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