I served from 1990-1995. The 1st Gulf War took place on our watch. That time period defined my life, after having only a slight glimpse into the horrors of war. Since then, I have taken a number of trips back over to bring a little bit of humor to our service members. I feel I have to. I am no longer in, but I still have my duty. I still have my sense of family with those in uniform.
Today I see through the eyes of a thirty-something man, who feels somewhere along the line I got lucky in my youth, like I missed a bullet on my watch. Empathy for our service members past and present is with me constantly. The military is where I became a man. Where I gained the tools to achieve anything I set my mind to. Where I got my very best friends, who remain so to this very day. Individuals who don’t know how to leave you when times seem impossible. Part of me wishes I could stand side by side with our brave service members today, but another part of me would be asking many questions regarding the situation we are currently in. I feel each of those sides has come with age, and my cherished experiences with the type of individuals who would be at my side.
There was a point when I had to take a break from going over. I had seen too much & my mind had to really sort all of it out. I had taken trips every summer to Iraq & Afghanistan starting back in the spring of 2004. Then in August of 2007 I found myself on a ship in the middle of the Persian Gulf – again – this time not a sailor, but a comedian. I was with my great friend and fine comedian Dan Smith, standing on the deck of a Naval LPD Ship, taking in the sunset. I remember he said to me, “This is the same ship you were on when you were here in the Persian Gulf… that is insane! Now you are going to do comedy for these sailors… Do you realize how amazing that is? You must feel so proud Peej.” I replied, ”I’m not, Dan. It’s odd? I feel no pride whatsoever. I feel sad. I was here on a ship just like this one, in this same exact place when I was 19 years old. Young people lost their lives. I am here again at 35 and even more young people are losing their lives? I know I have grown… apparently we haven’t.”
I returned again to entertain our troops and sailors this past Christmas 2009. I know they put the uniform on for all of us faceless, nameless Americans. I know how genuinely special that is. I truly with every fiber of my being thank them and love them! Wherever they go, wherever they are stationed, I will show up with my bag of humor, and, just as important, be here for them when this all hopefully ends. We have to be! God Bless All Who Serve!
As a young boy I was a daydreamer. Escaping within my imagination or the view outside the window of a classroom were my preferences opposed to the chalkboard. The only thing that would keep my attention where movies and I looked forward to one in particular almost every week. It was the showing of an old Abbott and Costello film. This being completely the highlight of my week I could hardly wait. To this day I still feel like a boy when I’m watching them. A lot of friends were into The Three Stooges who I enjoyed very much as well. For me though Abbott and Costello were in a league all by themselves. Every Sunday after church WPIX Channel 11 would have the Sunday afternoon movie. It was for the most part always Bud Abbott and Lou Costello films. Some of my favorites were Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, Hold That Ghost & Buck Privets.
To be honest I don’t know one Abbott and Costello film I didn’t like. They’re the best team ever to perform on screen to me. The rise in voice or heaving gasps of breath by Lou Costello when he was scared has become a trademark. Bud Abbott’s constant frustration with him. Over time I came to find an amazing amount of respect for Bud Abbott’s perfection as the straight man. I was all about Lou as a boy. How could you not? His performances were a marvel. As a comedian and having studied acting as well. I have gained so much respect for Bud Abbott’s equally important part in the team. No joke can be executed with out a great set up. Bud set them up and Lou more then knocked them down! I would think when people hear the names Abbott and Costello they immediately think of “Who’s On First?” This is by far the most famous routine. In 1956 a gold record of this absolute classic routine was placed in the Baseball Hall of Fame museum in Cooperstown, New York. For me though it will always be “The Bagel Street” routine. Better known as “The Susquehanna Hat Company” routine. To this day it makes me laugh out loud. Take a watch and see why as a boy I got lost in a big smile and a world of laughter every Sunday afternoon with Abbott and Costello.
I have been doing stand up comedy for quite some time now. I am successful, though I would not consider myself famous. I get emails & have fans, but major fame & success is a subject I know about in great depth. I have witnessed, participated & played a part of some amazingly famous peoples lives. I provided health care to the President (Clinton) & Vice President of The United States, as well as their families, Mother Teresa blessed me & I was David Faustino’s (Bud Bundy) personal assistant. All famous; all successful people. These were great experiences I will cherish though out my lifetime. But one person I got to spend time with & witness work had an impact I need to share. That person is Jeff Foxworthy. Yes the “You Might Be A Redneck” comedian that is consistently way too overlooked as a master in the craft of stand up comedy. Jeff Foxworthy is simply one of the most “secure” comedians ever to grace us with his unique perspective & talent, and I use the word “secure” for a reason.
From 2003 – 2008 I was under the same management as The Blue Collar Comedy tour guys. This was a very fun time to be part of that company. I arrived right before the real phenomenon took off. The quartet had been touring for some time together & were about to release a feature concert film of the show. Blue Collar Comedy Tour: The Movie did not fair well at the box office.
I saw it in a theatre in Los Angeles with 3 of my comedian friends. Two of which fell asleep! I on the other hand was locked in. Ron White was a hysterical surprise to me, Bill Engvall was familiar & I fell in love with Larry The Cable Guy the minute he started walking around the mall with a fart machine. My manager told me I should go see the movie because he was going to put me out on live dates opening for Larry The Cable Guy, whom he insisted was going to be the “break-out” star of the movie. He was very, very correct. But it was Jeff that I felt a real connection to. Jeff provided a significant moment in comedy for me, which I will come to explain. Jeff was the reason I sat with 8 other people in a LA theatre watching “redneck” comedians.
To help explain, I have to share a little of my history. It was a summer in the early nineties. I was in the US Navy, stationed at the Marine base, Camp Lejune in Jacksonville, North Carolina. A completely different world from my native New York roots. When the 1st Gulf war ended, I felt like I’d just missed a bullet. Our mindset at the time was that it was going to be one horrifying war. I know looking back it might be hard to grasp that, but in January 1991 I was 18 years old, in field medical service school & being told this was going to be the bloodiest war ever. We were not comfortable fighting in that environment. The life expectancy of a field medic in a firefight is 7 seconds, but, fortunately for me, I did not have to go over right away. I eventually got sent over with the Marines on a ship for a 6-month deployment from August 1991 – March 1992. It was an “everyone is leaving so we are here just in case you want to pipe up again” mission. The past few months on that ship, in the gulf, were still resonating within me. Going through that, witnessing & having friends involved, put me in a place where I wanted to live life to the fullest. For the 1st time I voiced on that ship that I wanted to be a comedian to my good friend Rhett “Pinky” Pilkington. His response “Dude, ah… your not even funny.”
After returning to the states on one sunny weekend in the nineties. My friends decided to hit the beach. On base they have amazing beaches. We pulled up to the parking lot and I got out of the car, noticing a bunch of devil dogs (marines) gathered around the back of a Pinto with the hatchback open. They were keeling over with laughter! A marine noticed me and said, “Hey man, get over here, you have to hear this guy!” I blew off my friends, who immediately headed to the beach, which, as a pale Irishman, was a much wiser choice. I joined the group of tough, hardcore marines who had tears running down the side of their faces. There, in the parking lot of a military beach, at the tale end of a war & with fear still resonating within my heart I was introduced to Jeff Foxworthy.
We sat and listened to “You Might Be a Redneck If” over & over until the sun went down. It bonded us. We all related to every word coming out of Jeff’s mouth. Yes, I am from New York… I am not a redneck. Two of the guys with us were African Americans… not rednecks. We all related. We all saw bits of ourselves within Jeff’s comedy. We all enjoyed that day & we laughed, a lot! Mostly for me though, I’d never just listened to comedy before. I’d watched Eddie Murphy, George Carlin & Andrew Dice Clay but this was different. It was a moment like the 1st time I saw Springsteen live or sat in a theatre to witness Star Wars. Things would be different for me after that day.
Another notable incident happened when I was in college for acting & film in Chicago. My girlfriend at the time flew out from New York to visit me. I bought 2 tickets to see Riverdance at The Rosemount Theatre. She was an Irish dancer and I thought this would be the best gift ever. This would be my first sitting-in-the-audience theatre experience. We had nosebleed seats. I mean I think we were sitting in the lobby, but I was still captivated. The audience, the massive theatre, the roar of the crowd. It was thrilling. That is where I wanted to be. On that stage! Two months later I left college to pursue a career in Stand Up Comedy.
I started doing live dates with Larry The Cable Guy in the spring of 2003. Right before he really broke out to become the absolute monster of a comedian he is today. It was a very fortunate place to be. To witness, watch & learn as a man rises to that level. Larry would always refer to Jeff. Something Jeff would say, had said, taught him, and warned him about. He just loved & respected Jeff as much as I would come to love & respect Larry over the years.
The first time I met Jeff was at the Blue Collar Rides Again tapings. I was warming up the crowd & was the announcer. He was polite, unassuming & very professional. I then attended the Comedy Central Roast of Jeff. This might be my most airtime on television. They cut to me quite a bit in that show. I get emails all the time… was that you in the crowd on the Foxworthy Roast? At the after party, Jeff just sat at a table with his wife upstairs. At a monster party in his favor where everyone was networking, kissing butt & trying to get ahead, he sat with the people most important to him, his family & friends. This was my first real first hand account of how unique he is.
Without Jeff Foxworthy we would most likely not have Larry, Bill or Ron. Honestly. They were all Jeff’s opening acts. Here is the amazingly “secure” nature of Jeff. Not only did he never stifle any of them, he helped them. Some could argue over what a rarity that is within the business of entertainment, where individuals can be amazingly insecure, greedy & easily threatened leaving them often very self-centered. In this universe, Foxworthy is like a Sun that helps planets live on their own.
Jeff could not be happier for the success of his friends, who are all arguably bigger then he is now. But are they? Yes Larry sells out arenas; Ron is the most respected amongst comedy snobs and Bill had two successful television shows. But here is where Jeff cannot be denied. It was the early nineties when I stood with those marines laughing at Jeff’s voice coming out of those Pinto speakers and today he is the largest – selling comedy-recording artist of all time! No one even comes close. He created the most successful comedy tour of all time. He introduced the world to three of the most successful comedians of all time. Books, CD’s DVD’s, greeting cards, slot machines in Casinos & he even has hot sauce! Here we are in 2010 and he is still significant. I ride the subway train in New York City and Jeff is pointing at me in advertisements for the hugely successful “Are You Smarter Then A Fifth Grader?” Jeff Foxworthy became the comedian of the year in 1990! Jeff Foxworthy is still here and influential in the present 2010.
Here is the most overlooked part. He did it all with Stand Up Comedy. Jeff Foxworthy is famous through his work with just a microphone, a stool & an audience. No movies, television shows or Internet sensation made him a name. Just pure Stand Up Comedy. What other comedians can you say that about? Just stand up comedy keeping you significant for that long a time? The ones I mentioned earlier… Eddie Murphy’s in movies, Carlin, yes, he was critically acclaimed, but he never achieved the financial milestones of Foxworthy’s comedy, and Dice…well… you know.
When I see best comedian lists done, Jeff is always either omitted or way too far down the list. That’s because the people who put these things together are not qualified. In this youtube, facebook instant satisfaction world, no one really looks at an entertainer’s entire body of work. They instantly write him off as a redneck. In actuality, Jeff Foxworthy is one of the most universal comedians of all time. I don’t know a race, creed or color that cannot relate to his humor. He can just as easily walk into a bar or a church with the same exact stand up act and crush the audience.
In 2008, I moved on from the Blue Collar world, but I carry with me the experience of being around one of the greats. My most significant personal moment came in 2006 when I was back at the Rosemont Theatre in Chicago. This time I was performing, though not as the Lord of The Dance. I was opening for Jeff Foxworthy. My girlfriend at the time was with me, though instead of the nosebleed seats she sat in a chair just off to the side of the stage. I walked back and forth taking in that moment. The audience was amazing. I looked up to the nosebleed seats pointing & said “I told myself in 1996 as I sat in those seats I would perform here”. The crowed roared.
I was already in awe that I was performing on the Rosemont stage. But sitting next to my girlfriend in another seat was Jeff. Jeff Foxworthy pulled up a chair next to my girlfriend to watch me perform. The smile on my face when I realized this had to be evident to the audience because they laughed for no reason. I continued with the show. I had come a long way from that beach in North Carolina.
My heart was full of determination and appreciation. I introduced Jeff. He waited till I was off stage & handed me an index-card and said, before going on stage in that unmistakable southern accent, “PJ, I wrote down some ideas I came up with watching you, let’s talk after.” Outside of my friends, the comedians I’ve come up the ranks with, no one ever took the time to watch me like that. This major celebrity who sells out theaters took an interest in my development. That is what separates Jeff Foxworthy from the rest. It’s one thing to be a good comedian; it’s way more impressive to stay a good person along the way. I reiterated this story back to Jeff, only to watch him shrug it off because praise was never his goal. A sun doesn’t need praise, it just does what is does. With that said, we could all benefit from being a little more like Jeff Foxworthy.