a washer at a coin-operated laundry, 50 reporters at the Atlanta Constitution signed a petition condemning him. Even his own secretary put her name on it. Atlanta feminists threatened to tar and feather him.

His third ex-wife, Kathy Grizzard Schmook, is taking her revenge in a book set for publication this fall by Grizzard’s former long-time publisher, Peachtree Publishers. She calls it “How to Tame a Wild Bore & Other Facts of Life with Lewis: The Semi-True Confessions of the Third Mrs. Grizzard.”

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“I want to dispel some of the myths about Lewis,” she said.

A former Atlanta debutante who has since remarried and lives in rural Montana near the Wyoming border, Schmook takes credit for introducing Grizzard to the finer things in life, including the Gucci loafers he wears almost as a trademark these days.

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“When I met Lewis, the only cultured thing in his apartment was the buttermilk he kept in the refrigerator,” she said. “Once, when I was watching Luciano Pavarotti on television, he walked in and said: ‘Who’s that fat hamburger?’ He thought Pavarotti was some kind of Italian spaghetti.”

She was infuriated when she learned that Grizzard had taken his latest lady love, a former University of Georgia beauty queen who works as an advertising executive in Atlanta, to New York for a Pavarotti concert.

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He Even Wore Socks

“It’s true,” Grizzard admits. “I was given press passes. We stayed at the Plaza Hotel. I put on a tuxedo and even wore socks. I couldn’t wait for it to end. I got a feeling nobody really likes opera, but it’s cool to act like you do.”

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Schmook may have to suffer the slings and arrows of outraged Grizzard fans after her book comes out.

Grizzard’s biggest fans are women, outnumbering men by something like nine to one, judging from concert audiences and fan mail. And they don’t take kindly to criticism about him.

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Never mind that he thinks women should be limited to rubbing his back, scratching his hair, cooking his meals and picking up his dirty underwear. Never mind that he thinks that, OK, if women have to be in the labor market, they should get equal pay for equal work--they just shouldn’t be allowed to drive or vote.

Lewis puts them down and they love it. They want to spoil him rotten, the way he says his mother did, making him “fresh-squozed” orange juice and home-cooked biscuits.

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They dote on every little detail of his life: his passion for the University of Georgia Bulldogs, his three failed marriages, his two heart operations, his theory that when a man calls his wife from a bar and says he’ll be home in a “couple of minutes” it’s like the two-minute warning in a football game after which the play may go on for hours.

Typical of the reaction is this letter from a female follower in Tampa, Fla.:

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“I want to have my seven books signed and I want to meet Lewis. I want to say, ‘How ‘bout them Dawgs--I’m glad they beat Florida!’ I want to tell him I’m sorry he’s turning 40 next year. . . . I want to tell him that my husband has adopted his two-minute warning theory when he’s out and ‘on his way home’ and I want to find out why his third marriage died after he had just received a new lease on life. We can sit and talk over a long-neck bottle of beer at some good barbecue joint. I’ll buy!”

Live Comments

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Or these live comments from three avowedly happily married women from Kingston, Tenn., who left their husbands and children behind and drove the 30 miles to Knoxville to catch his performance.

“I love the way he drawls things out and keeps you on the edge of your chair,” Kathy Foust said. “He makes everyday things so funny, and he’s so Souuuuthern.”

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“He’s a die-hard Southerner,” Sissie Puckett insisted. “And he’s not against women’s liberation--he’s given three of them their freedom himself,” she added, referring to Grizzard’s former spouses with a one-liner coined, in fact, by Grizzard.

“And he’s so cuuute,” declared Claire Crouse, pointing to his photograph on a book jacket. “Look at that face! He has the sweetest face. And those eyes. Look at those eyes!”

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Cute? Now, that is a true measure of the devotion of Grizzard’s female followers. Even Grizzard admits that as a kid he was so homely that his nickname was “D.U.” for “Doubly Ugly.”


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