If one good thing came out of the mess surrounding North Carolina’s 2016 “bathroom bill,” it was Trae Crowder’s epic rant on YouTube. In his “Liberal Redneck” persona, Crowder, a native of Celina, Tenn., assailed a culture that claimed to care about “the kids, the kids, the kids” but ignored the fact that transgender people were the least likely to prey on children. “So unless you’re also suggesting that we have separate bathrooms for Catholic priests,” Crowder’s character says, “I think you need to cut the shit.” The video, filmed on a cell phone on Crowder’s back porch, went viral, and suddenly the comedian found himself being interviewed by the likes of Forbes and MSNBC. The following year, he and his family moved out to Los Angeles for the sake of his burgeoning entertainment career.

What really animates Crowder is a defense of the South predicated upon an understanding that, while the South certainly does have problems, these problems aren’t always exclusive to the region, but inherent to the American project. Despite recent works exploring the racist history of allegedly progressive bastions like Portland, or even the state of Oregon as a whole, just to give an example, the South continues to serve as the primary scapegoat for the rest of the United States when matters of race and exploitation come to the fore of public consciousness. (It certainly does not help that the face of Dixie tends to be people like former Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III.) Crowder sees it as part of his mission to complicate that image — to show that someone from a rural, impoverished background can embody cosmopolitan values and progressive ideals. As an NPR profile put it, “‘Liberal Rednecks’ Are Killing Southern Stereotypes with Comedy.” Or as Crowder himself said in a video titled “In Defense of Dixie,” “I’m a poor, white trash redneck from the middle of nowhere in Tennessee. I am also a well-educated, well-travelled, godless liberal. If you can’t reconcile those two things, that’s your problem — not mine.”

Crowder and fellow redneck comedians Corey Ryan Forrester and Drew Morgan are traveling the nation for the stand-up tour, “wellRED: From Dixie with Love.” And it’s been a popular tour; the trio’s three August performances at the CALS Ron Robinson Theater in Little Rock sold out shortly after tickets became available. But you can still get a dose of their humor beyond re-watching old YouTube videos. They just released an album, “wellRED: Live from Lexington,” which is certifiably hilarious, and their book, “The Redneck Manifesto: Draggin’ Dixie Outta the Dark,” is now available in paperback. In addition, they also produce the wellRED Podcast, available wherever you get your podcasts. I talked with Crowder via telephone July 31.

How’s the tour going? You’ve sold out Little Rock.

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The tour’s good — it’s been going basically for a little over three years because we’re not like … comedians aren’t like bands. We don’t have to mobilize. We don’t have a bunch of equipment or roadies and techs or anything like that. We just go out for a few days, and then come back home for a few days, and so doing it that way, we’ve kind of been at it with that type of schedule — non-stop — for a little over three years, so it’s been good. First time in Little Rock, though. 

Are people still rolling cans of pork-n-beans across the stage during your set? 

[Laughs.] No, that was an isolated incident that just so happened to occur the very first week of the tour, making it even wilder. But no, no more pork-n-beans. But, I mean, people have brought us beans, and also pork. People bring us stuff, which is great, and we encourage this. But, you know, don’t bring it up to the stage if you do bring us something. Give it to us before or after, but please don’t throw it at us — or we will have a panic attack.

So I see on your website you’ve sold a “rural comedy” to ABC. Is there anything you can share about that? 

Well, no, not really because it’s in what they call “development hell,” basically. I’ve been through multiple different versions of said show. And also me and Corey and Drew have sold a pilot and are working on a project now we’re trying to get off the ground. It’s kinda how that goes, you know, you have to take a whole lot of swings at the plate before you actually connect with the one that makes it through the process that the three of us are in right now.

Courtesy of WellRED Comedy/Arsonhouse Entertainment
Drew Morgan (left), Trae Crowder (center) and Corey Ryan Forrester (right) of the WellRED Comedy Tour

You know we have to talk about Donald Trump. 

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Mm-hmm. 

You were on the way to becoming a hit even before the 2016 election, but in many ways it seems like the work you do — you and Corey and Drew — has become a lot more relevant in the years since then. And this is a man who is “the ultimate Yankee,” and yet so many self-appointed proud Southerners voted for him. You got any theories?

I’ve got some theories on it, but I will say first of all, though, that everything you just said was very, very difficult for me to get at when the whole Donald Trump thing was, like, really picking up steam in the run-up to the election, and especially after he won. There was this one article about my home town, which is extremely small, never makes any kind of news — even regional news, and I saw an article on a national site about how Tennessee just had their primary, and Donald Trump had carried my home town by a larger percentage than any other county up until that point. That was early on in the process, but still. And I remember being genuinely blown away by that, and posting on Facebook — this is before I went viral and whatever, I just put it on my personal Facebook, directed at all that people back home that I grew up with and stuff, just saying, “Please explain this to me.” I know — I don’t even think that this is an opinion, I feel like I know — that if you could go back in time, before Donald Trump, especially before he went after Obama, before he became the Trump that he is now, when he was just still the famous rich douchebag, and he had been a famous rich douchebag for 40 years, if you went back like 10 years ago, eight years ago, whatever, and interviewed any self-described rednecks or hillbillies, good-ol’ boys, or whatever, about, “How do you feel generally about Donald Trump?” — it would have been almost universally negative. The ultimate Yankee, blueblood, silver spoon, thinks he’s better than everybody, thinks he’s smarter than everybody, needs his ass whipped, just all of that. And it blew my mind that they actually bought into that guy in particular.

The question about theories about that, the best I can come up with is I guess that’s just, like, just how desperate they were for a champion — of any kind. To the point that even that guy was good enough for them. Even though it was that guy who was telling them all the things they wanted to hear, they still had somebody was telling them all the things they wanted to hear, and they responded to that. Otherwise, it was wild to me, too. And still is. 

Do you think Trump at least offers us this opportunity to turn the table on Southern stereotypes? I mean, Southerners have been portrayed as fat, ignorant, racist, incestuous. And here we have this morbidly obese, barely literate, white supremacist who clearly wants to fuck his own daughter. He checks all those boxes, and he’s from New York City. Can we get a laugh out of that?

I would love it if I thought that it would work that way, but I feel like we’ve already seen that it doesn’t. What is mean is — I live in California now, and there are plenty of people in California who voted for Donald Trump, who like Donald Trump right now. Same thing is true for New York or Massachusetts or wherever. It doesn’t matter — there are plenty of people in those states who love Trump, but you bring up a MAGA person, most people still have an image in their head of the people in my home town wearing MAGA hats, as opposed to the people in Orange County or whatever. For the most part. So while I completely agree with you, I don’t think it’s going to work that way, personally. We get blamed for it.

And this kind of ties into something you guys were recently talking about in a recent episode of your podcast. You had this discussion of how, when you’re doing the voice of someone meant to be stupid, you reflexively reach for this exaggerated Southern accent. But like you were saying, there’s an abundance of ignorance and parochialism everywhere. Might bringing our nation together depend upon expanding our stereotypes of who the dumb ones are? 

Yeah, I agree completely. We’ve talked about that on the podcast but also off-mike a lot because we all — Drew and Corey and I — we all do that, and it annoys us ourselves because we don’t like it when other people do the exact same thing. I think the reason that I would do that is because when I would be in a position where I was about to start doing an impression of some dumbass, I would be thinking of the dumbasses that I went to high school with. You know what I mean? The people that made me passionate about politics, the people that annoyed the shit out of me as a progressive and all that, growing up and everything. That’s who I picture in my head when I’m doing that. And this is Celina, Tennessee — those guys all sound that way. You know what I mean? But at the same time, everybody everywhere pretty much, if you’re going to do a dumbass character, you put on a Southern accent no matter where you grew up at. Yeah, it’s annoying. ’Cause I certainly agree with you, there’s stupid people everywhere. We’ve traveled all around the country, and there’s no doubt whatsoever of that.

And it spans the political spectrum, too, for the record. There are some dumbass liberals out there, also. 

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There are. She was in the debate last night, Marianne Williamson.

Yeah. Right. [Laughs.] I was actually thinking about her this morning because — I don’t want to jinx anything, you know, with how insane everything is all the time nowadays — but I’m pretty confident, though. I was thinking about her and how she’s kinda, sorta like a crunchy, liberal mirror of Trump in certain ways. Like a caricature and all this. And what I was thinking about is that we kind of have one of those in this race in Marianne Williamson, but the difference is, I believe, and I hope — and this is what I don’t want to jinx — we’re not going to elect ours, you know what I mean? We’re all being entertained by her, whatever, but she’s not going to be the nominee, let alone the president. Whereas, I’m saying, that’s not how it went on the other side. He took it all the way.

Speaking of the other side, you and Corey and Drew wrote something rather profound at the beginning of “The Redneck Manifesto,” and I want to quote this: “By the mid-twentieth century, to many people, a redneck was any close-minded white bigot, regardless of his upbringing — which seems weird to us, because we would assume that literally every single rich white American woman in the 1950s was unapologetically racist, for example, and yet we can’t imagine that ‘redneck’ was being tossed in their direction very much.” There’s still this sense — and you see it in all these New York Times profiles of Trump voters — that the real racists are poor and out in the hills and hollers of the South. But we know that billionaire families like the Mercers are funding all these white supremacists. Why don’t we see that? Why isn’t there like a bestselling book out there called “Blueblood Elegy” or something?

Yeah, I mean, this is another thing that we’ve talked a lot about amongst ourselves, and I’ve talked a lot about in interviews, too, because it goes back to what I was saying earlier. When I get on this subject, I don’t want to come across like an apologist, like I’m trying to say that the South isn’t racist or something like that. Having said that, though, my whole thing with that is always, it annoys the hell out of me, because, yeah, the South is racist — this whole country is racist, and the rest of the country acts like the South is an easy scapegoat. And you ask why we are always getting blamed, and part of the reason why is it allows the rest of the country to just sweep their bullshit under the rug and point at us and act like we’re the source of all these problems, when that’s just not the case, you know. Yeah, it’s very frustrating. It goes so much deeper, it’s so much more complicated than so many people realize. I’m a liberal comedian who goes all around this country, I’ve talked to many self-professed liberals, like white, middle-class, very outwardly progressive people that have said some racist shit without even meaning to. You know what I mean? I’ve seen that happen a ton.

Another thing is — and this is also a thing that is very hard to frame, you’ve got to be very careful with it — but like in Idaho or Vermont or wherever, for example, it’s almost all white people. It’s easy for them to feel like and act like they don’t have problems with institutional racism when it’s nothing but white people there. You know what I’m saying? As far as black and white, the South is one of the most diverse regions of this country. It’s extremely complicated, and there are so many factors that don’t get considered, it just gets watered down to “the South is racist, why doesn’t the South get it together,” and they just ignore the problems in their own houses.  

And it is interesting, because when we speak of the South, this image comes to mind of white, but like you said, the South has a very large African-American population that seems invisible to most people outside of the South. There was some New York Times editor recently who said that Rep. John Lewis wasn’t a real Southerner. He was only born in an Alabama sharecropper’s house and represents Georgia, but he’s not a real Southerner, he doesn’t show up in their schema. 

That’s another huge factor, and that something we’ve harped on a lot over the years. It’s such bullshit. Like why don’t we also count, we being the three of us [Trae, Drew, and Corey] or a black congressman, or just anyone that doesn’t fit the mold. ’Cause I’ve also gotten told before, “OK, you’re from Tennessee, but you know, you’re not like that.” You know what I mean? Like they want to discount anyone who’s from the South who doesn’t fit that stereotype. Yeah, they want to exclude you, but that’s total bullshit. All of the rest of us are just as much a part of the South as the shitty side that gives everybody else a bad name, and it’s infuriating that we’re excluded all of the time. But there are plenty of people who sincerely can’t reconcile those things, that you can be both, that you can be from rural Tennessee and proud of it and also very progressive and educated and everything at the same time.

The other part of that is, all of those people that are like, they don’t view any of that as prejudice. ’Cause they hate prejudice, they’re very anti-prejudice, but obviously that’s an extremely prejudiced viewpoint to have. But none of them see that that way, either. It’s a very weird dynamic, for sure. 

Last question here. A lot of people said back in 2016, after the election, that comedians would have it easy for the next four years. But it has to be a bit challenging to try to compose some chuckle-inducing skit about concentration camps along the border and our rapid slide into fascism. Is there still something revolutionary and liberating in comedy that you tap into, that keeps you going? 

First of all, you’re right, that was the general consensus: “Oh, comedians’ jobs just got a lot easier.” But maybe at the very beginning for a little bit that was maybe true, but at this point I definitely feel like, if anything, it’s harder. So much of it is so terrible, and there’s nothing funny about it. There’s no joke to be found. But also, he and his administration, it’s a parody of itself. It’s hard to even make a joke beyond what reality is. Also, people are fatigued and tired of hearing everything, and anything that’s going to be said about him has been said. There are a million reasons why it’s actually made the job harder. 

As far as the question of is there another aspect of comedy that I’ve dug into — it actually is exactly the thing you were just talking about in the last question. And I’ll tell people that sometimes because they’ll ask me: “How many people have I talked to whose minds I’ve changed?” And they’re always thinking about some issue, like some redneck who I changed his mind about abortion or something. And I always tell them: Not many. That hasn’t happened very many times, to be honest with you. But I’ve had countless conversations with people in Seattle or Portland or San Francisco or wherever that have said that my videos have changed their perception of the South as a whole. And I’ve heard that a ton, and that is awesome to me, and that is the thing that I try to focus my energy on.