Turn on the TV, flip to the TLC or A&E channels, and, well, bask in the glory of Southern stereotypes. What’s often meant to be mindlessly funny is affecting Southern comedians who would rather put the word “mindful” back into their standup. Cliff Cash, Tom Simmons and Stewart Huff currently are taking over stages below the Mason Dixon Line in their Sick of Stupid (SOS) Comedy Tour.
“I’m from the South,” Cash, a-Wilmingtonian-by-way-of Gastonia, NC, says. “I grew up in pretty Southern settings. I do Southern characters onstage, and I talk about the South, and the cultural and dogmatic nuances of it. So I thought, if I’m going to be a Southern comic, I want to insist the word ‘intelligent’ goes in front of that. I want to stand out against the stereotype you think of when someone says ‘Southern comedy.’”
In essence, the SOS tour will not consist of jokes starting with, “You might be a redneck if…” In fact, folks will hear quips on current socio-economic and political crises facing our communities across our country. The three comedians fill their 30-minute sets with a melange of topics, from gun control to gay marriage, climate change to racial prejudices.
“Finding humor in heavy issues is certainly one of the hardest parts of comedy,” according to Cash. “It’s the hardest part of good comedy, good music, good satire… You just approach a solemn topic, knowing the topic itself is not funny, and ask yourself, ‘What is the nuance of it? What surrounding variable or circumstances are there?’”
Cash refers to Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk who refused to honor gay marriages depsite their legality in her state. Her bigotry, paired with the refusal to do her job and follow the law, teeters on absurdity. “The constitution: Everyone loves it until it’s their turn to be on the wrong side of it,” he says. “That [situation] really isn’t funny, but [Davis’] haircut is. Her sweaters are. Pointing out the absurdity of choosing that as your righteous fight, while 21,000 children starve to death daily, can be funny if you do it right.”
Cash includes the joke about Davis in his shtick. Though the subtleties of it may not bode well in print—or in any interview he gives via radio or TV—live and onstage, it transforms.
“It’s a smart show,” he promises of SOS. “The three of us have been featured in everything from the Wall Street Journal to AARP, and on programs from BET to Laughs on FOX, to XM radio and ‘Live at Gotham’ on Comedy Central. We’re funny comics and we’re taking on big issues. Most comics talk sex, drinking, everyday occurrences, and things that all people can relate to. There is nothing wrong with that, but our comedy is a little more substantive.”
Fans of “The Daily Show” or “The Colbert Report” are audience members Cash and company hope to attract. It’s well-known how comedic news shows continue to shift how people process news, politics and comedy. A decade ago Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found 21 percent of people aged 18 to 29 cited “The Daily Show” and “Saturday Night Live” as a place to garner presidential campaign news.
“Satirical/comedy news shows are less dangerous, reckless and biased than most of the news,” Cash says. “It horrifies me that people think Fox News is reliable and accurate. Honestly, the news is mostly garbage and owned by giant corporations who get to decide to some degree what they do and do not want you to hear. Media owned by giant corporations and monitored and influenced by the CIA is not a better, more reliable source of news than a comedy news show.”
Cash stands by the notion that humor can provoke resounding ideas and open dialogue effectively. It’s an interesting position, especially in a day and age when words like “triggering” and “micro-aggressions” cause pause in society. Such language is used a lot on college campuses to show how students take offense to ideas and notions outside of their comfort zones. The same can be said when comedians are faced with the responsibility of being politically correct instead of leaning further into the subtexts of a routine.
“You can say a lot of things with comedy and humor that you can’t get away with saying under other circumstances,” Cash notes. “A lot of people don’t realize or remember the entire Bill Cosby scandal was brought back to light and scrutinized again because comedian Hannibal Burress had a bit about it, which eventually went viral. Comedy can be powerful. I think we all agree that having a microphone and captive audience is a great responsibility; it feels a little wasteful if you don’t use it to have a message.”
On the Sick of Stupid Comedy Tour, Simmons will take on political issues and current events, while Huff tackles science, philosophy and existential questions. Cash pushes social commentary and criticizes pop culture and politics. “Our styles and delivery are all different enough that each of our sets are complementary to the others and not redundant,” he says.
Cash is also quick to note the show isn’t preachy. It goes beyond subjective “right vs. left” ideas, too. It tackles controversial topics. “Voting rights shouldn’t be ‘controversial,’ and neither should climate science,” Cash tells. “It speaks volumes about our country and humanity in general that we have debates on the merits of bigotry or cat-calling or gun laws. In a rational society, I don’t think any of those should even be up for discussion, much less controversial, but here we are.”
Drew Harrison travels with the trio as a host. Also, a cameraman is on tour with them, recording their sets and interactions. Cash wants to release it as a feature-length documentary. He has plans to splice together bits from their standup, along with interviews with conservative and progressive Southerners, plus include clips of them offstage, cutting up and talking about their comedy, views and how they got to where they are.
“We have hopes of making Sick of Stupid a brand, a concept, an ideal,” Cash tells—“something that can be bigger than it currently is and something that can be an ongoing project for all of us.”
It will be released as an antithesis to the “Honey Boo Boo” and “Duck Dynasty” programming—not that there’s anything wrong with that, says Cash. Essentially, though, other types of Southern stereotypes need a chance to catch on with the rest of the world. For every incoherent, drawn-out accent spouting a bunch a drivel, there should be a counterpoint.
“When someone asks you, ‘Name some Southern television show or comedians,’ you don’t immediately think of intelligent examples that paint us in a positive light,” Cash explains. “That is what I have a problem with. Can we have one television show celebrating intelligence for every 100 we have that celebrates ignorance? It is really indicative of a cultural and intellectual digression. My qualm isn’t that Southern stereotypes aren’t accurate. My qualm is that we aren’t all that way, but no one is out there spreading that message. . . . [Huff and Simmons] are two of the smartest comics and two of the best writers, and they’re both Southerners. People need to hear this. This is as good as anyone out there.”