Last year, Jeff Foxworthy was sensing that his rookie sitcom was in trouble. ”At one point my 4-year-old said, ‘Dad, I don’t want to watch The Jeff Foxworthy Show tonight.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, you and 220 million other people.”’
But the floundering ABC series was seen as a potential hit by at least one group: executives at NBC. After finishing 90th for the season, Foxworthy was dumped by ABC — and almost instantly picked up by the Peacock network. ”Honest to God, the phone calls were about two minutes apart,” says the 38-year-old comedian, still amazed. ”Before you could even get mad, the phone rang again.”
That second call was especially surprising considering that it came from NBC, bastion of urbanity and a network that hasn’t exactly championed Southern humor — as in Foxworthy’s ”You might be a redneck” stand-up act. But NBC, as it happens, didn’t think his ABC effort — set in Indiana, of all places — was down-home enough.
ABC had said, ”’We don’t want the show to be too Southern,”’ recalls the star. ”What does that mean? I was this way when they hired me!” Foxworthy, whose two comedy albums have sold 6 million copies, was at first perplexed, then angered by ABC’s treatment; in the beginning, he wasn’t even allowed in the writers’ room. ”I sat down with [executive producer] Tom Anderson and said: ‘I’ve been doing this every night of my life for 13 years. If I know anything, I know how to write for Jeff Foxworthy. Please let me in there.”’
He got his wish nine episodes into the show, but by then ratings had dropped off the table. Foxworthy had debuted in third place in a weeknight preview but swiftly sank in its Saturday-night dead zone. ”We were doing the best numbers they’d done there in five or six years,” says Foxworthy. But nothing helped — not a weeknight appearance in late January (which yielded a top 15 rating), nor a People’s Choice Award for Best Actor in a New TV Series.
Enter NBC. ”Jeff very much fits our needs,” says network chief Warren Littlefield, who sees the revamped Foxworthy as the perfect counterprogramming to CBS’ probable hit Cosby. ”They’re going to skew more 35-plus. We’re going to skew more kids, teens, and 18-to-49.” And more Southern. ”From what I know,” says ABC chairman Ted Harbert, ”NBC was mindful of the fact that some of [its] Southern affiliates were saying ‘Hey, all these big-city shows may be great for the big cities. How about a show for us?’ ” An NBC spokesman refutes the theory, but Foxworthy executive producer Maxine Lapiduss concedes that the network hasn’t had ”a blue-collar show on in a long time.”
NBC’s overhaul of the series — the new Georgia-based premise is ”like a twisted Mayberry,” says Lapiduss — elates the star. ”I think the only [sitcoms] that ever work with stand-ups are the ones where they let them do their characters,” he says, even if he will refrain from redneck jokes. ”When you let them be them, it works.”
If it doesn’t, Foxworthy may have to head back to Georgia himself. Although, as he quips, ”you can’t go home again…at least until they lift the restraining order.”
(Additional reporting by Kristen Baldwin and A.J. Jacobs)