Ron White’s “Tater Salad” story has become something of a comedy legend and if you know him at all, chances are it’s for that story about a drunken response from the past coming back to haunt Ron in the funniest way. It was storytelling comedy like that which made him a comic force to be reckoned with and he has since ridden that hot streak to a number of albums and comedy specials, which has led to his receiving a USO tour. On that tour he took a bunch of his comedy friends, some of whom are USO tour veterans themselves, and for one night, their show was broadcast on TV in the form of Ron White’s Comedy Salute to the Troops. It may have a few good laughs but when we get a subpar performance from White and only 7-minute routines from the likes of Lewis Black and Kathleen Madigan, you can’t help but feel cheated, even if it is for a noble cause.
The problems start off right away with Ron White giving us an out of character and overly topical bit. When even the headliner can’t deliver it casts a pall over the rest of the presentation and lowers the expectations for the rest of the proceedings. That probably helped though, because the collection of talent assembled here is very uneven and some of their jokes clearly don’t take the makeup of their audience into mind. I don’t want to stereotype the men and women who opt for military service, but watching the tribute one thing was very clear: jokes about the south were a dangerous, hit-or-miss territory. For example, Ron, an established comedian whom, like Foxworthy, has made a name for himself lambasting some of the backwards tendencies of the good ol’ boys, and yet even he tread lightly in his normal topical stomping grounds. And even though his time in the spotlight was less than incredible, it had a steady number of laughs.
When you compare that to many of the lesser known acts that followed, it’s clear that Ron made the right choice even if it cost him a little bit. Vic Henley, Robert Hawkins, Alex Reymundo, and Tim Wilson all had very southern-targeted routines and with each joke maybe 1/3 of the audience would laugh, but it was a different 1/3 depending on what portion of the audience was willing to accept that comical criticism of their backgrounds. Jokes about NASCAR, for example, went over smoothly until it breached the idea that the south still isn’t okay with homosexuality. The volume of laughter dropped off suddenly. It was a bit unnerving and it was an unfortunate trend that followed through the acts of those four comedians and even into Madigan’s.
The sparse amount of laughter for Lewis Black, however, was entirely his own fault. Starting with what sounded like a heartfelt note of gratitude to the troops, his set continued in that vein for almost the entire duration, only occasionally throwing in a joke. He was telling the story of following up Vince Gill onstage and how he told the story of his dead father and how great he was. Okay, yes, that’s a tough act to follow when your trademark style is bitterness, as Lewis Black’s is, but don’t then waste another audience’s time recounting that story in a very unfunny tirade. A few humorous points here and there do nothing to lighten up the overall tone of his piece and the lack of laughter, aka the silence that comprises the reaction of most of the audience through it all, is stifling.
Ron White’s tribute is awkward the first time around, and the idea of going through it again actually makes me anxious remembering the low points. If you’re a fan of Rascal Flatts, John Oates, or Margo Rey (Ron White’s wife) then maybe the brief musical interludes will soften the blow, but for anyone else the whole thing is just a mess. This should have been so much better.