Q&A: Ron White
Ron “Tater Salad” White had just polished off 18 holes of golf in his adopted hometown of Austin, Texas and was “sitting at the bar getting hammered” when he called Las Vegas Magazine’s Matt Kelemen to talk greens and comedy scenes. White, who performs as part of the Mirage’s Aces of Comedy series April 21-22, switched his onstage drink from Scotch to Jalisco’s finest in recent years, but his relentless touring pace remains the same.
What are you drinking?
Number Juan Tequila. It’s a company I own. They sell it all over Vegas. It’s not everywhere, but if I’ve been there you can bet I’ve sold them my tequila.
Do you set up your schedule to you can play the best courses?
Wherever we go we play the best club in the area. We don’t necessarily do it that way, but we end up playing some of the best courses in the country, I’m sure.
Who are some of the best golfers in stand-up? Do you play together?
My whole crew plays. My bus driver, my manager Pat McCollum, whoever the opener is. I go out of my way to play with Rodney Carrington, who’s a really good golfer. He and I play Vegas a lot in December, so we always get out and play.
You’re booked for two upcoming weekends in Vegas. Do you ever stay throughout the week?
Nooo. (Laughs) I’ve done it before, but I end up looking pretty old by the time that happens. I just go home to LA, slip on down. Because I worked with Mirage I got to play Shadow (Creek Golf Course). I usually come in Thursday to play early Friday or early Saturday, maybe stay Sunday and play a game. And I get to play The Summit, which is killer.
I pictured you playing Shadow Creek Monday through Friday.
I’ve done it, but I’ve got so many friends … I’ve been playing Vegas for 25 years, right? I’ve got so many friends in Las Vegas, they all want to party when I come to town. I’m like, “Ok, you guys really don’t drink unless I’m here. Ok. Somebody’s bullsh*tting me.”
You and Mustard (White’s French bulldog) have a house on a golf course in Atlanta, right?
Well, we sold that place. Now Mustard and I are hanging out in Austin. I sold the house in Atlanta and bought a hi-rise downtown. I love Austin, always have. My son lives here and the taxes are better. It all added up to go ahead and move to Austin for a while. The live music rocks and the food’s great.
I interviewed Kathleen Madigan once and she said she has no desire to leave your “bio-dome” in Atlanta when she stays there. I guess she’s going to miss that.
We’re all gonna miss that. It’s a castle, but I don’t need a castle. I want to make myself smaller and retire someday, I don’t know when.
Looks like you have a break this weekend. How many shows do you have planned for this year?
I don’t even know how many shows. There’s 110 cities, which is kind of a regular schedule for me. I work hard. And then when I’m not on tour doing big rooms I do small rooms. I actually live in Beverly Hills most of the time, so every night I do three sets at The Improv, Laugh Factory and Comedy Store. My whole life is just nothing but stand-up comedy, and I throw a little golf on top of it. It’s like putting sugar on Frosted Flakes, you know?
Is it an addiction or a compulsion?
I don’t know, that’s a good question. I think it’s an addiction.
I’ve interviewed comedians who hit the smaller rooms on a regular basis, but you’re really into it. You hit them all the time when you’re not doing shows.
Stand-up is what makes me who I am. It’s so much a part of my makeup that I just have to do it every night. That’s my social scene. I go out and we do stand-up, then we go do something.
What happens when you’re away from it for a while?
I turn sh*tty. I get grouchy and I don’t know what to do with myself, but that doesn’t come up that often.
What are your small club shows like? Are you looser and trying out different material?
Yeah, in the clubs in LA. I just do 15 minutes just like everybody else, 20 minutes. Work on new stuff and then hang out. I love being part of the comedy scene wherever I am, you know? I like to hang out with comics. My homeroom is The Comedy Store, which is the best place on Earth.
In an episode of Marc Maron’s podcast you both reminisce about the ’80s comedy scene and talk about seeing the same people around the same time. He also called you one of the great long-form comedians.
If you look at the track record of the last 30 years you’d have to say yeah, for sure. And I am a long-form comic. There aren’t too many of us around, so it doesn’t take much to be one of the great ones. Just be one of them and you’ll be one of the great ones.
Did you always see yourself that way? Is long-form the kind of comedy you always wanted to do?
Literally, I couldn’t figure out another way to do it. It’s the only thing I can think of, so that’s the way it turned out. I just do it a little different than some of the more modern comics, I guess.
You also work slower, and on Joe Rogan’s show you expressed appreciation what you saw as Ali Wong slowing the pace of her delivery. Who else to you appreciate for that?
Yeah, Ali is one of my favorites. I really like to watch Rocky LaPorte work when he’s on, you know? He says fewer words than anybody else. I love the brevity, and I love the space between the words and those kinds of things. Kind of high-end comedy stuff, technical comedy stuff that I enjoy. Most people don’t understand the difference between one or the other. They just watch it and laugh. That’s all we want them to do anyway.
Does it open up opportunities for improve and spontaneity. Do you get to mess with the program when you go slow?
No, no, no. … I like there to be silence when I’m not talking, and whenever that’s going on I’m on the best mood possible. When I get 3,000 or 5,000 people focused on every word, I like to let those words hang out there and let ’em taste them. Let ’em taste those words. And if you work at a slower pace it just takes bigger … balls. (Laughs) A lot of people aren’t comfortable with that silence. I revel in it.
You’ve talked about coming up with long-form jokes and not finding the really effective punch line for it until later.
I’ll try anything. That’s the biggest mistake you can make as a comic is not try it. Give it a try, see if it will work. See if you can squeeze some blood out of the rock. Sometimes you can. The biggest mistake you can make is coming up with something you think is funny and decide not to try it because it’s too gutsy or it might not work, or whatever. You have to be completely not afraid of “it might not work.” … I can make it funny, which is probably something I learned from Carson back in the day.
Yeah, he was good slow too. He liked pauses. Would your style have been different if your uncle was a fire and brimstone preacher instead of the more measured minister-type he was?
Well, he was still Southern Baptist, so there was some fire and brimstone in him, but he was just a gifted orator. When I was a kid I loved to go to church and listen to my uncle preach. I had no idea of the lesson I was getting, that I would live the rest of my life using what I learned from my uncle. No idea.
Did you ever have conversations with Sam Kinison back in the day about the influence of preaching on comedy? He came from a Pentecostal family.
Yeah, a little bit. I would see him a couple of times. I know his background was church too, and so was Chris Rock. I don’t think it’s that uncommon.
I didn’t know that.
Yeah, Chris Rock’s uncle was a preacher, and he gives a lot of credit to his uncle also for sitting there and learning something when you don’t know you’re learning it. That sort of makes it better.
What does the Texas stand-up circuit breed into comedians?
Well, I came out of the Dallas scene, which wasn’t as good as the Houston scene, but I think I would have wound up who I was as a comic no matter which scene I was in. Houston was the more prestigious with (Bill) Hicks … and Hicks and Hicks and Hicks. And Kinison. They got to come up in an environment where they policed themselves. You couldn’t go into a room in Houston and pick up a guitar and sing parodies. They’d boo you off the stage themselves. It was really brutal, brutal, brutal. In the club I came up in you’d trip over guitar cases getting to the stage because there were so many people doing parodies, which my grandmother can do, it’s so easy.
Did you develop a thick skin against hecklers in the early Texas clubs?
That’s where I cut my teeth, and then I did comedy clubs 52 weeks a year for 15 years before anyone gave a fiddler’s f*ck about what I was doing. Then Blue Collar came out, then I was one of the biggest comics in the country immediately. I’ve luckily been able to stay there for 15 more years, which is an amazing run.
What’s up with Netflix? It was “huge money vs. regular money,” the way you put it, that you were waiting on. Since then Bill Engvall told me he’s done with specials.
I just shot a Netflix special, but they had to get closer where I wanted to be. Shooting specials is really what make me move on as an entertainer. Then I know I gotta rewrite it, and that’s a big commitment, but I think that’s why people come see me is because I’m not afraid of that commitment. I’m like, “OK, I’ll do it again.” And I will.
Where did you shoot this one?
I shot it in a little theater outside of Atlanta. It’s a small room, about 900 seats, but it’s set up for a seven-camera shoot. All you gotta do is bring the stuff in and plug it in, kind of like ACL (Austin City Limits) Live in Austin. It’s set up for television.
Do you know when it’s going to come out?
Not till November.
Is there a working title?
I don’t know. What I wanted to do is If You’d Quit Listening I’d Shut Up.