KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — It's Saturday night at the Gen. James White Memorial Civic Auditorium and Coliseum, and Lewis Grizzard is knocking 'em dead with his biting brand of down-home Southern wit, excoriating everything from women's libbers and punk rockers to Yankees who think Southerners talk funny.
"I'll be honest with you," he says in his deep-down Georgia drawl as he sits center stage on a stool, dressed in a tuxedo, flashy cummerbund and tie, and black Gucci loafers with no socks. "I don't understand the women's movement. It's got me totally confused . . . first time I heard the name Geraldine Ferraro, I thought it was Flip Wilson's sports car."
But if feminists leave him confused, he says, punk rock performers leave him absolutely bewildered. "If Elvis came back today he wouldn't even be noticed --he didn't bite no heads off no bats the way they do. Elvis may have shaken his pelvis, but he never, by God, showed it to anybody on stage."
'Language of Nuance'
As for Yankees who think Southerners talk funny: "They just don't understand that the Southern way of speaking is a language of nuance. You take the word naked . It means you ain't got no clothes on. But sometimes naked just won't do. You need something a little bit stronger. So we change that word just a little bit--and we say nekkid . Naked means you ain't got no clothes on. Nekkid means you ain't got no clothes on and you're up to somethin' . . . Vanessa Williams was nekkid !"
If you haven't heard of Lewis Grizzard (pronounced GrizZARD like lard, not GRIZzard like gizzard), then you probably don't know what grits and greens taste like. But south of the Mason-Dixon Line, this 39-year-old Atlanta Constitution columnist, humorist, author and stand-up comedian is the hottest thing since pickup trucks, hailed as a "Faulkner for plain folks" and "this generation's Mark Twain."
At a time when the world most Southerners grew up in and loved is changing beyond all recognition, Grizzard stands tall for all that used to be holy: God, family, unliberated women, homemade biscuits, country music without violin choruses, hand-held funeral parlor fans, the Confederacy, beer in long-neck bottles and gays in the closet.
A Lucrative Business
It is a kind of redneck nostalgia rooted in his upbringing in Moreland, Ga., a tiny rural community in the red-clay country southwest of Atlanta. And he has parlayed it into a $500,000-a-year business.
His column is syndicated in more than 200 newspapers; his seven books, which include such titles as "If Love Were Oil, I'd Be About a Quart Low" and "Elvis Is Dead and I Don't Feel So Good Myself," have sold more than 1 million copies; and his live comedy album has shot through the 100,000 mark and is still going strong.
"I basically haven't understood anything that's gone on in the world since about 1968," Grizzard said as he attacked a hearty breakfast of fried eggs, bacon and cheese grits at his $360,000 contemporary home in the pine-studded hills of suburban Atlanta one morning after his return from Knoxville. "The family has gone to hell, television is strange, nothing seems to make sense any more.
"Grown men wearing earrings, for example. Now, that's the one thing that shakes me up the most. Grown men should not wear earrings! That's in the Bible, in Deuteronomy, right next to the chapter that says: 'Thou shalt not put cole slaw on barbecue.' "
But you don't have to be from the South to be hooked by his humor or his feeling that the world is going to hell in a hand basket.
A New York publisher, Villard, is putting out his newest book, the first time Grizzard has used a publisher outside of Atlanta. Set to hit the book stands this fall, it is entitled "My Daddy Was a Pistol and I'm a Son of a Gun" and recounts his touching and often hilarious relationship with his father, a much-decorated war hero who took to alcohol, deserted the family when Grizzard was 6 and died in 1970.
"He was a great man at one point but seven years of combat in World War II and Korea got to him," he said. "There's nobody could tell a story like him, though. Hell, I'm still stealing his material."
Projected TV Sitcom
Embassy Television, a Hollywood production company, is contemplating turning his experiences as the sports editor of the Chicago Sun-Times into a television sitcom. Grizzard has already submitted a 13-page treatment around which the projected series would be made.
"I nearly died in Chicago," he said. "It was pure culture shock. Nobody speaks English in Chicago. And cooooold! Everybody walks around bundled up in coats, and you can't tell the men from the women."
To be sure, there are plenty of Southerners--particularly in the more sophisticated centers of Dixie, such as Atlanta--who feel Grizzard is an embarrassment to the region and wish he would find another profession.