Ron White Gets the Last Laugh

Did you hear the one about the high school screwup who got kicked out of the Navy, went to rehab, and ended up in Arlington selling storm windows from the back of his pickup? That’s when he met an unknown comic named Jeff Foxworthy*—and became the funniest man in America. (*Actually, he almost killed Jeff Foxworthy, but that’s another story.)

December 2006By Comments

RON “TATER SALAD” WHITE looked as if he had just been poked in the eye by someone he strongly disliked. Early one evening in August, while walking through the alley behind Austin’s Paramount Theatre, he had encountered a photographer and two assistants waiting to take his portrait. One might have expected a cheerier reaction from White. He was heading to the final performance of a sold-out, three-night stand of his comedy routine, an engagement that would earn him more than $100,000. What’s more, the photo was to accompany the first magazine profile that would ever be written about him. “That’s the beauty of being a straight-to-DVD star,” he’d sarcastically noted about his celebrity. “It really helps you stay under the media’s radar.”

But as it turned out, White was coming off a late night. The previous evening had started with the couple of Scotches he customarily drinks onstage, continued post-show with an on-the-house feast for him and fifteen friends at Ruth’s Chris Steak House (“Pouring drinks through that bunch, I can’t imagine what that tab would have been”), and culminated with a tour-bus dance party that ended long after the celebrants had stopped taking note of the hour. And now, on his third trip through this alley in as many days, all in his trademark black suit under a merciless sun, he was trapped. The 102-degree heat that had been cooking the contents of the alley’s dumpsters and potholes that day was cooking the comedian as well. The slightest of breezes cooled those of us present who weren’t overdressed, but it offered White—all six feet one, 245 hungover pounds of him—nothing close to comfort. He did allow that at least it carried away the smell of urine he’d become acquainted with the two previous nights. “What this alley needs,” he grumbled between smiles for the camera, “is a good rain.”

At the front of the building, the crowd rolling into the Paramount appeared to be having a much better day. They didn’t look like a typical audience for a $50-a-ticket show in the elegant old hall, though they did look happy to be there. Most of them were dressed as if they’d come straight from the lake or the golf course. Lots of baggy, floral print, and polo shirts. As many men in ball caps as not. With the Allman Brothers chugging over the growing din, Tater Salad devotees followed ushers in ties and vests to their seats. A large man in a loose, loud Hawaiian shirt carrying four Tecate beers sat down near the stage, answering his wife’s critical stare with a bewildered “Well, honey, the sign at the bar said there’s no intermission.” Then he shot her a look that suggested that if she’d wanted a beer she should have bought one herself. A man to the right of those two pointed to the small balcony sections on either side of the stage and wondered to his wife if this was the theater where Lincoln had been shot.

None of which is meant to suggest that the Paramount had been overrun by rubes. The country club crests on their caps and breast pockets alone disproved that. To the contrary, consider this the common-sense set. On a night when the heat index was still hovering around the century mark at seven o’clock, dismissing the sartorial prohibition against short pants on grown men at nighttime social events was a simple matter of comfort or, more generally, common sense. So too was the crowd’s enjoyment at cracking open a cold brew in an air-conditioned hall. Ditto its choice of comedian.

Ron White had won this bunch over as part of the Blue Collar Comedy Tour, a supergroup of country comedians that became one of the most successful comic road shows ever. White was considered the Blue Collar sophisticate, a designation owing chiefly to his more formal wardrobe. But his act was distinct as well. Tour mates Jeff Foxworthy and Larry the Cable Guy relied on the eccentricities of the redneck persona for their laughs, Foxworthy with his standardized test for rural identification (example: “If you go to a family reunion to meet women . . .”) and Larry with his “Git-R-Done” catchphrase and inability to make sense of erudite concepts like proctologists and people who don’t laugh when somebody farts.

White’s jokes, on the other hand, have always been inside looking out. His humor doesn’t highlight how weird rednecks look to the rest of the world; it’s about how weird the rest of the world looks to a redneck. His best-selling book, I Had the Right to Remain Silent … But I Didn’t Have the Ability, leads off with a bit about the audacity of the Sunglass Hut’s asking more for a pair of shades—$309—than Wal-Mart charges for a 25-inch TV set. Judging from his fans’ reaction when he tells the joke, it’s an injustice that’s every bit as galling to them. He has another old joke, about the death penalty, summing up the issue with the simplest of equations: “If you kill someone in Texas, we will kill you back.” It’s comedy for the Fox News Nation, the kind of joke Bill O’Reilly might make if he were to be funny on purpose. It’s just plain common sense.

And it’s what Ron White’s all about. An hour after he was freed from the alley, he lumbered onto the stage, his ever-present Scotch and cigar in hand, to the stuttering guitar riff of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Couldn’t Stand the Weather” and a riotous welcome from his adoring public. He beat them over their heads with exactly the kind of everyman sagacity they were expecting to hear.

On a paper plant in Houston that emits a sulfur smell: “If it was music and two million people were listening to it, they’d make them turn it the f— off.”

On profiling in airport security checks: “If someone has seven h’s in their name and is carrying a basket of cobras, check their shoes for fuses.”

On the federal government’s color-coded terror-alert system: “If I were running Homeland Security, I would propose two states of heightened awareness: Go find a helmet. And put on the f—ing helmet.”

On metrosexuality: “This lady was working on my big toe with what looked like a carrot peeler.”

On the recent documentary film Grizzly Man, about a naturalist who chose to live among wild bears and was subsequently eaten by one: “Your only possible recourse is to shit your pants to make yourself taste bad.”

On a loop earring an old girlfriend wore in her pierced nipple: “It looked like the plug in my grandmother’s bathtub.”

And on transsexuals: “What’s your f—ing problem?”

The crowd erupted again and again, their applause stretching his hour-and-a-half set by a full fifteen minutes. No one seemed concerned that his description of terrorist threats might be the littlest bit racist or that his answer to air-quality concerns placed him closer to Greenpeace than the wheels of industry. His steady use of the world’s favorite swear word for lovemaking was no problem either; it can be assumed that some in the audience had used it themselves that very day, when they missed a putt or dropped a freshly opened beer in the boat or merely realized they were running a little late to the show. Common language? Most definitely. And commonsensical as well, steeped in a logic beyond debate.

COMEDY FANS CITE TWO reasons for their love of Tater Salad: He’s a great storyteller, and his stories sound real. The audience is confident that Ron White in performance is a lot like Ron White in person. He drinks and smokes onstage, and he drinks and smokes in real life. He’s a smart ass onstage, and he’s quite happily a smart ass in real life.

His stories are typically pulled from that life. The 49-year-old White became Tater Salad during a brief stint in the Navy as a teenager, when his dedication to the dish turned it into his nickname. A few years later he returned to his birthplace of Fritch—a tiny Texas town about sixty miles from where our panhandle abuts Oklahoma’s—and got thrown in jail for disturbing the peace. During booking, the arresting officer, whom White had known since they were kids, sternly asked if he had any aliases. “Yeah,” White responded with a smirk. “They call me Tater Salad.” When White was arrested in New York ten years later, an officer found his name in a criminal database and asked, “Are you also known as Tater Salad?” as if White might have been the Fritch equivalent of the Son of Sam serial killer. It was one more imposition of real-world lunacy into Ron White’s sense of normalcy, and he turned it into his most popular bit. Now fans who don’t know how much he detests comments from the crowd yell “Tater Salad” at shows as if it were “Free Bird.”

Creating a routine full of such autobiographical bits might not seem difficult—until White explains it. “My audience has no idea what I’m doing to them,” White said on the afternoon of the show, his bloodshot blue eyes straining at a television showing the PGA Championship in the lounge of his tour bus. “It sounds like it’s just somebody talking, but it’s intricate comedy. Every drag of a cigar, every drink of Scotch, is there for a reason. I bounce laughs off of laughs off of laughs. I’ll start here with you”—he holds up a fairly steady hand—“and I’ll just bounce you higher and higher until eventually you’re choking.”

Sitting in the otherwise cool comfort of his luxurious rolling home, recently reappointed by his interior designer wife, Barbara, with faux-alligator seat covers and a plasma TV, the previous night’s toll on White was apparent. Framed by the tall collar of a white dress shirt, his face glowed pink and red, like a slice of spiked watermelon. His hair, light brown with blond highlights, looked as if he’d gone to bed with it wet—or maybe sweated a lot while he was sleeping—and his voice contained an extra measure of its customary gravel and cynicism.

“You can teach somebody how to be a brain surgeon, but you cannot teach them how to walk on a stage and make people laugh,” he said. “It’s that difficult to do. And people who are supposed to do it—Lewis Black, Colin Quinn, Dave Attell, Mitch Hedberg, Bill Hicks—are the ones who do. If you’re not supposed to do it, I can tell.”

In defense of the rest of us, it took White a little time to see it in himself. When he was six, his family moved from Fritch to Deer Park, just outside Houston, and about that time he found his first love, comedy records. “I loved listening to laughter even as a little kid,” he said, momentarily brightening. “The first thing I ever got my hands on was Andy Griffith’s ‘What It Was, Was Football.’ I was fascinated with the fact that every syllable made it funny, and I would laugh even though I didn’t know what any of it meant.”

But his second great love, discovered in his teens, was getting high, and comedy wasn’t so much something to do when growing up as a way to avoid doing just that. “I didn’t fit in exactly with any particular group in high school,” he said. “But I was funny, so the jocks tolerated me and the freaks gave me pot.” He got kicked out of school in the eleventh grade, in 1973, and soon joined the Navy, a last resort for a lot of kids wanting to clean themselves up. “I actually perfected my drug problem in the Navy. I was into anything you could ingest in any way—hallucinogens, opiates. I had a nasty, nasty problem.”

At the Navy’s insistence he left the service and enrolled in a Houston drug abuse program. Once clean, he started counseling for the program and soon became its primary speaker in the area. “I’d go to high schools and talk about my life,” he said, “and it just got funnier and funnier, until finally the people at the program were saying, ‘We don’t think drug addiction should be this funny.’ I said, ‘Well, okay, you tell them your story then. Let’s see where that gets you.’”

The next ten years or so were a blur. He stayed clear of hard drugs, but he reunited with pot and had never really been estranged from alcohol. He moved to Arlington and started selling storm windows out of the back of his truck. “I didn’t really have a lot of drive, but I was a good point-of-contact salesperson,” he said. “So if you came and found me at the strip club, I could sell you some windows.”

On the night of September 13, 1986—White slips the date into conversation as if he’s letting you know his birthday is coming up—a friend talked White into telling jokes at an open mike at an Arlington comedy club. It was his first taste of stand-up. Even more fateful, Jeff Foxworthy, then an unknown comedian himself, happened to be in the room. When White left the stage, Foxworthy took him aside and gave him tips on the proper positioning of punch lines in a bit. The next day the two played golf in Fort Worth. Leaving the course together, White collided head-on with a Suburban. He could have killed them both. They’ve been friends ever since.

Until then, White says he’d been a no-trick pony: “I knew my brain was good at something, but I couldn’t figure out what it was.” Now that he knew, he got serious about being funny. He spent the next thirteen years playing low-paying comedy clubs, making friends with other comedians, studying their acts, and constantly seeking ways to make his own a little bit better.

So there’s no joke in his explanation of the precision in his act, and a close look at his routine reveals how carefully he lays it out. He grins with each punch line but airs a toothy “ta-da!” smile after longer, more involved bits. He litters his sets with callbacks, reoccurring punch lines that may sound weak on first telling but get bigger laughs each time they’re repeated. New material is “put in a hammock” between older, proven jokes for support. And every word spoken serves a purpose. “I used to do a bit about cheating on my first wife, and it’s a very complicated process to sell a cheating bit,” he said. “I pulled it off by making the audience hate her first. If they had liked this girl, they would have never let me cheat on her, but I told them she was from a wealthy family who hated my guts and that she wouldn’t have sex with me. By the time I set that up, the audience was like, ‘Go get some loving, big boy!’”

Of course, getting a straight answer out of a comedian, even a serious one ruminating on the subject of comedy, can be a tall order. I asked White about the stereotype of self-loathing comedians, about the demons in comics’ minds that supposedly drive them to denigrate themselves or others in front of large groups of people. He looked at me as though I’d just sneezed in his Scotch glass.

“Think about Sarah Silverman,” I said, referring to the surreally edgy, bicoastal (translation: non—Middle American) comedian who became a critics’ darling after releasing her own concert film last year. “She gets raped in every other joke in her routine. And those are jokes that she is telling.”

White looked down at his hands and mumbled, “I’d like to rape Sarah Silverman. I think Sarah Silverman is hot.” He lifted his head to see if I was laughing. “Look, I’m not easily offended,” he said. “And it’s certainly not my goal to offend anyone—or not. I want to make them laugh as hard as they physically can, to where they literally hurt the next day. This isn’t a chucklefest. I beat these people to death. And some of it’s thought-provoking, but some of it’s completely un-thought-provoking. I’m trying to write jokes, not treaties.”

“SEVEN YEARS AGO I was living in a friend’s attic,” said White, without a trace of nostalgia. “I’d just come out of a bad relationship and had been living in Mexico, where I owned and operated a pottery concern.” He made a little money doing stateside stand-up on the weekends, but most of that went to the employees back in Mexico. “I owed the IRS literally tens of thousands of dollars,” he said. “Then Jeff Foxworthy called and said, ‘If you play your cards right, you could be part of something really big.’ And I said, ‘Why don’t I just give you my cards and let you play them.’ He said, ‘Okay, well, just shut up then.’”

Foxworthy’s big something was the Blue Collar tour, a four-way package featuring his own redneck-centricity bits, plus White, the exurban-Cosby bit of Bill Engvall, and Dan Whitney, who would become known to the world as Larry the Cable Guy. Modeled after the wildly successful Original Kings of Comedy—Steve Harvey, Bernie Mac, D. L. Hughley, and Cedric the Entertainer—the Blue Collar tour was an instant success when it opened in January 2000. Over the next few years, the country quartet performed in ninety cities, bringing in more than $15 million and rivaling their urban counterparts as the highest-grossing comedy tour ever. Eventually, the four Blue Collar comics became so popular individually that they couldn’t fit group shows into their schedules, but the three DVDs spawned by the tour, featuring concert footage and fish-out-of-water vignettes shot in locales like a spa and a Victoria’s Secret shop, went on to sell more than five million copies. The first DVD, produced for less than $3 million, grossed $38 million. For White, a journeyman comic who’d spent thirteen years amassing that glorious tax debt, the sudden success couldn’t have been more welcome.

So it was a good thing he followed Foxworthy’s suggestion about shutting his mouth. “The first time he told me about the Blue Collar tour, I thought, ‘That’s retarded,’” he said. “Two of the comedians would be doing fifty-minute sets. That’s already too long for a comedy show. The other two”—he and Larry, then relative unknowns—“would be doing ten minutes, and then we’d all come back to do thirty together at the end of the show? Ridiculous.” His mouth was the source of another concern. Foxworthy envisioned a show that people could sit through with their grandmothers, and White’s penchant for F-bombs and bits about masturbating ran counter to that strategy.

Wisely, White straightened up, and as Blue Collar became a national phenomenon, so did Tater Salad. According to Nielsen SoundScan, in the past three years he’s sold two million DVDs of his own, plus 750,000 CDs. His book, a verbatim transcript of the bits on his DVDs, with occasional illustrations of punch lines, has sold more than 70,000 copies. He’s become an inescapable presence on cable TV. “Comedy Central is like one big Ron White infomercial,” White said. Meanwhile, the Blue Collar tour started a large merchandising campaign, and truck stops that for years were the only outlet for White’s CDs also sold Ron White air fresheners. “That just got ridiculous,” he said. “I mean, what’s that going to smell like, spilt Scotch? I’m sorry that ever happened. Now I can’t make fun of anybody. There are Ron White dolls? I can’t even make fun of Carrot Top.”

But he cashed all the checks and is now growing accustomed to a different life. Three years ago he was making $2,500 for a week’s worth of shows, plus airfare. Now he makes about $300,000. The beer and cigarettes he used to take onstage had long given way to Scotch and cigars, but now the Scotch is often 25-year-old Macallan—he jokes that he won’t stick with one brand without a healthy endorsement deal—and the cigars are Cuban Davidoffs. He moved up to $5,000 Brioni suits. He bought a home in Atlanta and one in California. He started driving a Bentley and traveling in a Prevost luxury-liner tour bus.

Understandably, White feels good about it all. “Foxworthy said, ‘Never let them know you’ve got money,’” White said, “and I’m like, ‘What, they can’t do the math?’ Jeff himself lives in a mansion in Atlanta that looks like a college. So, no, I don’t apologize for it. I let my fans know that I live in a gigantic house that they bought me. And I think they cheer for guys like me. I think they want somebody who was living in somebody’s attic to make it big. It gives everybody hope that if you keep pedaling that bike, maybe it’ll happen to you.”

The one drawback White sees is that he can no longer drop in unannounced at a comedy club. Working an open-mike night is like time in a batting cage for a comedian, but if White sits in the back of a comedy club now, the audience tends to face the wrong direction. It’s disrespectful to the comics onstage.

So two or three times a year White convenes in Austin with four of his old comedian buddies under the rubric of the Texas Hill Country Comedy Writers Association. He puts them up in a hotel, and they work out new bits. The association had in fact been together the ten days before White’s Paramount gig. He’d scheduled a mini-tour of Texas and rented a second bus for his associates to follow him from town to town. Each night a different friend opened for him, and then the next day they’d all gather on the back bus and critique videos of the shows.

But the creation of comedy is a singular craft, and it’s no accident that the first three letters of the association’s abbreviated name are T, H, and C. That back bus may have been a conference room by day, but it was something entirely other at night. “We had a disco ball with a little laser light on it,” said White, “and the music was cranking. It was a smoke-filled Cheech and Chong bus. We acted like pure idiots every single night.” The rolling workshop had more than a little to do with his condition as he prepared for that last Paramount show.

Had selling windows been this much fun, maybe White would have tried harder at that. Despite his success, not to mention his surliness, part of him still plays for the love of the game. “I’ve got movie offers and television offers, including a very interesting one from HBO,” he said. “But I’m not doing any of it. I asked the universe to make me a famous comedian, and then it did. I’d kind of hate to turn my back on the universe after it did what I asked.”

IF PART OF THE FUN of drinking whisky is losing your inhibitions or tearing down walls, part of the misery of a hangover is getting those walls rebuilt, a project typically undertaken with plenty of other pounding going on inside the head. It’s not a pretty process, but once your head is cleared, you get to go back to being you.

I reached Ron White on his cell phone a week after the Paramount show, and he graciously informed me that he didn’t have long to talk. He was on his way to audition for that new HBO series. That he appeared to be hedging his bet with the universe wasn’t the only thing that distinguished this second conversation from the one on the bus. His voice was an octave higher. He wife was riding with him to the audition to lend moral support, and I heard them address each other sweetly by pet names; they call each other “Hominy.”

The bluster was gone. I needed to nail down specifics about just how well his career was going, but he seemed embarrassed when pressed for hard dollar figures. Finally he said, “I’ve got a very nice dialogue coach who I’ve worked with for fifteen years, and lately she’s been helping me prepare to read for this part. I’m going to recarpet her house, hopefully without her knowing about it. I want it to be a surprise. My success is great because it allows me to do stuff for my friends that they don’t expect.”

His comedy buddies in Texas offered up even more good deeds by White. Last winter he dropped everything to come to Austin to work a comedy benefit organized for Katrina relief. With Tater Salad atop the marquee, the event raised $85,000. Earlier this year, when one of the THC writers casually mentioned that he’d be late to the spring workshop because of car trouble, White surprised him with a brand-new Ford F-150 pickup. A whirl around tatersalad.com reveals that unlike Larry the Cable Guy, whose site links to Fox News, the Drudge Report, and the Professional Bull Riders—Larry never leaves character—White’s links to the Make-a-Wish Foundation and the Sunshine Camp, for children with terminal illnesses. And White himself did brag about buying his mother a house and his 72-year-old stepfather a nose job. “Actually, he has a disease that made his nose keep growing,” said White before expelling what sounded like a giggle. “When my mother told me about it, I said, ‘A nose job? Does he want to start dating?’ Now he looks so good, I might get him a face-lift. He could be a movie star.”

And as White freely admits, at least in his quieter moments, there is nothing wrong with that.

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