The popular comedian and host of GSN’s The American Bible Challenge discusses the new game show and lessons he hopes viewers will learn from it.
Comedian Jeff Foxworthy
Tavis: Pleased to welcome Jeff Foxworthy to this program. The popular and talented comedian is of course the founder of the Blue-Collar Comedy Tour and the host of “Are You Smarter than a Fifth-Grader.”
So I’m not going to say I would do well on that show, Jeff, but I think this new program, “The American Bible Challenge,” I think I could actually hold my own.
Jeff Foxworthy: Really?
Foxworthy: Because on “Fifth Grader” we would have celebrities come on and play for charity.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah, yeah. No, not me. (Laughter)
Foxworthy: No, not me. That -
Tavis: I would never have done that.
Foxworthy: That was great in this premise, because everybody thought they could do it.
Foxworthy: Adults taking an elementary school test for a shot at a million bucks, and everybody’s like, “Yeah, I can do that,” and found out pretty quick you couldn’t.
Tavis: No, I would never have tried it. No, but this I might be able to hold my own on, and I’ll tell you more about that in a second.
Foxworthy: My mama would be good. I’d like to see you play against my mama.
Tavis: My mama would be good.
Foxworthy: Yeah. Yeah, your mama would be good too.
Tavis: My mama versus your mama. (Laughter) But don’t talk about my mama. Anyway, here’s a clip from “The American Bible Challenge.” Check it out.
Tavis: I’m glad I saw this clip, because the first question I had when I saw that you were doing this, first of all, if anybody can do this, Foxworthy can, and make it entertaining and make it funny and all that. So I knew you’d be okay doing it. But the first thought I had was how do you do this and strike the right balance.
On the one hand you’re talking about a Bible trivia show. On the one hand you can be accused of being a little sacrilegious; on the other hand, you don’t want to proselytize. You can get in a lot of trouble making fun of the Bible or Christian – how do you balance all that?
Foxworthy: That was the challenge of this show, and probably because of “Fifth Grader” was why they thought about me. Because the first time they said, “Would you be interested in doing a game show about the Bible,” I’m like, “No. No.” Here’s the thing that sold me on it. Everybody that’s playing on the show, nobody keeps the money. Everybody’s loving on somebody else.
Foxworthy: Like the girls you just saw that answered the question right, they’re playing for a food pantry in Texas. These women are out there every week feeding people that don’t have enough to eat. So I thought about it, and even my wife said, “You’re kind of setting yourself up here,” and I said, “Okay, but this was written 3,400 years ago, but it wasn’t written just for them, it was written for us now.”
So in their way, to make the Bible contemporary, to make it relevant, to make it about us, but to make it fun – and I told people, I was doing an interview with journalists from different religious publications the last day, and somebody said, “Do you think you’ll catch grief about this?”
I said, “I won’t from the secular world.” There’ll be some Christians -
Tavis: Oh, yeah. (Laughter)
Foxworthy: – that’ll do it. But I said, “If God breathed his attributes into us, one of those was joy.” I’ve often thought, God could have stopped at Adam and Eve. Why did he allow us to have kids? I believe it’s so we get a tiny idea of how he feels about us by the way we feel about our kids.
So for me as a father, when my kids are laughing and having fun, that thrills me. So I think it’s okay to laugh at it. I don’t think it’s okay to be irreverent. We never wanted to do that on here. But if you look at the Bible, the only people Jesus ever had problems with were the Pharisees, because they had all the head knowledge; they had no heart knowledge.
These people on this show, they have the head knowledge to answer the questions, but they got the heart knowledge, because they’re out there loving on somebody every week, whether we’re doing the show or not. All we’re doing is giving them some money so they can turn around and hand it to somebody else.
Tavis: Have you always been a person of faith?
Foxworthy: Yeah. I grew up in the church. My mama sang in the church.
Foxworthy: Like a lot of people, probably hit those college years and a few years after where I kind of walked the other way, (laughter) but it’s like Bono says – Bono says “The most interesting songs is either people running away from God or running towards God.”
Tavis: Yeah, yeah. (Laughter)
Foxworthy: But yeah, it’s an important part of my life, but I think people should see your faith. If all you do is talk about your faith and people don’t see it, but they ought to see it in the way you treat your family, you treat your friends, you treat your community, and that’s the thing I kind of loved about this show.
I tell this to my kids. I said, “Really, we’re intended to take care of each other. If we did what we were supposed to do, we wouldn’t be looking to the government to do so much to take care of everybody,” because that’s what we’re called to do, is to love on our neighbor, and that’s what the people on the show were doing.
Tavis: You just opened a door and I’m not going to -
Foxworthy: Oh, don’t -
Tavis: You opened it.
Foxworthy: Okay, all right.
Tavis: I’m going to follow you in.
Tavis: All right. So I had the hardest time believing that a guy who started Blue-Collar Tour could be a Romney supporter. I’m not saying that to bash on Romney. I’m saying what blue-collar stands for, what blue-collar means to me, the attack that blue-collar workers are under, poverty is threatening our very democracy -
Tavis: – we can’t get an increase in minimum wage – and I don’t mean white blue-collar, I mean every race, every ethnicity, every culture – when I think blue-collar, I think of the Americans are being hit the hardest. I think of the 99 and not the 1, and I was like, “Foxworthy’s supporting Romney?” Then I saw you tweeting about it.
Foxworthy: Did I tweet about it?
Tavis: Yeah, you tweeted about it. I saw it.
Foxworthy: Somebody – well, there’s a lot -
Tavis: Somebody tweeted for you.
Foxworthy: There’s a lot of tweets (laughter) going out that aren’t mine.
Tavis: Yeah, somebody tweeted for you.
Foxworthy: Here’s the thing that scares me.
Foxworthy: Back in 2008, one of the promises Obama made was the cut the deficit in half, and I probably do like you, I get up every morning, I read the paper front to back before anybody in my house gets out of bed.
We ain’t cut it in half. It’s gone up by $5 trillion. I watch what’s going on in Europe, and it scares me to death. Because as a comedian, everything you talk about, you just take it down to the simplest level. What do we have in common?
It scares me, because as an individual, as a household, you can’t spend more money than you’re bringing in. You can do it for a little while, but you end up going broke and you end up losing everything you have. That is the path that we’re on right now as a country, and it scares me to death.
We can’t keep raising this debt like this, and that’s why I did that. I am disappointed that it’s gone up so much.
Tavis: I’m the first person to tell you – those who watch this show, who follow my politics, will know this well, obviously – I’ve hit this president as hard as anybody in this country, maybe harder than most, about broken promises on the minimum wage, on the deficit, although I think deficit reduction ought not to be a priority over jobs with a living wage.
Foxworthy: Yeah, yeah, absolutely.
Tavis: But my point is you can’t be any harder on Obama than I’ve been in terms of trying to hold him accountable to what he said he was going to do. That said, when you talk about the average family not being able to live on more than they bring in and being able to connect to that reality, I think part of what this race is going to turn on is whether or not the average American voter, that average blue-collar worker, feels that Obama understands his pain.
Never mind what he’s been up against – whether or not Obama best understands him or Romney best understands him, and I think that’s where this race is going to turn, and I’m not sure that the average American thinks that Romney understands their plight, those blue-collar workers.
Foxworthy: I think it comes down to more than the deficit, because I don’t think enough people pay attention to that.
Tavis: Yeah, they want jobs.
Foxworthy: They want jobs.
Tavis: Sure, yeah.
Foxworthy: That’s what the whole thing – and I think it comes down to do you believe Obama’s going to create more jobs or do you believe Romney’s going to? Because that’s – I’m out there, I’ve been to all 50 states. That’s where I live, doing stand-up, and it’s everywhere.
People need jobs. We’re hurting. The other thing, I don’t like the divisiveness of it all. I’ve gotten to the point – I always avoided politics. When I first started in comedy you’d see somebody doing political humor and I’d sit in the back of the room and I’d go, “Well, half the people hate you right off the bat, no matter which side you’re on.” (Laughter)
I thought my job was always to make people laugh, so it was a little trepidation that I got into that, but I love this country. Because we’ve got the first Black president, if you say anything negative about him, I’m disappointed or something, the people immediately want to throw out and go, “Oh, you’re a racist.”
I’m not. Every Tuesday morning I’m in downtown Atlanta doing a Bible study for homeless guys. I just love people. I love this country. I am the American dream. I grew up by the airport with a dirt yard. Never in my life should I have been a success. So that’s what I love about this country, is you get out there and you have the opportunity and you work hard at it, and you can be a success.
I want that for my kids. I want that for my grandkids. It’s scary times. You look at what’s going on in Europe and I just don’t want us to follow that path.
Tavis: Here again we agree on this point. I think that you can be – you, Jeff Foxworthy, or any other American watching this program – you can be opposed to Obama, having nothing to do with his race, just like you can be opposed to Romney, not begrudging him his wealth. That’s not the issue.
Foxworthy: Right, that’s fair.
Tavis: So we agree on that. But anyway, I won’t needle you much more about that.
Foxworthy: Oh, you’re not needling me. It’s things that need to be talked about. It’s probably like you, the things I get frustrated about sometimes, is people aren’t paying attention to the issues. Vote whichever way you want to vote. Man, that’s the great thing about living in this country. But pay attention to the issues.
Tavis: Well, I think you and I are in this business, we’re in television. I think part of the problem with that, or part of what aids and abets that reality – that is to say, pardon me, the ignorance of the American voter, and I’m sure I’ll be taken to task for saying that.
But I think part of what aids and abets that is that people tune in to a particular political channel to have what they believe reaffirmed. So if you feel this way, Fox is going to assuage you. If you feel this way, MSNBC is going to assuage you, so that nobody -
Foxworthy: And you’re probably not going to watch the other one.
Tavis: Precisely. So that people don’t have to do the homework, they don’t have to think critically for themselves, because somebody will tell you what to think and how to spin the argument, et cetera, et cetera.
Foxworthy: Yeah, and don’t just believe it because you hear somebody say it. You really need to go look it up and say, “Hey, is that true? Is that right?”
Tavis: Speaking of believing it, when you watch a TV show, say “Jeopardy” or “Family Feud” or whatever, there’s information, there’s stuff you can use when you see these answers to the questions pop up.
Tavis: So I’m trying to figure out what it is about this game show that I can take away. So how do I benefit knowing that Abraham was Isaac’s father? That’s just one example, of course, but what’s the takeaway for the audience?
Foxworthy: Well, here’s what I would hope at the end of the day – that this stuff is as relevant to us as it was when it was written thousands of years ago.
Foxworthy: The lessons taught there are still relevant to our lives. It’s like the 10 commandments, and if you really understand the Bible, God’s not saying you’ve got to do this for me to love you, God says I love you anyway, but because I loved you – everything was created. Well, the person that created it knows best how it functions.
So when you sit there and God’s like hey, if you’ll do this your life’s going to be better, your life’s going to be easier. Don’t covet what your neighbor’s got. Don’t steal from – it’s not you have to, it’s like, I love you. If you’ll follow this – and so if you can take those lessons and make them contemporary and make them relevant, it’s worth a try, isn’t it?
Foxworthy: Dang if you do, dang if you don’t. If you don’t do it – and that was part of my thought. Because I have faith, and I’m thinking okay, if I don’t host this, somebody else is going to. Maybe they won’t be able to take some of that stuff, especially from the Old Testament, you get some of those Levitical laws, and put it into context, going hey, that was for these people then. That’s not necessarily for you now.
Tavis: How do you find the funny, or put another way, do you know the funny when you’re sitting around the table with producers, or does that stuff come to you, or both, when you’re doing the actual taping?
Foxworthy: It’s both.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah, that’s what I thought.
Foxworthy: Because sometimes you’ll be talking about it before the show in the questions, and you think oh, okay, maybe I’ll go there. But then sometimes the show goes a total opposite way. It was kind of like that was the fun of the Blue Collar tours, is because with stand-up you’re prepared what you’re going to talk about.
But then we pulled those stools out and Larry the Cable Guy says something stupid, (laughter) I can’t even look at him. So so much of that was just right off the cuff, and it was funny. Funny’s funny. But it’s a challenge on this because you want to be respectful, but at the same time I think you can be joyful in this.
It’s got to be something where people on the outside go, “Well, that’s got some appeal to me.”
Tavis: I suspect I could ask this question of a number of comedians who have a particular following or do a particular brand or style of comedy, but how would you describe what’s at the epicenter of what makes blue-collar comedy work?
Foxworthy: You know what? I’ll tell you where the whole idea came up. When the Kings of Comedy started, there was a big article about it in the Atlanta paper, and at the end it said, “This is a show for the urban, hip audience.”
I called Bill Engvall and I said, “Man, that’s leaving a lot of people out.” (Laughter) A lot of people aren’t urban (unintelligible).
Tavis: There’s a lot of money out there.
Foxworthy: Yeah. (Laughter)
Tavis: That’s funny.
Foxworthy: So he said, “What would you call that?” I said, “Well call it the Blue-Collar Tour,” because that’s kind of – but somewhere in it (laughter) – years ago, before Blue-Collar ever started, Chris Spencer, who used to open for me all the time, and we were working together, and Chris did a lot of things with the Wayans brothers.
So one day Chris said, “Hey, Shawn and Marlin want to know if we can do a book called, ‘You Might Be Ghetto If.’ Would you care if we did that?” and I said, “No, I don’t care,” I said, “But when you start writing them, I’d love to help you just because I like – because they’re one-liners. (Unintelligible)
Tavis: Sure, sure, sure.
Foxworthy: We would get to laughing so hard, because there were so many things (laughter) that I thought were redneck, and they were like, “No, no, no, no, that’s ghetto.”
Tavis: That’s ghetto.
Foxworthy: Yeah, like, (laughter) if your working television sits on top of your non-working television, and I’m like, “That’s redneck.” And they were like, “No, no, no, that’s -”
Tavis: That’s ghetto. (Laughter)
Foxworthy: If your mother has never had her entire foot in a pair of shoes, and I’m like, “That’s redneck,” and they were like, “No, that’s ghetto.” (Laughter) So there were a ton of them that just crossed over.
Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter)
Foxworthy: But you know, when it works, basically you’re talking about what you know about, and I was lucky as a comic, because just real early on I just decided okay, if I think it or my wife says it or my kids do it, surely we’re not the only ones.
I just trusted that, so when I have the – and I think after my shows, people come up and they go, “Oh my God, you’ve been in our house.” I remember one time preparing a set for Johnny Carson, and it was a whole men and women thing, and I said to my wife one day, I said, “Is this funny?” I said, “I don’t know how women can lie down on the couch and take a nap without sticking their hand in the front of their pants.”
My wife said, “If you do that, you’re going to embarrass yourself, because I don’t know that other guys do that.” I go on “The Tonight Show,” (laughter) I tell that joke, everybody in the audience laughed. Then every woman turned around and hit the man next to her. Because men, we – (snores).
Tavis: Yeah, yeah, yeah. (Laughter)
Foxworthy: We got a sleep button right there. You’ve got to get your hand on it. So you talk about what you know. That’s what I’ve always done. The whole redneck jokes, that – I always wore jeans and drove a truck, and I’d go to New York and Chicago and they’d be giving me, “Foxworthy, you’re just an old redneck from Georgia,” and I’m playing a club in Detroit.
We’re sitting there after the show and they’re kidding me about being a redneck. Well, the club we’re playing in is attached to a bowling alley that has valet parking. (Laughter) I said, “If y’all don’t think you have rednecks, come look out the window. People are valet parking at the bowling alley.” (Laughter) You don’t get redder than that.
Tavis: Since you mentioned Carson, I think every comedian I’ve ever talked to certainly who had a chance to do Carson remembers it fondly, so this is a two-part question, which you shouldn’t do in television. But one, what are your fondest memories, what do you recall about doing Carson, number one, and number two, is that one of those moments, or if not, share with me when you knew that okay, I can do this. I can do this now. If I pull this off, I can actually make a career out of this.
Foxworthy: Well, other than doing “The Tavis Smiley Show,” that was -
Tavis: Oh, come on, come on. (Laughter)
Foxworthy: I was trying to explain this to my kids a few weeks ago. I said, you don’t understand. For a stand-up comedian, back in those – there were three TV channels. Johnny Carson was Mt. Everest for a stand-up comedian. Well, the first eight years I did comedy; I did over 500 shows a year. I’m doing it every night, some nights two and three different places.
To get that chance for that six minutes, and then when you did it you didn’t meet Johnny – Johnny didn’t come back and say hello. So the first time I walked through the curtain and I looked, I’m like, oh my God, there he is. You do your six minutes and you’re scared to look, because the unspoken thing was if Johnny didn’t like you, he would clap. If he liked you, he’d give you (gestures). If he really liked you, he’d call you over.
So you get to the end of the six minutes, you’re scared to look, because it’s like Caesar deciding are you going to live or die? (Laughter) And he called me over, and I have a picture sitting on my desk, black and white photo, of I’m sitting in the chair talking to Johnny, and Johnny’s laughing.
It’s like that’s all I ever wanted to do. I got home that night and I was laying in bed, thinking I have no plan. That’s all I ever wanted to do. (Laughter) Now there’s so many places, you’ve got 700 TV channels. But back then, for a comic, that was it. If Johnny liked you, you were made. A week after that I won the American Comedy Award for Comedian of the Year. Two or three weeks after that I had a Showtime special. So it was kind of off to the races because Johnny liked me.
Tavis: I was just reading – what was I reading the other day, since you and I read so much every day, must have been “The New York Times,” I don’t know if it was the paper or the magazine. But there’s a big piece they recently did with our friend Chris Rock, and Chris was asked by – it was “The New York Times Magazine,” as a matter of fact.
Chris was asked by this reporter whether or not he would ever – if he was going to do stand-up comedy again. He said, “I would love to do stand-up comedy again, and I will specifically go back to doing comedy clubs, when they really do have a no cell phone policy in the clubs.”
You know where I’m going with this, of course, being a comedian. He went into a wonderful explanation that I was fascinated to read about how difficult it is to craft his material now, because every club you go to, even though they say no cell phone policy, they’re watching you – so you got folk in the audience who are stealing your material, you got folk in the audience who are recording your material and putting it on YouTube and everywhere else.
Chris is like, “A joke starts out bad. I’ve got to work this thing three or four different ways to finally make it a good job.” You know where I’m going here. It’s like how can I get on stage and really do a really great show if I don’t have a place to work it out?” I raise all that to ask you how you work your stuff out now.
Foxworthy: It’s so hard. It’s changed so much. I’ll tell you a funny story about it. The first time I ever saw Chris, Catch a Rising Star in New York. He was probably 16 years old. He’s in the lobby, doing his homework. He would go in and he had nothing to talk about, but we would all go watch him, going, “This guy’s going to be great. He just has no life experience.”
Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter)
Foxworthy: He’s one of the greatest comics of all time. Here’s the thing people don’t understand about stand-up. When I first started out I remember – Leno was really helpful, because he was kind of the kind of the road comics, and he’s holding court one night at a waffle house in Atlanta, and he said, “Your goal should be to write one new minute a week.” He said, “You won’t be able to do it, but that should be your goal.”
I was sitting there thinking, man, I could write 30 new minutes a week, but he was right. In those years I was doing 500 shows, every night, in my best year, I’d come up with 45 or 50 new minutes of material.
It’s that hard to come up with something everybody’s going to laugh at every time. It’s that difficult, and it is – it’s a process. Different people do it different ways. For me, I would have a thought and I would throw it out there. Well, if people laughed at it, then I’d take that thought the next night and I’d add two or three things to it.
I always imagined it like shaping a mountain out of clay. But out of anything I’ve accomplished as a comedian, the thing I’m proudest of is I sold more comedy records than anybody – anybody ever. My wife said not long ago, she said, “You’ll probably always have that, because nobody buys records anymore.” (Laughter) They don’t.
Tavis: There’s a record that won’t be broken.
Foxworthy: Yeah. But what Chris was talking about, (laughter) it’s weird. Because when we did the Blue-Collar tour, part of our livelihood off of that was selling the DVDs, and now you go on stage – I just finished a tour with Bill Engvall and Larry the Cable Guy. Every night you’re on stage, you look out -
Tavis: People like this.
Foxworthy: – there’s hundreds of people filming, and you know they’re downloading it. You’re like, “This is how I feed my kids. This is my livelihood.” So it’s just changed so dramatically, and Chris is right – it’s a process. What you see when you see somebody’s HBO special is somebody grinding that out for a year and a year and a half.
Tavis: Well, it occurs to me that one, your wife is right – your record won’t be broken, and you won’t be adding to it either. (Laughter)
Foxworthy: No, I won’t be adding to it either, because I’m not selling any more either, no.
Tavis: Because you won’t be – yeah, exactly. (Laughter) Not with all those camera phones in your face. I’m going to close where we began. I do this because my mom watches my show every night, and I love her, back in Indiana – hi, Mom.
But my mother, I was saying earlier that I could hold my own because I was raised in church seven days a week, so I’m pretty good at Bible trivia. But my mother, Joyce Smiley, and my sister, Pam, were part of a national team. There’s a big thing called Bible Bowl, B-O-W-L, Bible Bowl championship, and my mother and sister were part of a national team. For two or three consecutive years, they won the national championship.
Foxworthy: Oh, wow.
Tavis: So my mom and sister are really, really great.
Foxworthy: We’ve got to get Mom on the show.
Tavis: Yeah, well – yeah. That’s a good idea, actually.
Foxworthy: She can’t keep the money, though.
Foxworthy: She’s got to love on somebody else.
Tavis: Yeah. Mom’s like, well, in that case I’ll stay home, baby. (Laughter) I’ll just stay home. Can I be her charity?
Foxworthy: Yeah, yeah, yeah, you could be her charity. (Laughter)
Tavis: The show is called “American Bible Challenge” on GSN, hosted by the one and only Jeff Foxworthy. Jeff, good to have you here, man.
Foxworthy: Thank you for having me.
Tavis: Good talking to you.
Foxworthy: You too.
Tavis: My pleasure. That’s our show for tonight. Until next time, keep the faith.
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