Comedian Jeff Foxworthy thought he knew what it was like to be a star when his "You Might Be a Redneck If . . . " debut album became a monster hit last year. The album has sold more than 2.6 million copies and is on the cusp of becoming the best-selling comedy disc ever. His second album, "Games Rednecks Play," achieved platinum status last August just five weeks after its release.
But the Atlanta-bred comedian--whose signature one-liners have helped to make him a huge fan favorite in the South--says nothing prepared him for the type of public recognition he's received since his ABC sitcom debuted last September.
Despite its unenviable early Saturday evening time slot and tepid ratings, "The Jeff Foxworthy Show" has brought him to the attention of a far greater and broader audience than his blockbuster albums. You don't necessarily have to be a redneck--or, to quote the comic himself, "own a home that's mobile and five cars that aren't"--to know who Jeff Foxworthy is.
"I ran into ["Grace Under Fire" star] Brett [Butler] when ABC was announcing the fall lineup and she said, 'I know you've been doing well, but hold onto your hat because your life is about to change,' " Foxworthy recalls in his thick Southern drawl. "I thought I was doing pretty good. But I had no idea. . . . All of a sudden it's not just people who talk like me who know me. It's also construction workers in Manhattan going, 'Hey, Fox, love the show, man!' or somebody going, 'My 80-year-old Jewish mother watches the show.' "
The inclusion of "The Jeff Foxworthy Show" in ABC's fall schedule represented a dramatic and surprising reversal of fortune for its star. Earlier in the year, the 37-year-old comic was so sure he wasn't in the network's plans that he purchased five acres of land in Georgia. After three frustrating years of trying unsuccessfully to corral a television sitcom, he and his wife, Pamela Gregg, agreed to say goodbye to Hollywood and their Beverly Hills home to return to their roots to raise their two young daughters.
Those plans were put on immediate hold when ABC executives unexpectedly and somewhat belatedly informed Foxworthy that they were picking up his show for the fall season.
"We had to go to work in August and it's June 1 and we didn't have a writer, an actor or anybody," Foxworthy says. "So we kind of played catch-up for the whole fall. But it's very satisfying at this point to have been picked up [at mid-season] for the remainder of the year because we started so far behind and we worked so hard."
Having never acted before, Foxworthy acknowledges that the transition to television comedy was initially difficult. After working solo for more than a decade as a stand-up comedian, the former IBM computer repairman had to learn how to work with actors and with dialogue scripted by other writers.
Foxworthy was less than pleased with his performances in the first few episodes of the series, which finds him playing a husband, father and owner of a heating and air conditioning business in Indiana. But he believes he's gained confidence as an actor as he's gotten more involved in guiding the scripts.
"The first two or three episodes never felt right," Foxworthy says. "I felt like I was acting and then stopping to tell jokes. For a while I wasn't going down to the writing room. It was like, 'Let them write, I'm having a hard enough time learning how to act.' "
Now Foxworthy joins the show's writers at the end of each rehearsal day to discuss what works and what doesn't work in the scripts. ("The writers have been really cool about that," he says.) What's resulted, he believes, is a show that's smoother and truer to his own everyman persona and world view.
"The Jeff Foxworthy Show" is a bit like his stand-up act. Both revolve heavily around family relationships and issues, with a handful of redneck jokes tossed in for flavoring. In the coming weeks, new characters such as a sister-in-law and a brother from Georgia will play prominent roles in the series.
That "The Jeff Foxworthy Show" is more of a traditional, family-oriented program in "The Cosby Show" mold makes it somewhat of an anomaly in a TV season dominated by sitcoms about young, hip, urban characters. His folksy persona was a major reason why Foxworthy had such a difficult time finding a network willing to build a show around him, despite his enormous success as a stand-up comedian.
"I was playing 9,000-seaters and selling them out by myself," he observes. "Yet people in Hollywood would tell me, 'You're not cool and you're not on the cutting edge.' I was like, 'Between New York and L.A. there are 200 million people who aren't hip and who aren't cool and they don't want to be. This is who this show is for.' "
When asked in what direction he'd like to take his series, Foxworthy bursts out with a boisterous laugh, "To syndication!" But he's also prepared for the possibility that the sitcom might not even make it to next season.
As usual, he's got his hand in multiple projects. The author of seven comedy books, Foxworthy recently signed a deal to write a semiautobiographical book that will be released in time for next Father's Day. A collection of drawings that he's done of people in airports over the years will also be released next year.
Toss in the movie project he's trying to sell and the concerts he continues to perform on a sporadic basis and it's clear that Foxworthy's plate is plenty full. But he claims he doesn't always want to be this busy.
"It's always been in my mind that I didn't want to [be in show business] forever," he states. "I do want to come to a point where I can say, 'It's been a ton of fun and now I want to go live on a farm and raise my kids.' This last year I've told myself [before concerts], 'Be aware of what this feels like. Listen to them laughing.'
"I'm not so stupid to think that it's going to last forever, any of it. It's important to take it all in and smell it a little bit, so when it goes away you can remember what it felt like. Sometimes it's hard to do because once you get on a roll, once you get hot, it's almost like a blur."
* "The Jeff Foxworthy Show" airs Saturdays at 8 p.m. on ABC (Channels 7 and 3).