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Laughs on Both Sides of Mason-Dixon Line : Jeff Foxworthy Turns Jokes About Southern Background Into His Funny Business

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Comedian Jeff Foxworthy was born and raised middle class in Atlanta. Before entering show business a decade ago, the Georgia Tech grad, with a thick-as-molasses Southern drawl and a down-home manner, did computer repair at IBM.

Still, when Foxworthy starts talkin’ north of the Mason-Dixon line, some Yanks just assume he must have been brought up in some rural trailer park.

Indeed, the 36-year-old funnyman has received more good-natured hick remarks than a truckload of Ozark hillbillies. And he has managed to take those remarks and turn them into a franchise--five books, a hit comedy album and reams of material for his stand-up act, which comes to Los Angeles Saturday night.

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It all started back in the late ‘80s when, Foxworthy recalls, “some people were kidding me about being a redneck when I was working at a club in Michigan. That comedy club was attached to a bowling alley that had valet parking. I said, ‘Look out the window, this is (an area rife with) rednecks! You have rednecks!’ It occurred to me that there are people in this country who don’t really know what a redneck is. So I went back to my hotel and I wrote five ways to tell if you’re a redneck.”

That guide was incorporated into Foxworthy’s stand-up routine and immediately was a hit. Today, the popular comic has more than 200 one-liners on the subject at his disposal.

According to Foxworthy, “You might be a redneck if . . . “

* You go to the family reunion to meet women.

*"Say no to crack” reminds you to pull your jeans up.

* You wear a dress that’s strapless with a bra that isn’t.

* You’ve ever cut your grass and found a car.

Foxworthy broadly describes a redneck as a person “with a glorious lack of sophistication.” The mustachioed comedian insists that these characters can be found in just about every culture or ethnic group.

“I opened up for (jazz trumpeter) Wynton (Marsalis) one night,” Foxworthy says. “That was probably an 80% black audience. I got a standing ovation.”

Foxworthy first used the material in books--five of his six paperbacks are redneck-themed. Last year came his debut comedy album, “You Might Be a Redneck If . . .,” which has given his career a major boost. It has been on the Billboard Country album charts for 34 weeks and is currently ranked No. 12. A recently released single called “Redneck Stomp,” combining his comedy material with a country-dance music track, has helped increase sales of the year-old album to more than 400,000.

The irony is that Foxworthy grew up a rock ‘n’ roll fan and didn’t start listening to country music until a few years ago. Nevertheless, he has learned some valuable lessons from the country artists with whom he has performed.

Foxworthy says Southern and heartland singers like Garth Brooks are the most fan-oriented entertainers he has ever seen. And today it’s common to find Foxworthy, who was selected the American Comedy Awards’ best stand-up comic of 1990, in the theater lobby after a performance chatting and signing autographs.

Foxworthy believes that it’s imperative that comedians stay in touch with everyday life.

“Somebody asked, ‘Why is it that when comedians get older they aren’t funny anymore?’ ” he says. “Some of it is that they’re just not funny. But a lot of it is when they start becoming successful they quit going to the grocery store, they quit going to the bank, they quit doing those things that people can relate to. You have to be able to relate to people.”

The first six or seven years of Foxworthy’s comedic career were spent largely on the road. He says he used to do about 500 club shows a year, often times performing two or three a night.

The tide began to turn for Foxworthy in 1990 after he migrated to Los Angeles in the hopes of landing the major TV appearances that had eluded him in Atlanta. The move paid huge and immediate dividends. Within three months he was a guest on “The Tonight Show” and had inked a deal to star in his own Showtime special.

Now Foxworthy routinely headlines in theaters and small arenas around the country. He also has the luxury of performing mostly on the weekends; the rest of his time is spent at his Beverly Hills home with his wife, Pamela, and two daughters, ages 2 1/2 and 5 months.

But success hasn’t made Foxworthy complacent. He’s currently writing a script for a feature-length comedy movie, and a humorous book of drawings of people he has observed on the road is scheduled for release next year. If that’s not enough, he claims there isn’t a comedian alive who does more radio interviews than he does.

“Almost every morning of my life I’m doing eight or nine stations,” he states. “I have a little office in the back of the house and I go there at 4 or 4:30 in the morning to do drive time on the East Coast. I sit there from 4:30 to 4:45 and I talk to Baltimore, and from 4:45 to 5 I talk to Cleveland. . . .”

Even though Foxworthy has established a strong following among country music fans, he dislikes being labeled a “country comedian.” In fact, his redneck routine is a relatively small part of his two-hour stage show. Most of his jokes and anecdotes involve more universal issues like fatherhood and marriage.

Still, this self-proclaimed part-time redneck isn’t about to disassociate himself from the hayseed culture that has made him so popular.

“Somebody said that with rednecks you’re talking about the lowest common denominator,” says Foxworthy. “Well, I say it’s the most common denominator. The majority of us are guilty of some (redneck behavior). There are very few of us who are part of rich, highbrow society. When you live in L.A., you think everybody’s hip and well-dressed. Get in your car. I’ve been to . . . every state. What’s between New York and L.A. is what’s real life.”

* Jeff Foxworthy perform s at the Wiltern Theatre, 3790 Wilshire Blvd., Saturday at 8 p.m. $21.50. (213) 380-5005 .


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