[8 February 2011]
Daniel Whitney has made a name for himself over the past decade as Larry the Cable Guy. As popular as his redneck act has been in standup comedy, his only success elsewhere has been his voice work as Mater in Pixar’s Cars. The movies where he’s been the star (Larry the Cable Guy as Health Inspector, in Delta Farce or Witless Protection) have flopped badly, suggesting he has a limited appeal for broad audiences.
The History Channel, however, is not looking to appeal to a broad audience. The channel has found niches with tangentially history-related shows like Pawn Stars and American Pickers and not-very-history-related-at-all nonfiction shows like Ice Road Truckers and Ax Men.
Its status as a mid-tier cable network will not be improved with the inclusion of Only in America With Larry the Cable Guy. If the show draws a good chunk of Larry’s target audience, History will have a minor success on a previously dead programming night (Tuesday). If it doesn’t, the channel doesn’t lose much on the gamble. As for the show itself, well, it’s not very good. And yes, that’s mostly because of the host.
Only in America finds Larry the Cable Guy traveling across the United States in character and talking to various people about (supposedly) interesting stories in American history and more importantly, Americana. Take the cross-country vibe of American Pickers, throw in a bit of Pawn Stars’ knuckleheads Corey and Chumlee, and some of the blue collar work ethic of Dirty Jobs, and you have Only in America. Unlike the affable Mike Rowe or the enthusiastic Pickers, though, Larry the Cable Guy is not a good host for this type of show. Everything about Only in America feels lazy and disingenuous.
Each episode features three or four segments in different places, chosen either because they reinforce Larry’s persona or because they’re the polar opposite. In Dawsonville, Georgia, he learns about the history of moonshine and how moonshine running during Prohibition eventually led to NASCAR racing. It would be a fascinating story, but the segment is full of clichés. Larry is blindfolded by modern-day moonshiners so he won’t reveal their location, and then they have him carry a case of the homemade liquor through the forest and out into dirt roads, where he just happens to run into an expert on the cars the old moonshiners drove. Eventually Larry gets around to meeting Dawsonville resident and NASCAR legend Bill Elliott, who takes him out back to do donuts in a souped-up car. And that’s about it. The interesting historical parts of the story take a backseat to Larry’s antics.
In Calveras County, California, setting of the famous Mark Twain story “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” we learn the species of frog from the story has almost been driven to extinction by bullfrogs. Larry performs his shtick for a variety of folks, first at the home of some frog-jumping specialists and later at the County Fair. The bit with Larry in the Wisconsin Dells is similar. He and some locals discuss historical stories, but Larry is more concerned with the abundance of mosquitoes than talking to the expert. He spends most of the segment water-skiing and walking around one of the dozens of local water parks.
The polar opposite-style segments are worse. Larry travels to Burlington, Vermont, to discuss etiquette with the descendants of Emily Post. They try their best to explain why rules were in place in the time of Ms. Post, but Larry mostly goofs around. Following etiquette, his hosts laugh weakly at his dated standup material. Larry’s trip to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston could have been interesting, but his fixation on how space toilets operate takes up too much time. Not that bodily functions in space aren’t a worthwhile topic: it’s just better to have a host that’s actually interested in how these things work than a guy who wants to make poop jokes while his guides look uncomfortable.
The host never seems genuinely interested in the places he visits. Because Larry the Cable Guy is a character and not a real person, his interactions feel calculated. Imagine Sacha Baron Cohen as Borat hosting a show about Eastern European history, and you have a good idea of what Only in America With Larry the Cable Guy is like.