Whitney is visiting from his home outside Orlando, Fla., promoting his new movie out May 11, Delta Farce. He's in the middle of telling me how he passes time on the road watching cattle auctions on his computer when it becomes clear that Whitney and I both know our waiter, Russell, an aspiring screenwriter. (Often the really talented people in L.A. are the ones serving the rest of us hacks lunch). Russell helped write a movie in which Whitney is considering taking a role. Russell also lived in the same dorm with me at college. "What are the odds of that?" asks Nebraska-born Whitney, in a much milder down-home accent than the one he drawls out on stage. O.K, the odds are long, but I get the sense these kind of small town moments follow Whitney as he travels through big cities in states red and blue.
Whitney's standup routine of country rube one-liners is his bread and butter, but he's becoming a box office regular. In 2006, his movie Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector earned $15.6 million, proving that enough of Whitney's fans would show up at the multiplex for the potty humor and Dale Earnhardt Jr. references they knew from the Blue Collar Comedy Tour to make his films profitable. As the voice of the tow truck character Mater in the Pixar movie Cars, Whitney was introduced to some other demographics.
Now, in Delta Farce, Whitney is taking on the war on terror in a trenchant political drama... Oh, who are we kidding? The fart jokes are back, people. This time Larry and his buds, played by fellow Blue Collar alum Bill Engvall and gangly character actor DJ Qualls, are bumbling Army reservists bound for Iraq. "I love what I do and I don't take myself too seriously," says Whitney, 44. "This character is fun. It gives me a chance to take that little bit of me how I grew up and magnify it. I could care less about doing a huge drama. Although if someone said, 'I want you to do this part with Angelina Jolie' then maybe."
Whitney, who is the son of a preacher and has been a vocal Bush supporter, has been a lightning rod for critics, who have accused him of racism and homophobia. He's quick to tell me about his gay tour bus driver ("one of my best friends").
Whitney also defends comedians of all political stripes, from fired shock jock Don Imus "He's has been doing that crap since the beginning of time. Don't draw a line in the sand while a guy is walking over it" to libertarian Bill Maher "Don't agree with him, bless his heart. But he's hilarious." Comedians, Whitney says, are like beverages. "Everybody has different taste." (Whitney says he's Coors Light).
The Larry the Cable Guy character has become considerably less political since Whitney created him on the radio as a kind of southern Archie Bunker in the early '90s. "You want the biggest fan base you can get," says Whitney. "There's a lot of comics who just like to make their friends laugh. Audiences like seeing a comedian who doesn't talk to the back of the room. He talks to the front of the room."
Whitney is passing through tinseltown, but he says he has no desire to stay. "I like wide open space. I like the people in small towns. They're friendly. They're genuine. They're not in the business." But there are signs the small town of Hollywood is ready to call Whitney a local. As I leave the comedian so he can take his next meeting, with a director looking to woo him for a project, a crisply suited and apparently ageless Don Johnson, who is lunching nearby, strolls over to say hello. Actually, what Johnson says is: "Git R done!" Larry the Cable Guy's catch phrase. If I didn't know better, I'd think I were at the Ponderosa.