The Comedy Couch

 RON WHITE - October 24, 2006

Ron White

Ron White: I'm fighting a little cold.

Guy MacPherson: It has nothing to do with all the interviews you have to do, does it?
RW: Oh, no, actually that's what I live for.

GM: That's good to know.
RW: Anytime you want to call day or night and ask me a few questions, go right ahead. There's nothing more invigorating: "So, how did you get into comedy?" Yak yak yak, yak yak yak, yak yak yak.

GM: I saw you in Vancouver a few years ago with the Just For Laughs tour.
RW: Oh yeah, that was a blast. That was the most fun I ever had in my life was on the Just For Laughs tour.

GM: Why's that?
RW: Well, if you take Brent Butt and Mike Wilmot and me, and who else was in it? Emo Philips. Actually, he's a little weird. But funny. We just had a blast. I mean, we did a 30-day all across Canada. And Canada's just, you know, it's Canada. It's great. Fun. The people. Some of my first real recognition came from the Montreal comedy festival, not from the States.

GM: This was at least four or five years ago, was it?
RW: You know, I'm so bad at that. It could have been six months ago and I'm like, "What? Was it three years?"

GM: But it was before you hit really big.
RW: Absolutely. Absolutely. So there's three years right there. So probably close to four.

GM: How are the Canadian audiences different, if, indeed, they are different?
RW: You know what? They're actually just better. They laugh at the same things, but you just have the hottest sets. I mean, I've gotten great reviews all over Canada. That was actually a fairly short set. If you saw me do a long set two years ago, I'm not doing one word of that anymore. The entire show has changed but it's still the same style. I mean, I'm a storyteller, whatever, and I work slow and don't move around a lot, whatever that is. Lack of wind, I guess. I got chastised in a review in Schenectady, New York. They said, "Clearly White was not interested in performing some of his signature old bits for this crowd that clearly wanted to hear them." Well I thought I should have been patted on the back for not leaning on my old jokes, you know?

GM: You can't win.
RW: If I had done all the old stuff, he'd have said, "He's written nothin'." But I work harder now because I have so much more exposure. And actually the harder you work as a writer, the better you get at it. It's like anything else. It's a muscle you have to exercise. I write more now than ever.

GM: Is it hard to let go of material that you love doing or you know is going to kill?
RW: You know, my first album, some of those jokes I'd done for twelve years because I couldn't throw 'em out. And as long as you haven't done 'it on television, there's no way you can burn it. It doesn't matter how many shows you do in Omaha, the joke's still good. But now, once you've sold it to Comedy Central and they play it every thirty minutes, then you gotta move on. And you can tell the difference. You can tell on stage when a joke's starting to lose its pop and that means it's overexposed. It doesn't mean people don't want to hear it anymore; it means I don't want to do it anymore. Because I want to move on to something that has a knee-jerk reaction just like you get when you tell somebody a joke that they've never heard. Even if it's a joke you've heard, and you like, you might wanna go ahead and let somebody tell it to you 'cause you don't remember exactly how it goes or whatever. And I'm probably guilty of not giving the fans some of that. I saw Steve Martin when I was 18 in San Diego and he didn't do anything off of Let's Get Small. And I left a little disappointed but now I understand how he feels, you know? They're not songs. If I was Gordon Lightfoot, yeah, rip me apart. But even look at Neil Young. He won't do old stuff and they are songs. They're songs people are dying to hear him do again and he just won't do 'em.

GM: I appreciate your Canadian references.
RW: Oh, okay. Actually, I didn't know Gordon Lightfoot was Canadian (laughs).

GM: Yeah.
RW: I did know Neil Young was Canadian. I just saw him the other day in Chastain Park in Atlanta. And I was surprised that the people there were going, "He's not going to do Cinnamon Girl?" I'm like, "No. No, he's not going to do Cinnamon Girl, I guarantee you." "What about Cowgirl...?" "No, this is new stuff. Sit back and listen. It's great. It's music you're not sick of. Listen to it."

GM: Is there a place for you to work out new material now or do you just do it in the theatres?
RW: No, I go to clubs. If I have a day off and I'm in a city that has a comedy club, I'm on the stage. And open mic night here in Atlanta. I let 'em use my name to support it. I mean, we only do it a couple times a month because I gotta be in town [to be able to do it]. But it's always packed and all the money that we make at the door goes to the other comedians that I invite to be in that show because I don't need it. So the other comedians that live in Atlanta love me because I give 'em a great place to work out twice a month with a big full crowd. And the crowd's not just waiting to hear me. And everybody understands that we're there to work on new stuff so don't go up there and bury me with your best 15 minutes that you've ever written while I'm trying to work out a new toothache bit. Everybody kinda gets it. It's a great room to work out in.

GM: And it must be great for the crowd, too, to see you in such intimate surroundings.
RW: Yeah, they sell out in hours. I mean, it's a little 300-seat room. And we don't give 'em much notice 'cause I don't always know where I'm gonna be.
"David Cross couldn't sell out a bathtub. So I would be worried about that if I was David Cross and not worry about Larry the Cable Guy or what he thought or what he said or what he did or what he does to make people laugh. And he does make people laugh. Is he Einstein? He's actually smarter than you think he is. He's also much more wealthy than anybody could ever dream. He's not an idiot. He is a hick, but he's not an idiot." - Ron White
GM: Did the Blue Collar Tour ever play Canada?
RW: Yeah, we did. We played Vancouver.

GM: And I missed that?
RW: You missed it, yeah. It was before the Just For Laughs tour. We came in and did the same theatre I'm playing in, I believe.

GM: Our southerners here are all... us. Vancouverites. We're the southerners of Canada. So is it the same kind of reaction you'd get in theĀ  States?
RW: Just better. Canadians are just in a better mood (laughs). It's easier to make 'em laugh. The tour that I went on, the only problem with it was that Brent Butt and Mike Wilmot and I have matching habits. And so did some of the other supporting staff. We were going with a band and everything else. So two weeks into it everybody looks like shit 'cause we'd been drinking till three o'clock in the morning every day. And ... I actually forgot the question.

GM: You took it on a tangent, but you were saying...
RW: Oh, right. It is the same. Larry the Cable Guy just got through doing a huge tour through Canada and did huge numbers everywhere. There's some rednecks in Canada (laughs). Or certainly guys that like to hunt and fish and know how to fix a broken car, you know? There's a lot of blue collar in Canada.

GM: It seems that whenever someone in comedy, let alone any arts, gets successful, others want to shoot them down. Have you experienced this?
RW: Not as bad as Larry has. I take some potshots but I don't really listen to it, except for that review I didn't think was fair about the new material. But I don't go on the internet and read what people say about me because I know how I did that night. I'm a critic of myself. And a harsh one, too. If I feel like I wasn't on my game, I know I wasn't on my game, and if I feel like the crowd sucked, I'm probably right, the crowd did suck. But usually it rocks. And that's what I go by. Now, is the show in the exact shape I want it in right now? It's not. It's maybe a little even bluer than I'd like for it to be, but that's just what I've been able to produce that's new and I'm not gonna sacrifice the power of laughter to be a more family-friendly comedian. I'm just not gonna do it. So I'm getting some comments that the show's gotten too blue and I'm like, "Oh well", you know? I mean, what's offensive to me and what's offensive to you are probably two different things. I forget that some people are not as hard to offend and then they want me to tell jokes about the war and I'm like, "Well, no, that's offensive to me." I have a 16-year-old son so I won't make comments about that or make light of it in any way. And then when people do, I'm offended by it.

GM: Are you getting any people walking out now, thinking the show's too offensive? "This isn't what I saw on TV!"
RW: You know what? I don't know that I am, but I could be. I play to a pretty dark house so I wouldn't know. We get a lot of e-mails that I don't read, but my wife does. So we kinda have a general feel of how the crowd feels about it. But I know that I'm beating these crowds to death for an hour and twenty minutes. I mean, they couldn't laugh harder with a shoehorn. I don't even know what that meant (laughs). It would help if they couldn't laugh any harder than they're laughing at this show. So, am I going to far in some areas? I don't think so. If I thought so, I wouldn't do it.

GM: Larry the Cable Guy, Dane Cook, Carrot Top, when he was on top, whoever the comic is, the bigger they are, everyone's got to pile on.
RW: Oh yeah, no kidding. Well, see, Dane Cook started off by dissing Larry the Cable Guy. And same with... Oh, there's a few comics that got on Larry's case.

GM: David Cross .
RW: Yeah, Cross. Now, David Cross couldn't sell out a bathtub. So I would be worried about that if I was David Cross and not worry about Larry the Cable Guy or what he thought or what he said or what he did or what he does to make people laugh. And he does make people laugh. Is he Einstein? He's actually smarter than you think he is. He's also much more wealthy than anybody could ever dream. He's not an idiot. He is a hick, but he's not an idiot. But people take more potshots at him than they do at me.

GM: Well, now Dane Cook knows what it feels like.
RW: Well, Dane Cook didn't realize that he's in the same boat we are (laughs). They're throwing rocks at him just like they're throwing rocks at us. They put him in our boat. And I have no feelings about that one way or the other. I don't know Dane Cook. I just know that I'm not a huge fan. But I don't have to be, you know? He doesn't need me.

GM: Are there artistic drawbacks, or any drawbacks, to such huge success? You remember that last Steve Martin album where the audience was just screaming at anything he said.
RW: That's why I like to do unreleased material because they can't scream the punchline. They don't know the punchline. And that's exactly why. That's why Steve Martin didn't put out another album 'cause it's just too hard to come up with another original show to tour with. So he decided to go ahead and make a jillion dollars in movies. So the whole process is not as easy as it looks. But it's also so gratifying, it doesn't matter how hard it is. At the end of the night, if I'm doing two shows and I'm still on stage at midnight and I've been drinking for a few hours and I come off stage, I've given everything I've got, even though I don't move around a lot. I come off stage and I'm beat, you know? I'm drained. And I gotta get back on the bus and travel to the next city. It's an easy job compared to hanging drywall or whatever else you might do, but it's still no cakewalk.
"I begged the universe to make me a famous comedian. And it did. So I tend not to ask for any more. I'm not asking the universe to make me a famous actor: 'Wait a minute, Universe, you haven't done enough for me.'" - Ron White
GM: This cool, whiskey-drinking, smart-ass persona you have, did that take a while to develop or is that always what you did?
RW: No, from day one I always smoked and drank on stage. And I realized from a fairly young comedic age that the only common denominator between all really famous comedians was that they were basically true to their own nature, whether it was Kinison or Cosby or Pryor or Bill Hicks. Or Jeff Foxworthy. Jeff Foxworthy goes to church, he takes his kids to school, doesn't cuss, normal life. So the point where I was wearing really nice clothes on stage, that took a while because I didn't have the money for 'em. So I was just doing what I could. But my show definitely evolved over the years. You know, it's hard to be who you really are whenever you walk on stage. Also, if you're acting and you're just supposed to be yourself, that's the hardest thing to do. It's easier to act like something else than it is to act like yourself. So it took a long time for me to get very good at it. But I always had a really strong presence on stage. I was beating crowds up within six months of going on stage. Hard. Even though I could only do it for six or seven minutes. Yeah, you gotta have great content, but if you don't have that pace and rhythm and timing, which I had from day one, then you can't develop it, I don't think.

GM: I was interviewing a jazz musician last night who was saying that no matter how good or successful you are or think you are when you're young, when you look back on it, you weren't all that good. He said it takes time to get really good. Does that make any sense?
RW: Absolutely, it makes sense. On a couple levels, if I look back at what I've done over the last twenty years - September 13 was twenty years - and thought about doing it again, I wouldn't do it because I have no idea how I did it. I thought I was a good comedian even before I was a good comedian. It takes three years just to understand the relationship that you have with the audience. So when I see these young guys that can go out there and bang it for thirty minutes with mediocre content, or whatever, they're completely full of themselves. And I kinda understand that 'cause I was full of myself before I should have been. And I think now I'm less full of myself than ever. Because I begged the universe to make me a famous comedian. And it did. Or a popular comedian or whatever I am. So I tend not to ask for any more. I'm not asking the universe to make me a famous actor. "Wait a minute, Universe, you haven't done enough for me."

GM: During the lean years, were you ever tempted to quit?
RW: Even in the lean years, I made more money than I made... I considered myself successful also way before I was successful. And I didn't pay my taxes, which made it a lot easier to make ends meet. I mean, they're all paid now but at the time I went six years, seven years and didn't even file any income tax. I had no money: "There's no sense doing this paperwork. I got no cash to give 'em."

GM: But you were making enough, obviously, to get by.
RW: Yeah. I mean, I was headlining comedy clubs after three years. I was making 1200, maybe up to 2000 bucks, a week. And most of my friends didn't make that much money, that had regular jobs. My friends were all drug addicts so they didn't make any money. But I thought that was really good money. I made, I mean, every mistake anybody could ever make. But five years ago I was living in a friend of mine's attic. I had moved to Mexico and opened a pottery factory. Or a pottery concern. We were actually collecting it. I didn't pay that much attention to marketing (laughs). And I would come out on the weekends and open for Foxworthy and go back to Mexico. I was there with a crazy woman. And you can't just break up with somebody if you're in a foreign country. You can't just leave 'em in, you know, Mexico. So it was very complicated. And I finally got out of it and I was living in my friend's attic when Blue Collar 1 started, when the tour started. And I didn't really get a piece of that. I was well-paid as an opening act, as was Larry. We didn't have a piece of that. We got an equal piece of the other two.

GM: You've said you were successful, not famous. Do you still go by that?
RW: I said I'm popular. I would describe me as popular, not famous. But a lot of people know who I am. But if you don't watch Comedy Central, you certainly don't know who I am. And you don't have Comedy Central in Canada, so... I guess you do, though, if you have satellite, right?

GM: I think so. And the Comedy Network picks up some programming from Comedy Central. But I'm thinking that's got to be the best thing in the world to be successful and popular without having the hassle of not being able to walk down the street.
RW: You're absolutely right. And the next step up is isolation. I wake up every morning at a Cracker Barrel, which is a kind of a great breakfast place in America. I sleep on the tour bus and usually my wife and two or three dogs are on the bus. And my driver drives at night and he'll get close to the city we're going to and we'll stop at one of these Cracker Barrels. So I wake up in the parking lot of a breakfast place every day. And that's a very blue collar environment. And in there, I am a famous person. The most famous person they'll probably ever see eat at a Cracker Barrel. Maybe. So I sign a few autographs. And we're sitting at a table that's kinda in the corner. And then they bring our food and these three girls walk up to the table and they're very rude. And one of 'em throws her pack of cigarettes on the table and she goes, "Sign my smokes!" And my driver's very, very protective of me. He's been my driver for three years. And he says, "Can you wait till he finishes eating?" I'm literally chewing eggs, you know? And wife's sitting there and she says, "He'll only be about five minutes. He'd be glad to sign your cigarette package." So she rolls her eyes and walks off. Then my wife and I are walking outside of the building on the way back to the bus and those girls drive by and she rolls down her window and screams, "Asshole!" And I'm like, "Asshole? I just wanted to finish chewing my food!" But most people are very gracious and they're very nice. And the thing that's odd about somebody asking you for an autograph... Because I actually don't know anybody that really collects autographs. You really just wanna say something to me and you can't think of anything else to say. So you ask me to do something, which is sign my name on a piece of paper. And that just seems weird to me. I've never asked anybody for their autograph ever. Because I don't know what I'd do with it once I have it: "Look, I've got a name on a piece of paper."

GM: Once you're at that level you're at, you can't afford to ever have an off day. If you go out and you're not feeling well and you're a little curt with somebody, they'll think that's the way you are all the time.
RW: Oh, yeah. Well, that's what'll happen with those three girls. That'll be the biggest thing that'll probably ever happen to 'em is that a celebrity was an asshole. And I guarantee you every Thanksgiving for the rest of their lives, somebody's gonna go, "Tell us that time that asshole Ron White wouldn't sign your cigarette package. Tell that story! Here's a good story. Listen to this story." "That asshole. All I wanted him to do was put his name on a pack of cigarettes." I mean, forever that'll happen. So I try not to. And I actually talked to my driver about it. I said, "Todd, if somebody asks for an autograph, we have to give it to 'em." Larry, he does an impression of it, and I can't do it justice, but he goes, "I hate to interrupt you while you're chewing your lunch out there with your family and your kids, but I got a busload of crippled kids out there in the parking lot and Jesus took one of 'em's legs. And we'd like for you, while your food is cooling off, to just come out here and sign a few dozen..." People can get a little aggressive.

GM: Do you travel with an opening act?
RW: Yeah, Brian Mallow's coming with me. Everybody will enjoy Brian's work. He's a good friend of mine. A very funny guy. He's doing the whole run up there. We're going to do Yakima, Washington, and then we're going to fly that night over to Vancouver because, you know, the weed is so much better. We're gonna spend two nights in Vancouver then we're gonna move over to Portland.

GM: Ah, now I know why you're coming to Vancouver.
RW: There you go.

GM: That Canadian tour taught you something.
RW: Absolutely. The Canadians make me cross-eyed.

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