Jeff Foxworthy.

How popular culture gets popular.
April 21 2005 3:25 PM

Jeff Foxworthy

He's the best-selling comedy recording artist of all time. Really.

You might sell 15 million copies if...
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You might sell 15 million copies if...

Jeff Foxworthy's Web site highlights two noteworthy bits of trivia about the Atlanta-based comedian: His wit has been compared to that of Mark Twain, and he is the best-selling comedy recording artist of all time. The first point is debatable—there aren't many one-liners about mudflaps in Pudd'nhead Wilson. But Foxworthy's astounding album sales are undeniable. His 1993 debut You Might Be a Redneck If… went multiplatinum, and the release of last year's Have Your Loved Ones Spayed or Neutered pushed his total album sales above 15 million. His greatest-hits disc is currently No. 3 on the comedy charts. Not bad for a performer whose eponymous sitcom flopped in 1997.

How has Foxworthy managed to outsell such legends as Richard Pryor, Jerry Seinfeld, and Bill Cosby? Much of the comic's success is due to his marketing team's early masterstroke: In the early 1990s, when stand-up comedians' albums weren't selling, Foxworthy's people packaged him as a sort of spoken-word country artist instead.

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Such machinations would have been unthinkable in the industry's prime, when comics enjoyed sales on par with those of musicians. Recorded comedy had exploded in 1960, when a former accountant released The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart. In the lead routine, Newhart imagines Abraham Lincoln being coached through the Gettysburg Address by a toadying press agent (who greets the 16th president by saying, "Hi, Abe, sweetheart, how are ya, kid?"). It was a provocative swipe at political hypocrisy—the kind of humor consumers rarely heard on contemporary sitcoms like The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.

Before Button-Down Mind, most comics lived off nightclub appearances and, if they were lucky, acting gigs. But Newhart's album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard chart—beating out Elvis and the soundtrack from The Sound of Music—and held its position for 14 weeks. Albums by Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, and Bill Cosby soon became hits; a decade later, albums from Richard Pryor and Steve Martin followed suit.

But the advent of widespread basic cable in the 1980s nearly killed the market for comedy albums. Cable provided a stand-up glut. Subscribers could get their chuckles on the cheap by watching shows like An Evening at the Improv, which debuted in 1982. The comedy racks at record stores were eventually deserted by consumers and relegated to low-visibility real estate between World Music and New Age.

Record labels, then, were desperate to find new ways to promote their acts. They tried releasing comedy segments as singles, but radio stations were reluctant to play them. Ninety seconds of Louie Anderson riffing about his weight problems? It seemed like an odd fit between cuts from Pearl Jam or Paula Abdul.

When Warner Brothers started promoting You Might Be a Redneck If…, it urged stores to file the album under country, not comedy. The label bolstered its case by lifting bits of the album, setting them to country music, and then marketing the single to radio stations under the title " Redneck Stomp." It was a strategy inspired by the success of Steve Martin's "King Tut," a silly musical number from the comedian's 1978 album A Wild and Crazy Guy. Sales of the album took off after Martin performed the song on Saturday Night Live, and radio stations picked up "King Tut" as a novelty.

"Redneck Stomp" became a surprise hit. It was little more than a collection of Foxworthy's one-liners ("If you've ever made change from the collection plate, you might be a redneck") set to a stock country beat. But the song was so popular that satirist "Weird" Al Yankovic was enlisted to direct a video, which then entered heavy rotation on the Nashville Network. *

Country-music fans began asking for You Might Be a Redneck If… at record stores. The requests gave retailers a reason to rescue the album from its comedy-section exile and place it alongside the latest from Brooks & Dunn or Travis Tritt—which is exactly what Warner Brothers wanted all along. You Might Be a Redneck If… eventually went triple-platinum, as did the follow-up Games Rednecks Play. Not coincidentally, the latter album also included a musical mash-up, "Party All Night," which garnered Foxworthy more valuable airplay.

Although Foxworthy abandoned Warner Brothers for DreamWorks a few years ago, he still shies away from calling himself a stand-up comedian. "I consider myself part of country music," Foxworthy told Billboard in 2000. He hosts a syndicated Top 25 country-music radio show, and he emceed last week's CMT Music Awards, which should help secure his place in the country-music section.

Foxworthy's albums are also prominently displayed at Wal-Mart—another key to his record-setting sales. Wal-Mart, which accounts for around 20 percent of all new-album sales, refuses to stock any record that carries a parental warning sticker. The policy excludes an enormous number of comedians—try, for a moment, to imagine Chris Rock's patter without the F-bombs.

Foxworthy's comedy, on the other hand, is clean enough to earn a thumbs-up from the retailer's censors—it's free of expletives, and his subject matter won't make Grandma blush. (There is a bit about a nipple-gnawing beaver, but it's tamer than it sounds.) So, Foxworthy's unedited musings are stocked chainwide. And the stores have an added incentive to push Foxworthy's products: The comedian, in conjunction with American Greetings, has his own line of "You might be a redneck …" greeting cards, which are sold exclusively at Wal-Mart.

There's one last, rather simple explanation for Foxworthy's success. Before the Atlanta-born Foxworthy showed up, the comedy industry hadn't adequately tapped the audience that identifies itself as "country"—the consumers who tend to buy Dodge trucks with Hemi engines or sing along to Gretchen Wilson's "Redneck Woman." It turns out the demographic has an insatiable yen for humor that skewers country-fried stereotypes. On this week's Billboard comedy chart, seven of the top 10 slots are taken up by comedians like Larry the Cable Guy, Bill Engvall, and Cledus T. Judd, who also cover Foxworthy territory. In fact, Billboard launched its stand-alone comedy chart last year largely in response to the boom in country comedy.

Foxworthy has toured tirelessly to reach these consumers, playing a wide range of casinos, country-music gigs, and rodeos. Last year, for example, he became the first comedian ever to entertain at the San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo. This year, another clean-talking, best-selling comedian followed suit: Bill Cosby. If Cosby's handlers know what's good for him, he may soon take the stage in cowboy boots and a bolo tie.

* Correction, April 22, 2005: This piece originally stated that the Nashville Network later became Country Music Television. The two were actually sister networks. Click here to return to the corrected sentence.

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for Gizmodo. His first book, Now the Hell Will Start, is out now.

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