Jeff Foxworthy had an enviable problem. The Atlanta comic finally landed his own network TV show, sure to be an extension of his million-dollar "You might be a redneck" humor. ABC, oddly, had something else in mind.
First, the network insisted he set the show in the thoroughly un-Southern town of Bloomington, Ind. Then, when Foxworthy suggested a storyline or promo idea, ABC shot him down.
"Once, this guy with a fake tan and greased-back hair in an Armani suit gives me a condescending smile and says, "Jeff, this is TV. I think I know your people,'
" Foxworthy recalls. "I looked at him and said, "You don't have any idea who my people are. You don't have a clue.'
ABC didn't, and promptly canceled The Jeff Foxworthy Show, even after a People's Choice Award, an impressive feat for a first-year series. To the laid-back comic, it was a clear-cut case of anti-Southernism.
"When was the last time the smartest person in a movie had a Southern accent? If you have a sitcom with somebody from the South cast on it, chances are it's going to be the least intelligent person," says Foxworthy, who was vindicated when NBC picked up the comedy and gave him room to do his show his way on Mondays this fall:
"Now, I want to do a show "my people' deserve."
Anthony Clark understands. Though the Boston Common star _ and Virginia native _ approaches his Southern sitcom differently than Foxworthy, both Southerners have felt the wrath of TV stereotyping.
"Nobody that's involved with this wants to be the next Hee-Haw," Clark insists. "There are times in the script where you go "I can't say this. I can't do a joke about sleeping with my cousin because it's so tired.' "
"I don't know why everyone feels that once you write a sitcom for Southern characters they have to be in overalls with chickens flying around the living room. That's just not a reality anymore."
To Foxworthy, the Southern dilemma is clear: "It's a fine line. You want to laugh with, but not at. That's always been my thing, to embrace what makes the South unique, but don't do unfair stereotypes about it."
Take the accents. Foxworthy graduated from Georgia Tech and worked as an engineer at IBM before trying comedy. "There are ranges of education and smarts in the South," he insists. "Yet if there's someone Southern in a movie, more than likely there's a red rag in his back pocket and he's saying, "Y'all wanta fill it up?' "
Southern charm also hinders performers in fighting the Hollywood battle. Admittedly laid-back and non-confrontational, Foxworthy didn't always speak his mind when his gut told him to during his year with ABC.
Change may be a'comin'. Foxworthy has crashed the New York Times best-seller list, and seems to have an endless supply of populist humor inside him. NBC, oft-criticized for airing so many like-minded New York shows, showed originality and guts by "not" scheduling his show and Boston Common back-to-back in a trite "Must-Chew TV" block. CBS promises a strong Southern female role model in Annie Potts' role as a teacher on Dangerous Minds.
And on Boston Common, Clark's Southerner-out-of-water character spent last spring romancing an intellectual and making genuine friends with an African-American woman. When his sitcom filled in on NBC's coveted Thursday lineup last year, it outperformed the supposedly slicker Single Guy.
"I guess there's a large part of the country that can identify with us much more than six urbanites trying to find out what cab they're going to get at the corner," Clark says, grinning.