I admire Daniel Lawrence Whitney more than I like Larry the Cable Guy.
Larry the Cable Guy is the comedy circuit sensation and “Cars” vocal star, but Daniel Lawrence Whitney is the ridiculously savvy self-promoter who realized that by crafting an entirely affected blue collar image he could become a zillionaire. Obviously it’s reductive to say that Larry the Cable Guy is popular because of his fake accent, his designer sleeveless flannels and his assortment of baseball caps. There’s no doubt that his material has also struck a chord with a large swath of the population and ignoring that material and its resonance would be doing Larry a great disservice. Still, I watch Larry the Cable Guy and what he does feels only slightly different from the lower income white equivalent of performing in blackface. It’s not like Larry the Cable Guy is really some rich banker’s son from Vermont, but he’s become richer than that banker’s son through some mighty aggressive pandering.
And Larry the Cable Guy hasn’t made his money by pandering to me, which is almost certainly to his benefit.
Suddenly, though, Larry is popping up on the History Channel with a new show called “Only in America with Larry the Cable Guy,” which premieres on Tuesday (Feb. 8) night. In terms of venue, this is probably Larry venturing out of his comfort zone, though he hasn’t changed his persona at all to cater to a History Channel audience (whatever that happens to mean). “Only in America” is a Larry-centric travelogue and if you like Larry, you’ll probably like “Only in America.” And if you don’t? Well, Larry isn’t making accommodations to you. Best case scenario, your reaction will be something along the lines of, “Well, it wasn’t as bad as I expected.”
I watched the first two episodes of “Only in America” and I don’t suffer through two hours of programming if I’m not going to at least write a few words, so click through…
There’s something weird going on at History Channel and Larry the Cable guy’s presence, which wouldn’t have made an iota of sense here five years ago, is suddenly weirdly logical in the context of “Swamp People” and “Pawn Stars” and “Top Shot” and “Ax Men” and a slew of successful new shows that don’t necessarily seem to have anything to do with “history” as the network might previously have described it. When History commissioned an ambitious, star-studded, presumably right-skewing miniseries about the Kennedys, there were raised eyebrows, but there shouldn’t have been, considering the network’s recent and ongoing on-air ideological shift. Then when the network opted not to air “The Kennedys” because of questions regarding its fit with History’s brand, more eyebrows were raised, because that didn’t quite make sense either. The channel is still going with “History Made Every Day” as its logo, but it’s probably time for a network overhaul to make sense of its ongoing change-in-purpose.
Yes, History Channel still honors Black History Month, schedules frequent Nazi-based specials and occasionally looks at Vikings or mummies or Ronald Reagan, but the shift to more cultural skewing programming is embodied in “Only in America,” which is a sort of star-driven travelogue along the lines of what Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern do on Travel Channel or what Bob Saget’s thing on A&E. But while Saget concentrates on the strange and unusual and Bourdain and Zimmern generally focus on food, Larry the Cable Guy’s focus is on… Larry the Cable Guy.
Sometimes there are vaguely historical aspects to the things Larry does. He visits an operational still and learns about how moonshining led to NASCAR. He visits a group of Emily Post’s relatives and is encouraged to take off his hat at the dinner table. He visits NASA headquarters and talks to some astronauts. You can understand exactly the purpose to those activities, but he also visits a so-so water park and goes on a ride and probably becomes the first person in the annals of History Channel introduce a cut-away with a reference to “a brown growler.”
Bathroom humor, always a staple of Larry’s routines, dominates “Only in America” as well. His scatological fascination leads to a really graphic lesson in space station toilet procedure, as well as the bathroom etiquette lesson that leads to the brown growler reference.
But even when Larry is learning about things, which seems to be his ostensible goal, he’s even more frequently interrupting and cracking jokes that perplex or alienate his teachers. You can practically see Larry the Cable Guy’s two personalities butting heads in these sequences. There’s the guy who very clearly *does* want to learn and to have the audience learn, but there’s also the class clown who probably never let any of his teachers complete their lesson plans either.
The fact is that Larry the Cable Guy’s fans wouldn’t *want* him to be respectful in these circumstances and the show is aimed at those fans, who want to be assured that just because Larry’s been invited to Mission Control at NASA doesn’t mean that he would deign to do anything as “traditional” as to dress the way any professional would when getting that sort of rare opportunity. So Larry the Cable Guy stumbles into Mission Control in his shorts, sleeveless flannel and hat and in no time, he’s complimenting one of the astronauts on how much he loved him in “The Karate Kid.” Because the astronaut is Asian! It’s a bizarre moment of random rudeness and not-so-borderline racism that leaves the astronaut visibly uncomfortable and probably prevents Larry from having any sort of real conversation with people who part of him very clearly respects. Just minutes later, Larry is making an impassioned plea for funding and support of NASA, but which part do you think fans are going to remember? My hunch? “Loved you in ‘Karate Kid.'”
So much of “Only in America” is undone by Larry’s pandering to his base, but it’s like he can’t resist. Somebody mentions the French? Reflex action to mock the French. Heck, somebody mentions Europe and it’s his reflex action to mock the French. He has a similarly swift and unavoidable sneer whenever “New England” or “PBS” come up, while when he meets a drag queen, he’s careful to call her an “It.” “Only in America” may be about learning, but it’s definitely not about enlightenment. The undercurrent of misogyny that runs through much of his material is also unavoidable. How knee-jerk is his persona’s discomfort with women? He’s out on a river and a guide tells him the river is wide and shallow and he can’t resist piping up with, “I dated a girl who was wide and shallow.” The guide doesn’t laugh and eve Larry doesn’t seem committed to the bit, but he tosses it in any way, just like he also makes sure that he interjects a “git ‘er done” every few minutes, in case we briefly began forgetting that the inquisitive, occasionally funny man on our screen is actually Larry the Cable Guy. He knows that’s who the fans want, so it’s who the fans get.
Because of the lack of notable focus to Larry’s destinations and his experiences, there’s an equal variation in quality to how he experiences different things. The segment with the moonshiners is fun, especially when Larry effectively pretends to be in awe of NASCAR legend Bill Elliott. I also found some amusement in Larry’s attempts to learn frog-jumping strategy at a Calaveras County Fair. I was less amused by his attempts to water-ski or by his dinner with the Emily Post family, where he somehow learns what order to place the silverware, but misses out on the “Don’t dominate dinner conversation by talking about how much each course sucks” lesson. Again, Larry’s fans would be worried if he was too respectful to anything or anybody, even at the Unofficial Birthplace of Etiquette.
In the balance, “Only in America” is mostly about Larry’s experiences and not with “learning” at all. Fans of Larry the Cable Guy will be happy to see him do his thing in different circumstances, but they probably won’t come away with much more knowledge about what makes the United States unique than they had when they started. Meanwhile, those who are Larry-ambivalent will be teased with a couple fertile situations that get thwarted by Larry’s need to be Larry.
Maybe History Channel just didn’t lead with the show’s highlights when scheduling episodes and sending screeners to critics? My press kit shows Larry doing boot camp at Camp Pendleton, taking minor league batting practice and serving in a Civil War reenactment. I can’t imagine a more awkward reconciling of Larry the Cable Guy’s instincts than a Civil War reenactment — I’m expecting slavery jokes aplenty! — and I really may tune back in to see how that goes down.
“Only in America with Larry the Cable Guy” premieres on February 8 at 9 p.m. on History Channel.