‘Liberal redneck’ Trae Crowder checks in on politics and comedy ahead of his Iowa City Book Festival appearance

Iowa City Book Festival Presents the wellRED: From Dixie with Love Comedy Tour

Englert Theatre — Wednesday, Oct. 11 at 8 p.m.

Trae Crowder brings friends and co-authors Corey Ryan Forrester and Drew Morgan to the Englert on their wellRED: From Dixie With Love​ tour. — video still

On Oct. 11, the Iowa City Book Festival brings Trae Crowder to town (the Liberal Redneck of YouTube fame). Crowder, along with Corey Ryan Forrester and Drew Morgan, will be performing at the Englert as part of their wellRED: From Dixie With Love​ tour. The show starts at 8 p.m.; tickets are $27. All proceeds will benefit the ACLU of Iowa. I spoke with Crowder recently about politics, comedy and the trio’s new book on southern culture, The Liberal Redneck Manifesto.

Tell us a bit about your book.

It’s a book that I co-wrote with two of my best friends and fellow southern comedians, Corey Ryan Forrester and Drew Morgan, and they’ll be on tour with me and will be with me in Iowa City. The book is called The Liberal Redneck Manifesto: Dragging Dixie out of the Dark, and basically it’s kind of a road map to our south — what we see as the real south, and that includes the good and the bad.

We tried very to hard to be honest in whatever the subject might be that we are covering at any given time, so we talk a lot in the book about racism and homophobia in the south and those type of things, but we also talk about the awesome food and music and that type of stuff and try to be even-keeled about it and try to explain why we love it but also why we think the south needs to do better.

‘The Liberal Redneck Manifesto’ (2016, Simon & Schuster/Atria Books) will be available in paperback Oct. 10.

One thing I noticed is that it’s very funny, but there’s also very good points there. I used to listen to George Carlin — he’d say something hilarious, but it would also be a really good point; you couldn’t really argue it. Do you feel the passion and politics drive your material, or does the comedy come first?

As a comedian, what has to come first is always just being funny, and if you’re not being funny, you’re not doing your number one job. Also, if you want to talk about those serious kinds of subjects, which I do — and I’ve always been drawn to that type of material — you can’t really do that if you’re not able to make it funny because that’s kind of the whole point, is making those types things more palatable for people to listen to. But it is important to me to have some type of message or something to say; I’ve been a comedy nerd my whole life and that’s always the type of stuff I was drawn to myself. So ever since I started stand-up, which was like seven years ago, it’s also been the type of stuff that I’ve tried to do myself.

So you wanted to be a comedian when you were a kid?

I wanted to be in show business. Originally that meant making movies, because my dad owned a video store when I was a kid, and that’s always what I chalked that up to. Literally the only thing I ever wanted to do was make movies or just be in that industry, and then when I was 12, that’s when it specifically became comedian, because of Chris Rock’s HBO special Bigger and Blacker; I watched that with my dad. That was the first time that I was like, “I want to do that.” Ever since then it’s been stand-up specifically

And you’ve been working in stand-up for seven years now?

I’ve been doing it for seven years. I had to have a day job until last year when my videos went viral, so about 18 months I’ve been a full-time comedian. When you first get started you’re not going to make any green — you gotta put the time in, and in my case get very lucky with the viral videos and stuff. So seven years; started when I was 24. I’d known I wanted to do it when I was 12.

That whole time there was never a question whether I was going to go to college — I was the first person in my family to graduate from college; my dad and my grandpa and everybody were adamant that I was going to go to college, and I never didn’t want to myself. So I graduated high school, went to college first, and when I graduated from college it was now or never, if I was gonna do this stand-up thing.

You talked a bit recently on your podcast — the wellRED podcast — about the tension between loving your home but not being able to do show business anywhere but big cities. Was that a struggle when you were a kid?

Yeah, honestly that’s why I was 24 before I ever even set foot on stage. Because Celina, Tennessee, my hometown — when I say “rural” it’s extremely rural. Three hours from any even remotely notable city, so there’s not a comedy club for two hundred miles. Even when I went to college, the Tennessee Tech University, that’s in Cookeville, Tennessee, and there’s not clubs or anything like that around there either.

So it wasn’t something I had available to me; the only thing that came close was when I was in high school, some of my buddies I grew up with would do improv in my buddy’s basement. Whose Line Is It Anyway? games, terrible sketches with little video cameras and stuff, and that’s about that as close as I ever came to anything like that until I moved to Knoxville.

And at that point, you must have been just chomping at the bit to get started.

Yeah, I was like — it wasn’t like I had to make myself do it, but I was 24, there was a comedy club not that far away from me there in Knoxville and I was like, “Okay, if I’m ever gonna give this a shot, it’s time right now.” So I went and signed up for an open-mic and it went really well and I’ve been a comedian ever since.

Back to the book — this was released in October, right?

In October of last year; the paperback is October of this year.

You talk about a lot of the politics before the election.

We wrote it in the second-quarter time frame in the summer of 2016. So it was all pre-election and it came out before that, so we did not know what was gonna happen.

So there’s sort of this scary-premonition feeling about some of the topics. Do you feel like things have changed? Have they just gotten worse? Would you have an addendum to the book now?

I feel like things have gotten worse. Generally speaking, yes. That’s my opinion, obviously. But even as bad — even as bad as I thought this administration would be, it’s been worse. And I thought it would be pretty bad.

It’s been a trial.

I think things in general have objectively gotten worse. In the South, though, specifically, it’s only gotten — I don’t know if it’s gotten more divisive. The thing is, in the run-up to the election it was already more divisive than I ever had seen it, and I don’t know that that’s changed, or it’s gotten worse, because I don’t really know if it could get much worse. I do think in some ways, though, now that I’m sitting here thinking about it, some things have gotten inertia.

I think one example, and this might seem counter-intuitive at first, but those Civil War monuments. Yeah, they’ve made negative headlines, but you know the assholes that have showed up to rally around in support of them: First of all, there aren’t that many of them; also, they come from all around the country to even amass that not-very-impressive number that they get there; and then also, ultimately, those statues are coming down. In a lot of other cities they’re taking them down in the middle of the night, they’re not even saying anything, so those guys don’t even get a chance to show up.

It’s happening all over the South and that’s something that’s needed to happen for a very long time, getting rid of those relics of ass-whooping that we’ve erected for some reason. So that’s something. And also, I’m so hopeful — and this might be naivety and I’m deluded myself — I’m hoping that that is kind of a template for how the rest of this will go, like we’ll come out of the other side of this better than we were before, you know what I mean? It’s kind of a rock bottom. That’s what I’m telling myself, but I don’t know. We’ll see.

It’s almost as if we have to bring a topic out in the open, as ugly as it is, before we can talk about it. It seems like it has to get worse before we make any progress.

Yeah; also it’s activated a lot of people that were maybe not necessarily that passionately involved, but now they’re like, “Holy hell, this looks serious,” you know what I mean? I think that will work out for the better, I hope. Obviously you see that on both sides, but I think there’s more good people than bad people ultimately, so I think we’ll pull through. It’ll be a rough patch.

This is something I’ve noticed from your videos — you make fun of people being assholes, but you seem to have this positive take at the end: “We can get through this as a country.” When we are so divided, though, how do you think we talk to each other and change minds?

This is not an answer that a lot of people like, but it’s my honest opinion; it goes with what I was saying a moment ago: It’s gotten bad and will continue to get bad until enough people who are on the other side look around and realize we can’t live with this terrible mistake. We gotta get our shit together or what have you. Anecdotally, I do see a little bit of that, I think that kind of thing will happen more in places like the Rust Belt. Not in places like my hometown, probably. Nobody likes to admit they’re wrong.

So when people ask me, “What can liberals do to change minds?” — when you’re talking about the true zealots, I don’t think there’s anything we can do. But: If they continue to be objectively terrible (when I say “they” I mean their elected officials), I mean they just can’t get anything done. Even things they all agree should happen, like repealing Obamacare. They just can’t do anything. That’s how powerfully incompetent they are despite being in power. I think eventually they’ll tear themselves apart and there will be room for discussion in the cold light of day the next morning after all that happens. That’s what I think and that’s what I’m hoping.

Do you incorporate any of this into your act? The stuff that’s happened in the last couple weeks with healthcare, for example.

Well, I’ve been touring fairly regularly for over a year and a half now, and based on the response we’ve gotten, I feel strongly that if you like my videos you will like our show, it’s definitely thematically similar. You’ll like it, but having said that: No, it’s not the same thing. It’s kind of on purpose, because while I get [that] people might expect the act to be an extension of the videos, or a long version of the videos, … in reality, what happened is the videos were kind of an outlet for that kind of humor that was more topical, cyclical stuff. Because the problem with stand-up, is it’s hard to devote a lot of time to material that’s going to be forgotten or not as relevant within a couple months and not hit as hard or whatever.

That makes a lot of sense.

My standup act is more evergreen, but it’s still a lot of social commentary, and I talk a lot about poverty and racism and homophobia and all those issues, but not like ripped from the headlines, topical Bill-Maher-style jokes. I think people will dig it, but it’s definitely a little different from the videos.

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