“Beat ‘Em Up And Send ‘Em Home”
Ron White is Commander-In-Chief of the United States of Laughter
“Aw, I feel like a hundred …pesos,” growls Ron White during a leisurely late-morning breakfast. At his east coast home, just north of Atlanta, the cantankerous comedian picks at his food while he pontificates on his 30-year career.
A veteran of various stand-up specials and albums, White’s resume boasts a number of Blue Collar Comedy tours with buddies Jeff Foxworthy, Larry the Cableguy and Bill Engvall, overseas visits to entertain the troops and a best-selling book. In late 2015, he announced a tongue-in-cheek run for the highest office in the land as he continues to preside as president of his thriving Number Juan tequila company.
Onstage, a slow and deliberate pour and sip of the strong liquor earns ol’ “Tater Salad” the same sort of supportive whoops Joni Mitchell used to receive for a dramatic pause to light and inhale a cigarette. The comparison is apt because both are enthralling storytellers, albeit at decidedly opposite ends of the literary spectrum.
I’m sorry you didn’t win your presidential bid. Things in this country would be a hell of a lot different right now.
Different, yeah. But I’m glad you didn’t say better! I filled out my paperwork as a candidate because I didn’t realize we were taking Donald seriously. He just had a reality show on TV. Hell, I thought we could make it the Donald and Ronald reality show, you know? But I was shocked as to how seriously people even took me as a candidate! I mean, tens of thousands of people wrote in and were saying, “Where do we send money?” “Where’s my yard sign?” I was like, “No, no, no! This is just ridiculous.” I don’t really want to be president of anything. I don’t want to be president of my tequila company, much less the president of the United States! It really kind of made me nervous. That’s what made me think, “Well maybe he could win. People like something shiny. And that’s all I was.
And like most politicians you have a well-documented, shall-we-say “colorful” past.
Oh, I’d do interviews and I’d tell ‘em everything. Like, “I know people have always asked me to run for president, but I haven’t for the regular reasons: the drugs, the women, the alcohol…” (laughs). And people still wanted me to be president!
Clean living is no longer a prerequisite for the office. Your motto was “Vote Smart.”
Well yeah, that’s what I was hopin’ would happen. And now here we are.
And here we are in Suwanee but you also live in Los Angeles. Two opposite locations in so many ways.
I just like to mix it up. I love where I live here but I spend so much more time out there. I have access to three comedy clubs within two miles of my house and I can bounce around every night doing sets, so that’s what I do when I’m there.
It’s a good balance from the big road shows. But 30 years on, do you still enjoy the club scene?
Yeah. Normally I’ll do Thursday, Friday and Saturday in three different towns. I come home on Sunday and then I’ll do three sets - at the Improv, Laugh Factory and the Comedy Store. Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, same thing. Then Thursday I’ll catch a red-eye to go out of town and it starts again.
That’s a lot of work.
Well, it’s a lot of fun. I love doing stand up and for me it’s fun to go out to the clubs. I always tell them I’m coming, I don’t pop in because that would bump somebody and I hate that. I always do my [allotted] time. I don’t go over like some of the bigger guys do. Makes me want to slap ‘em.
At this point, comics from several generations are you not only your peers, but real friends.
That’s right. I think the thing I’m proudest of in my career is that I’m respected by my peers. And the young comics love me. I hang out and drink and smoke with ‘em. It’s just what I like to do. I’ll leave home around 9 o’clock and just Uber down to the club, bounce around town and do my sets. When I’m done, I’ll Uber it back to the house.
The Comedy Store scene in particular was so crucial in the ‘70s and it’s having a real renaissance today.
There’s definitely a new heyday now, with me and Joe Rogan and Ali Wong and Iliza and Sebastian. Everybody that walks out on that stage has got chops like you just wouldn’t believe. You better bring your A-game or you’ll be the B-comic! And there’s a really good comedy scene in Atlanta, too. When I’m in town, I’ll do the Laughing Skull and the Star Bar and Sweetwater Brewery but there’s no way I can do three sets a night like I can in L.A.
I’ve talked with a number of the regulars of the L.A. scene and they all agree it’s a great way to work up new material.
Because you can do it so fast that way. For sure, if I’m working on a new bit I’m not gonna like the way I did it the first time. But I can go right down the street and try it again. And then right on down the street and try it again. It’s a great way to develop new stuff and it’s fun. I’m not there just to hit a crowd really hard, which is also fun. But I’ve gotta have something new in that show or I’m pretty much just beatin’ off… which is also fun.
With the steady work you must have a new hour ready to shoot.
I do. People want it, but I’m not sure who’s gonna get it. I’m gonna shoot it for sure, in case something happens to me, my son will have it or [wife and current opening act, singer-songwriter] Margo will have it to do something with. But right now I don’t know what I’ll do with it.
The market is full of comedy specials, so much that they aren’t really that “special” anymore.
Yeah it is, you’re right. It’s a quandary and it’s something we all talk about up at the ‘Store. You know, everybody still comes in there to do sets including Chapelle and Rock and CK. Everybody. You’ve got to go in there and work out the beats on this new stuff. You’ve got to do that yourself or you’ll turn into Leno.
The comedy special has evolved into the modern equivalent of a comedy record. Were comedy LPs early influences on you?
Yeah, it all came from that. For Christmas one year, somebody gave my parents a copy of “What It Was, Was Football,” the record by Andy Griffith. And it was good, too. I used to listen to it over and over and over. I liked to listen to it because it was good to hear people laugh and people didn’t laugh around my house too much. And then came Bob Newhart and Flip Wilson and Pat Paulsen and then Cosby, who we all probably leaned more from than anybody else. “Bill Cosby: Himself” is, in my opinion, still the best comedy special ever made. But yeah, I collected those records. I don’t know if any one influenced me more than another but I know collectively they all did.
You remind me a lot of comic Brother Dave Gardner, who was like a very wayward, hip preacher.
Well my pace and rhythm comes from watching my uncle preach. He was a great orator and he was funny. I really give a lot of credit to Uncle Charlie.
There’s a fine line between being a good comic, preacher or politician. It’s all based on storytelling.
Yeah and besides the presidential run thing, I’ve definitely made a conscious decision to avoid politics. I’m not a political commentator anyway. Now that it’s just low-hangin’ fruit that anybody can do, I’m certainly not gonna go there. I’m just gonna make people laugh. I’m not gonna sit up there and spout off my political views and piss off half of ‘em. I’m just gonna do what they paid me to do, I’m gonna do my show. I’m gonna beat ‘em up and send ‘em home. That’s really what they need.
Ron White plays two shows (7 and 10 pm) April 8 at Cobb Energy Center. Margo Rey opens.