published Friday, March 23, 2012
Any kid with a yen for performing, coming from Oklahoma or the northern half of Texas, will end up in Dallas someday, the big city on the prairie. Back in the ’90s, comedians gravitated toward Arlington where the University of Texas at Arlington students kept a consistent comedy market going.
So Ron White drifted down like a West Texas tumbleweed, the kid who could make everyone laugh, who knew how to cut the tension in a tumultuous house with a joke. Odd jobbing while learning the comedy craft, he met Alex Reymundo, who’d gone from comedy club bartender to manager and finally to comic. Alex had more than a bawdy sense of humor like Ron. He had a beautiful sister, Margo, a vivacious singer who loved adventure, dreamed of the New York jazz scene, and who lived to perform. Ron was smitten, she was unattainable.
Ron connected with another Texas roustabout comic, Bill Engvall, and then with Jeff Foxworthy and Larry the Cable Guy to rocket to fame from 2001 to 2003 in the Blue Collar Comedy Tour as a Scotch-drinking, cigar-smoking, urbane reprobate and Southern smartmouth who liked to remind people that “…You can’t fix stupid.” He’s gone on to snare two Grammy Award nominations, sell more than 10 million CDs and DVDs, and author the New York Times best seller I Had the Right to Remain Silent But I Didn‘t Have the Ability.
After all that fame, and a couple of marriages, one a source of personal sadness and the other the subject of much comedic fodder, Ron reached a time in life when he was looking for substance. He thought of the times when comedy was an adventure, and recalled his unrequited love for that beautiful singer Margo whose appetite for life nearly matched his own.
With the go ahead of Margo’s brother Alex, Ron made his play with a csourtship that included supporting Margo during her father’s hospice, gaining him the immense respect of their older sister Gabriela Pataro, owner of Dallas’ Café Lago. After surprising her with two white French bulldog puppies on Christmas, Ron finally won the heart of the woman for whom he’d always yearned.
The marriage, now in its fourth year, deepened with the Ron’s accidental discovery of a lump in Margo’s breast, resurrecting his pain over a former wife who committed suicide after her breast cancer diagnosis. Ron’s insistence on repeated diagnostic scans for Margo uncovered an extremely aggressive breast cancer in its early stage. Treatment was successful and Margo boasts of beautiful health.
TheaterJones chatted for a bit with Ron and Margo at their suite in Hotel ZaZa. Margo was dishing out exotic Korean tacos she’d discovered with a friend, along with Gabriela’s famous Cuban pork sandwiches. After Ron’s four sold-out shows at the Majestic on Friday and Saturday, Margo will perform in a special midnight show at Pearl at Commerce, a jazz and blues nightclub a few blocks from the Majestic. A special midnight nosh may be reserved through Café Lago.
Exploring the theme of “What a Life in Comedy Has Taught Me,” Ron started out with story about uncle:
Ron White: My uncle was president of Southern Baptist Convention at one time. I probably got a lot of my cadence from him. I loved to listen to him preach, he was very funny also. So in his 80s, we were talking about life and death and the pursuit of happiness, and my uncle said even after all the religion and religious dogma, the only thing that he said he could believe in his heart, that he knew for a fact, was that when we die we’re going to be surprised. That’s all he could come up with; it’s as simple as that. There is no answer. And he certainly thought there was an answer for years and years and years, and taught it with fervor like I’d never seen. I would never have thought in a million years that he’d ever change his mind. I thought he was the Rock of Gibraltar in his beliefs. Even as my personal faith started to fade, I thought his never would.
TheaterJones: I was so struck by the way that you dealt with your wife Margo‘s cancer. What has a life in comedy taught you about dealing with tragedy and the potential of loss and relationships in general?
I don’t know what you learn from comedy about all that, I really don’t. I’d already had an experience with breast cancer that did not end well, so I was gun shy. I knew that even though [doctors] say it’s nothing, there’s a really good chance that it’s something, especially if you’re with me. I just felt something on her breast that I didn’t know what it was and I’m pretty familiar with every square inch of her. I speak my mind no matter what it is, so if I think it there is something here that is not right I will say that to anybody, just about. I have healthy boundaries.
What has comedy taught you about dealing with the crap that life throws at you?
I don’t know what you learn from comedy that isn’t just life lessons that everybody learns no matter what you do for a living. I was in the airport after Whitney Houston died and a TSA guy asked me “How long do you wait after someone passes away before you start making jokes?” And I said about 45 minutes, because that’s where the relief comes from. I figured that out as a little kid, that I could break the tension with laughter.
But I don’t know what I learned from it. This has been the path of least resistance for me. I didn’t want to work in an office. I couldn’t make myself do it. I was more likely to work construction because I didn’t mind that as much. I thought of standup as a way to keep from hanging drywall.
Doing comedy, though, is something that brings you happiness?
It’s something I genuinely enjoy doing. I get to be before thousands of fans every night. They go crazy when they see me, and I can’t get my arms around that most of the time, because in real life I’m just me. I’m not that guy. It happens to be something that I do. I’m part of a married couple with that woman right over there, and our day to day lives are much like anyone else’s even though she’s an artist and I’m an artist. Comedy is just how my brain works, that’s all it really does.
How has comedy shaped your brain and the way that you think?
I think my brain was already shaped and it found comedy. I had a lot of comedy in my life when I was pretty young, an Andy Griffith album called What It Was Was Football. Later we had some [Jerry] Clower. I remember everybody listening to them and laughing really hard and that was so joyous, even if I understood it or not.
I remember the first joke I ever told, I was 5, was a knock-knock joke at a gathering at my parents’ little 800-square-foot white clapboard home in Fritch, Texas. “Knock, knock. Who’s there? Madam. Madam who? Madam foot caught in the door.” I had no idea what it meant, I just heard it and repeated it. It killed, it just guffawed them. They’d never heard it before and they got it. I remember just how wonderful that felt, even with my horrible memory it stands out as clear as it could possibly be.
I’ve learned to do standup comedy and I think that’s the only thing I’ve really learned from it is how to do it. I’ve learned to love the art form and appreciate it when it’s done well and detest it openly when it’s done poorly, to be a horrible critic of it and also an impassioned lover of standup comedy.
How much do you think honesty is a part of comedy?
My rule of thumb is that if I tell you something about me it’ll make you laugh, if I tell you something about you it’ll make you laugh harder. Honesty is where it starts, but if I can find a way to lie and make it funnier, well, this is not a newscast and I do not care about the truth at all. That’s usually where the seeds come from, but they don’t stay there. That’s the real key to my success, that I am a tremendous liar.
So you‘re a storyteller, a prevaricator.
I am a pure storyteller. Somebody called me a prevaricator just the other day. I like that.
Is there a sense of flow you get into when you start working with the audience?
The thing that’s addicting is the energy transference, but I don’t think it’s from me to them. It’s from them to me. That’s why you keep doing it when you’re just starting out. You have 300 people that are focused on you specifically and something happens there that’s physically addicting. Now it’s even more intense, because they came to see me, and not just who’s at the comedy club that night. I think that making people laugh is a good thing, so it’s always been good for my karma, even though I’ve never been a saint, I’ve always made up for it like I’m a tree planter, except I make people laugh. Life’s given me a surplus of karma so that I was able to cash in and get Margo. I used every bit of it.
What is the feeling you get when doing your act, when everyone is responding and releasing at the same time?
I’m a pace, rhythm and timing comic. I work them like a fish on a hook. There’s what we call working out the beats, the pace and the rhythm and the timing. The performance is all that matters as long as you have content covered. When I get a bit the way I like it I don’t ever change it.
I wrote something today that I thought was funny, that I may work into the act this weekend. To me guilt and hunger feel a lot alike. So if I feel really guilty about something I’ll try a sandwich and see if that helps, and if it doesn’t I’ll take a look at it. Oh f—, what did I do? Hand me that brownie.
So how does comedy change people and they way they think?
You know, I just don’t think there’s as much to learn from comedy as you think. I haven’t made a point in 25 years other than my point is to make you laugh. I just want to make you laugh and it’s all that I know how to do. I try as hard as I can every single night, I never phone it in, and I guess that’s why they still come.