The Funny State
How North Carolina comedians are redefining American humor.
Spivey has been moving this tradition forward herself, not only on those shows, but on Saturday Night Live, where she was a writer for more than a decade. A series of sketches she wrote featuring Amy Poehler as a girl named Kaitlin and Horatio Sanz as her stepdad Rick have a distinctly Southern sensibility, embracing class distinctions without being cheap or cruel. In one sketch, hyperactive Kaitlin and Rick are at the mall, where Kaitlin pesters her stepdad for a free ear-piercing from her cousin. After the exhausted Rick finally relents, Kaitlin chickens out, and Rick saves Kaitlin the embarrassment of cowardice by pretending he’s changed his mind. The humanity of the sketches was typical of Spivey’s work; Kaitlin and Rick are fundamentally believable.
In 2011, Spivey created Up All Night, which stars Will Arnett, Christina Applegate, and Maya Rudolph and this past May was renewed for a second season. While its sources in the North Carolina tradition may be less obvious, Spivey assures me they’re still there. “Everything I write secretly takes place in North Carolina and in the 1980s,” Emily explained over email. “I swear to God.”
The Andy Griffith Show is not the only product of the early ’60s that has proven essential to the new wave of North Carolina comedy. In that same era, a Winston-Salem-born novelist, John Ehle, accepted a position on the staff of North Carolina Gov. Terry Sanford. The two men devised a plan to create a new, publicly funded school, an arts conservatory, rooted in performance, rather than the academy, and taught by working artists. In 1963, the North Carolina School of the Arts was chartered. It’s a high school as well as an arts college, and it’s part of the 16 colleges in the UNC system. It’s one of the reasons that more North Carolina comedians have found their way out of the state in recent years, venturing away from small foothill towns and broadcasting their particular sensibilities to the wider world.
Among its graduates is the entire creative team behind Eastbound & Down, a show that, in Scott Jacobson’s words, is “North Carolina to the core.” Jody Hill would be pleased at the description, I think; he told me that when he and his fellow creators looked to the movies and television, “We really didn’t see the South we knew represented.” Kenny Powers, the central character of Eastbound & Down, is a modern-day Jack, of the Appalachian Jack Tales—which people have been retelling in North Carolina for centuries. Jack is a weak and shiftless character but clever and quick-witted. In the end he’s often taught an instructive lesson, though it doesn’t necessarily stick. This is part of the mystique of Kenny Powers. And like Griffith, Danny McBride knows not to play his character for laughs. He plays him with utter sincerity, and the laughs follow.
McBride, Hill, and David Gordon Green have formed a production company, Rough House, which now has multiple development deals in place. That kind of collaboration is common among the North Carolina comedy crew. When Zach Galifianakis moved to New York, he roomed with A.D. Miles, a friend from N.C. State, currently the head writer of Late Night With Jimmy Fallon; and a childhood friend Bobby Tisdale—now also on Late Night’s staff. Brian Huskey, an Upright Citizens Brigade alum whom I got to know at UNC-Greensboro in the early ’90s—a public education is a common thread among N.C. comics—told me that “those guys, from the moment I met them, they were very inclusive, there was no competition, which I think is a North Carolina thing.”
So far, Galifianakis is the superstar of North Carolina’s comedy renaissance. Which feels fitting, given how well the comedian clearly understands his place of origin. Marty Huggins, his character in The Campaign, captures North Carolina’s duality perfectly—an asexual, passive-aggressive eccentric who is somehow woven into macho NASCAR culture. Huggins is a new iteration of an earlier Galifianakis character, his fictional twin brother, Seth, whom Galifianakis has been developing since he was student at his North Carolina high school. Seth is an effeminate youth minister with an unexpectedly sinister side. Huggins, too, can be vicious, and farcically goofy, but Galifianakis plays him straight. His manner and speech are not caricatured. I know that guy. We grew up together, in North Carolina.
Evan Smith Rakoff works for Poets & Writers and lives in Manhattan with his wife and two children.