The Funniest State in the Country? North Carolina.

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Aug. 9 2012 9:15 AM

The Funny State

How North Carolina comedians are redefining American humor.

The Campaign
Zach Galifianakis as Marty Huggins and Will Ferrell as Cam Brady in The Campaign

Photo by Patti Perret/Warner Bros Pictures.

In The Campaign, which opens tomorrow, Will Ferrell is Cam Brady, an ambitious, skirt-chasing politician with a $900 haircut and a remarkable amount of self-admiration. So you could be forgiven for thinking that the setting of the movie, North Carolina, was chosen to highlight a passing resemblance to a certain former Senator and vice presidential candidate. Ferrell’s co-star, Zach Galifianakis, is a native of Wilkesboro, N.C., and his uncle, Nick Galifianakis, represented the state in the U.S. Congress from 1967 to 1973. But that’s probably not the reason behind the choice of setting, either. As it happens, Shawn Harwell, who wrote the film, his first, is also a Tar Heel and grew up in a town not far from Wilkesboro (though he and Galifianakis met for the first time on the set of The Campaign). Harwell’s name may be new to you, but perhaps you’ve seen the show he helps write, Eastbound & Down, set in Shelby, N.C. It was created by Jody Hill, from Concord, a couple hours southeast of Shelby; Ben Best, raised in High Point; and Danny McBride, whom Best and Hill befriended at film school in Winston-Salem.

The list of contemporary North Carolinian comics doesn’t end there—far from it. Over the last decade, North Carolinians have helped to write Saturday Night Live, The Daily Show, Late Night, and Parks & Recreation, among other humorous TV series. Community features two North Carolinians: Ken Jeong, who also appeared alongside Galifianakis in The Hangover, and Jim Rash, a Groundlings alum who won an Oscar for writing The Descendants. Another of NBC’s Thursday night comedies, Up All Night, was created by Emily Spivey, of High Point and UNC-Greensboro. Anthony King, former artistic director of the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, went to UNC-Chapel Hill about 10 years after fellow UCB-er Peyton Reed, a big-time comedy director whose credits include Yes Man, Bring It On, and, most recently, three episodes of the hit sitcom New Girl. If you go to the UCB Theatre these days, you might see Charlie Todd, who founded Improv Everywhere and graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2001. All these comics can probably appreciate the peculiarities of North Carolina life that have been chronicled by David Sedaris, who grew up there in a big family that includes his sister Amy, a comedian best known for her beloved Comedy Central show, Strangers With Candy. And there are many others.

The Tar Heel State is far removed from the traditional urban centers of comedy: New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. So why is North Carolina generating so much of our contemporary humor?

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“I think North Carolina breeds comedians because it’s such a border state—not entirely Southern and certainly not Northern,” Scott Jacobson, who has written for the Daily Show, Saturday Night Live’s TV Funhouse, and Fox’s animated sit-com Bob’s Burgers, told me. “People who live there have that slight sense of disjunction and not-belonging that seems to breed comedy.” Comedy frequently comes from the margins, outside the dominant culture—just consider how many of America’s best comics have been black, Jewish, or Canadian. Something similar seems to be fueling the North Carolina comedy boom.

The breadth of North Carolina’s current comedy influence is not immediately obvious—in part because the work of these writers and actors is unlike Southern humor of the past. But their work is nonetheless rooted in a storytelling tradition particular to their region. As Anthony King, who grew up in Durham, told me, “The Blue Collar Comedy thing is exploiting broad stereotypes of Southerners, but the Emily Spivey/Eastbound brand of comedy is more focused on how complex, nuanced, and hypocritical people really are. That focus on character feels like a truly Southern thing to me—going back to classic Southern literature like Faulkner or Flannery O’Connor. There’s a fascination with broken people.”

That tradition goes back to before the Civil War. In the late 1850s an itinerant minister and editor named Hardin Taliaferro—which he pronounced Tolliver—sent a manuscript entitled Fisher’s River (North Carolina) Sketches and Characters to a publisher in New York. The book came out in 1859 under the pen name “Skitt,” who, the book explained “Was Raised Thar.” Thar, in Taliaferro’s case, was Mount Airy, in Surry County, N.C., in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Taliaferro, who was born in 1811, described life in the 1820s in a series of comical vignettes. Taliaferro was considered a humorist of the frontier—what was then called the Old Southwest, where civilization met the wilderness. This clash of civilizations—and the personalities born of its conflicting whorl—is what interested readers, and what sparked Taliaferro to write the sketches after revisiting his childhood home in 1857. He described a people between two worlds.

Taliaferro’s Fisher’s River flows near the humble home where Andy Griffith was born a century later, in Mount Airy, where Griffith’s father operated a band saw at a furniture manufacturer. Griffith once said that he felt second class his entire childhood, and he used music and acting to escape his hometown. And yet a few years after making his screen debut in the Elia Kazan drama A Face in the Crowd, he delivered an idyllic version of small-town North Carolina into the homes of millions with The Andy Griffith Show, which has been on the air continually since 1960. Griffith was a student of Jack Benny’s, and he understood the power of silences—and of playing it straight. His belief was an actor shouldn’t ask for laughs; just be true and convincing and the laughs will come. “If a joke made a lie out of the character we’d lose the joke,” he said. And that same commitment to character can be found in the work of the North Carolinians who have come after him.

In fact, Emily Spivey’s love for The Andy Griffith Show helped her get hired as a writer on King of the Hill—or so she believes. She was hired by Greg Daniels, who “had a framed map of Mayberry on his wall” and who said he loved not only the humor of Griffith’s series but also how humane it was. “The characters really cared for each other in a real and touching way.” Spivey sees that tradition alive not only in King of the Hill, but also on Parks and Recreation. “Pawnee is totally Mayberry,” she says. “All the humor and stories come out of the love and compassion the characters have for each other.” The series takes place in Indiana, but it could easily be the foothills of North Carolina. There are multiple narratives and rich asides that hearken back to Southern storytelling. Its characters—Leslie Knope, Ron Swanson, April Ludgate, and the rest—are, as in the front-porch stories of old, eccentric, flawed, and heroic.

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.

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