The past few years have not been good ones for Southern comedians (some of our politicians aside). First we lost the Reverend Grady Nutt, whose gentle Baptist humor was one of the high spots of the syndicated television program Hee Haw. Southern Baptist preachers drink a lot of iced tea in the line of duty: it was Grady Nutt who taught us to refer to the heavily sweetened Southern variety as “40-weight” iced tea. His untimely death in a plane crash left his church, his region, and the world sadder and grimmer.
Not long after, we lost another Hee Haw regular, Junior Samples, dead of heart disease at 56. Unlike most Southerners, Junior wasn’t a storyteller. He wasn’t even much of a talker: his inarticulateness was part of the joke. But when the camera came up on this salt-of-the-earth, good-natured fat man in overalls, lying in the front yard with his dogs—well, you laughed before he said anything at all. And whoever wrote his material got a good line off from time to time. Like: “Them folks is so pore their little baby has to sleep in the box the color TV came in.”
Between these two deaths, there was still another, less noted. Brother Dave Gardner was not on Hee Haw—indeed, he’d not been on television for 20 years. But to a generation of Southerners-my generation—he stood for good times and happy days. Rejoice, dear hearts, for his life and work.
A generation ago, before assassinations, urban riots, jungle warfare, student unrest—before “the 60’s” began in spirit, if not chronology—this down-home free spirit delighted us and puzzled Yankees in appearances on Jack Parr’s television show and with his weird, zany records. He was surely the most off-the-wall comedian of a time before the phrase “off-the-wall” was current, a time that saw such formidable competition in the weird zaniness category as Lenny Bruce.
In retrospect, it’s easy to recognize much of Brother Dave’s humor as debris from his blown mind, a product of the reefer madness that was then pretty much confined to the ghetto and the world of jazz musicians. (Brother Dave started out as a drummer and, after a fashion, a singer.) But this was before the great American middle class turned to dope, fulfilling the prophecy that they would in time make vice as banal as they had long since made virtue. Few of us then knew the signs, and Brother Dave was not as explicit as Cheech and Chong. All we knew was that he was a very funny man, and he was as much a part of campus life ca. 1960 as Ray Charles, Bo Diddley, or Doug Clark and the Hot Nuts.
Surely no one who has heard Brother Dave’s stories will forget them. The city cow and the country cow. The Down-Home Players’ production of Julius Caesar. Little David versus the Philadelphians. Best of all: the famous motorcycle wreck. Some of his one liners were priceless, too, especially when he talked about the differences between the North and his beloved South: “The only reason people live up there, dear hearts, is because they have jobs there. Did you ever hear of anybody retiring to the North?”
As the 60’s got less funny, so did Brother Dave, and by some accounts, he went completely around the bend into paranoia, incoherence, and hate. We didn’t hear from him for many years. He became sort of the private property of Southerners of a certain age, and we’d drag out those old re cords when the mood was just right, and laugh ourselves to tears, missing a man, a time, old friends, old selves. A couple of years ago, I heard that an enterprising Atlanta journalist had tracked him down somewhere in Texas and wrote a story that set up glorious comeback performances in a couple of Southern cities. I heard that Our People turned out in droves, chanted the old stories along with Brother Dave, laughed and hollered, and had the sort of good time that once seemed to have gone out of style forever about 1964. I wish I’d been there. While driving through Mississippi a couple of years ago, though I did hear that inimitable voice on at Memphis radio station, doing a commercial for a hamburger chain—and I almost drove off the road.
I’m glad that Brother Dave went to glory knowing that lots of us here in the—mundane sphere (he talked like that) hadn’t forgotten him. I guess there won’t be any albums of new material, but that’s probably just as well. The old stuff has done for 20 years so far and ought to get us into the 21st century just fine. Ain’t that a weird thought?
So long, Brother Dave. Goodbye, Reverend Grady. Farewell, Junior. I sure do hope there are more where you all came from.
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