Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Terre Haute vs Comedians

Terre Haute has got to be an easy place to make fun of.  Its in the midwest, big enough the audience has heard of it, small enough that they probably haven't heard much.  Like Peoria.  I'll bet Peoria, IL has the same problem being an easy target for comedians.  But I've recently learned that Terre Haute has a tradition of fighting back against comedians that make fun of it.  The locus classicus (i.e. the most famous example), is our tussle with Steve Martin, in 1979-80.  He called Terre Haute the most nowhere town in America in a Playboy interview, and someone, probably a lot of someones must have called him on it, and well here is the ultimate outcome

[hmm blogger won't let me embed the video, but its on YouTube here I'm having troubles finding good still shots too]

Now taking on a comedian is a very dangerous, usually foolish thing to do.  This may be the first time I've seen someone take on a comedian and come out looking reasonably good.  It is so easy for the comedian to make their attacker look bad.  Dealing with hecklers is a key part of most comedians early job experience.  Going after a comedian makes it socially acceptable for them to be a little more aggressive than they could normally get away with in fighting back, and ups the ante so they sorta have to fight back to maintain their own reputation.  It is SOOOO easy to misstep when you try to take on a comedian.  But Terre Haute's response to Steve Martin is spot on.  Now Steve had, even at the time, a reputation for gentle wacky humor, subtle and sly, but even he could have been a lot cruel in his come back than he was.  The key to taking on a comedian and winning is to work with them.  Humbly mock yourself in a good-natured way, while correcting their errors, and feed them material in their style while not upstaging them.  Legend has it that the Mayor of Terre Haute at the time was "miffed" but that his secretary suggested inviting Steve Martin and working with him.  The people of Terre Haute are completely playing along with Steve Martin in this clip, and they must have helped with writing the material too. The people of Terre Haute poke fun at him in signs.  There was a 2008 documentary called "One Wild and Crazy City" trying to explore some of the backstory of this encounter.   The official tour takes him to the fertilizer plant and a tractor store where he is given a toy "fertilizer spreader" tractor in response to his joke in Playboy.  Steve Martin IS making fun of Terre Haute here, but in a good natured way, and with the clear help and collusion of Terre Haute, and Terre Haute is willfully and wisely playing along.  As Martin says at the end of the clip, "the main thing I have learned is that I will never make fun of any person, place, or thing that can possibly strike back."  Indeed, making fun of Terre Haute becomes a running gag in Steve Martin's work, and always with a careful mix of barb and mildness.

Terre Haute's tradition of striking back against comedians does not end with mild-mannered Steve Martin.  My readers probably all know this already, but I didn't until last week because my family hasn't had TV in 7 years, but there was a tussle between WTWO and the Daily Show in 2006.  First, WTWO aired these commercials about their superior weather coverage.  Then the Daily Show (rightly) lambasted them as over-the-top, here.  So Dwayne Lammers (General Manager of WTWO) half-heartedly attacks the Daily Show in the Tribstar, in the WRONG way, suggesting they are hard up for material if they are attacking WTWO.  Bad strategy, especially against Jon Stewart.  Stewart replies with the following "A Humble Apology" in which he calls Lammers out on national TV, is funny about it, and slips in a dig about something embarrassing that Lammers had done earlier, lacking the courage to show the "Book of Daniel" when every other NBC-affiliate did.  Jon Stewart is a political comedian, and that means it is especially important for him to be able to deal with hostility from opposing forces while still being funny.  Stewart has a famous running fight with Glenn Beck, for example.  Stewart took financial entertainer/analyst Jim Cramer to the mat in repeated interchanges where Cramer just didn't learn the lesson that if you fight a competent comedian they WILL find everything embarrassing and pathetic about you and present it in a humorous and understandable way.  But WTWO learned the lesson after Jon Stewart's second attack on them.  They did not cower in submission.  They did not slink home.  They fought back again, but this time the RIGHT way, or close.  They produced and aired this commercial.  This commercial was funny, self-mocking, and very much in the style of the Daily Show, as well as riffing on and making fun of their own weather attack ads that started the whole brouhaha.  It was a tribute to the Daily Show as well as being an attack against it.  It tacitly admitted that the first commercials had been over-the-top while calling Jon Stewart on mispronouncing Terre Haute.  There was perhaps a little too much wounded pride in the tone, and the dig against the audience of the Daily Show was weak, and probably off-tone, but it was a very credible response, and Stewart let the matter lie after this rather than going another round, as he probably could have.

But to my mind there is one classic comic dig against Terre Haute left to avenge.  Before I ever moved here, I read the Onion's 2001 article "Garage Band Actually Believes There is a Terre Haute Sound" (that's "The Weebles" in the picture the fictional, I hope, garage band being made fun of by the Onion).  I have no doubt that it colored my perception of the town I was moving to.  Now I'm not much of a local music guy, with young kids its hard for me to hang out late night in bars.  But I've seen several good bands here (and singer/songwriters), and heard rumors of several more.  I'm not certain the best way to fight back against the Onion, perhaps it is simply too late as the article was published 9 years ago.  Maybe someone could write a "Holy Shit Now There Really Is a Terre Haute Sound" article.  Or maybe do a "where are they now" parody on the fictitious bands in the article that slips in what has happened to the Terre Haute music scene since.  If it is to be done at all, it must be done with humor, self-mockery and in the style of the Onion, a tribute to the Onion as well as a response to it.

One of my brother's best friends growing up was Jordan Freie, and his older sister Cara became a lawyer, but then dropped out of law practice to be a comedy-writer (how's that for a career change).  Her first book was "I Love Ranch Dressing: and Other Stuff White Midwesterners Like" (much in the style of "Stuff White People Like" and I believe but am not certain that she did some of the writing for them too).  Her #100 thing that White Midwesterners like is "Being of Good Humor."  We like to poke fun at ourselves.  Even when it hurts just a little, we like to take it with a grin to show we are tough.  My experience of the South wasn't quite like that, although they were a lot more careful not to offend in the first place, to leave the dangerous things lying under the surface unsaid and back away slowly and politely if an uncomfortable subject came up.  We like to prod just a little and joke but try to see that everyone is of good cheer about it, and diffuse with more jokes in a different direction if they aren't.  Maybe that's why Terre Haute likes to fight back against comedians.  We are just sensitive enough about our bad image that when it is used as a cheap shot we want to fight back.  But usually, and at our best, we fight back in the right way, with a little careful humor of our own.  So our habit of fighting comedy with comedy is

Just one more reason I am proud of Terre Haute.


  1. OOOH! A "Holy shit now there really is a Terre Haute sound!" That is brilliant! I'm gonna get in trouble laughing too much at work! Please, someone write this. I can pay in apple pie!

    1. HAHAHAHAH!! I laughed myself on that one!
      Terre Haute is a perfect example of how NOT to run a town. Every quality that is stereotyped and bad about the midwest is there. From hill billy mentality to crooked cops and courts, you'll find it all in Terre Haute, Indiana. I'm amazed that comedians are allowed there at all to be honest.
      Anyone living there reading this should STRONGLY consider moving away from that nightmare calling itself a city. I mean that too! You will be much happier elsewhere.