February 07, 2011 at 07:39 PM EST

Image Credit: Kyle ChristyLarry the Cable Guy (a.k.a. Dan Whitney) knows the reaction most folks have when they hear he has a new series debuting Feb. 8 on History: “They start laughing. They don’t believe it,” he says. “It’s kinda the same reaction that you would get if you said Charlie Sheen was doing commercials for eHarmony.com.” But when the idea for Only in America with Larry the Cable Guy, a 13-part series in which the comedian travels the nation profiling the people, places, and things that define our unique history, it made sense to him: “I go on stage and as I lead into some news topics of the day, I tell people the reason I don’t watch the news anymore is they only cover that 1 percent of the population that are dirtbags,” he tells EW. “When you watch the news, it makes you think there’s no hope. But I travel all around the country, and I see nothing but good people. People that are working together — it doesn’t matter what color you are, what country you’re from — they’re all gettin’ along, and you don’t see those people gettin’ covered on the news. That’s why we are the greatest country in the world, because the majority of us do get along and love the country.” He wants to do his part to restore a little pride back in the USA by reminding people “we got a badass culture,” he says. He does everything from taking an etiquette lesson with the descendants of Emily Post to launching a jet off the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier. It’s the first series he’s ever done that’s allowed him to be both Larry the Cable Guy and Dan Whitney. Meaning, there’s both humor and heart. Here’s a taste of what to expect: 

• On his visit to NASA, he got in a flight simulator with astronaut Clayton Anderson. “They have a digital read-out that shows you your score when you land. I actually did better than Clay, which scares me about the astronaut program,” he jokes. We’ve seen the cut of this episode, and that’s not in it. We do, however, see him get to the bottom of the $23 million toilet astronauts use in space. Explanation? “I got to ask questions that I’m curious about, and I think a lot of people have that same question: How do you go to the bathroom in space? I mean, What do you do? Does it float around? Do you gotta catch it? Well, now we know. They got a toilet that sucks it right out of you. You got to strap on to it. Who would have thought? We thought that was a lot more interesting than the space shuttle,” he says, laughing. “People know the space shuttle goes up by rocket boosters, they have no idea how you suck your waste out of yourself into a bag. To me, that’s a show. That should have been a whole hour.”

• All jokes aside, he thought he might die filming a segment in South Carolina, where he got stuck in mud chest-deep while fetching clams and oysters. “The tide goes out, and when it does, the bank is covered with oysters and clams. Well, some of the bigger ones, you have to hike for. As you’re walkin’, it’s nothing but mud, like quicksand mud, and you sink in it. The guide says, ‘You don’t know how deep the [canals] are. Generally, they’re not that deep, and you’ll sink down to about your waist, and you can feel your foot hit the ground. And then what you do is, you put pressure on your left leg, and you pull your right leg out, and then you kinda swim out of the mud. You get to dry land, and you’re fine. Well, before we even shot it, every single member of my crew was stuck in the mud and had to get helped out. But my director wanted to go on with the segment. So I start walkin’ out to where this guide is, and I sink in the mud all the way up to my chest. I’m trying to wiggle out, and the guide says, ‘You just feel the bottom,’ and I say, ‘There is no bottom.’ I’m sinking in mud, so I take my hand and I reach over and grab on to a bunch of vines that are on land, and I gradually start pulling myself up. Well, it took 45 minutes to pull and gradually wiggle out of that. I’m a big guy, so I thought seriously, this is it. I’m gonna have a heart attack. You always hear about these big fat white guys out there shoveling snow, and they use their upperbody and boom, they’re gone. So that’s the first thing I’m thinking. The guide came over and he helped me out. Then he got stuck. Finally, my director was like, ‘Okay, let’s cancel this. We got enough footage.’ And I’m like, ‘Well, easy for you to say, now I’ve gotta get back to the boat,'” he recounts, laughing. “I haven’t seen this yet, but the guys cutting [the footage] said it’s hilarious. And I’m sure it is, because we were all scared for our lives.”

• There were only two things he wouldn’t do: At a Boy Scout camp, he opted not to repel down a 100-foot drop. “I love the Boy Scouts, but I’m scared of heights. To hell with that.” He also didn’t drive in the trailer race at the Demolition Derby in Orlando. “What they do is, they pull trailers with these cars and they race each other. One of them is pulling a single-wide trailer, two of them are pulling campers. They’re racing, they’re smashing into each other and jackknifin’. I said, ‘This is stupid, I’m not doin’ that.’ And I didn’t do it. And then after I didn’t do it, my director came up and said, ‘Whoever at History told you to do it should be fired immediately. I had no idea it was gonna be this bad.’ I go, ‘Dude, I’m a redneck. I live down here. I knew it was gonna be that bad. I told you I didn’t want to do it.'”

• He did, however, take at least one wild ride. After exploring how running moonshine bred the sport of NASCAR, he visited with driver Bill Elliott, a.k.a. Awesome Bill from Dawsonville, who took him for a surprise spin. “He kept a good secret. I had no idea what was going on. I was just happy I was hanging out with Bill Elliott. Next thing you know, he gets me in this car, and it’s all camera’d up. [The crew said] ‘Oh, we’re just gonna have you go down the track with him and talk. You see microphones. You can’t go too fast because you gotta talk.’ I said, ‘Yeah, that’s true.’ Well, they weren’t even on. They did that to me a lot, because I didn’t know what I was doing, and they didn’t want me to back out,” he says. “As soon as I said, ‘There’s no seat belts,’ [vroom] he went. He literally was at about 160 mph in about four seconds. We went all the way down that runway like a plane taking off, and he slams on his brakes doing about 140 and did a 180 slide and without even stopping, went the other direction and did it that way, too. That’s when he went into the series of donuts, right after he did those two maneuvers. So, you know, for somebody that doesn’t even like rollercoasters, that was kinda rough.” We’ve seen this episode, and seriously, you’ve never seen anyone get out of a car faster. “I got the hell out. I did. I wasn’t kidding when I said, ‘You are about to witness the murder of Bill Elliott.’ I was gonna hit him over the head with a branch or somethin’. Those are real laughs. None of that is fake. I’m just laughing because I can’t believe we just did that.”

• A lot of the segments are just interesting, informative, quirky fun, but it’s the heartwarming stories that are his favorite. He plays Secret Santa at a Goodwill in Kansas City, handing out $100 bills and giving one fan enough money to pay her rent. He drove a roach-shaped vehicle in the Houston Art Car Parade, but ended up getting emotional when he met a man from Israel who became an American citizen and painted his car with murals to honor the American military. “He’s got a really successful business and two great boys. He’s telling me this story with tears in his eyes, about how much he loves the country and how much he admires our soldiers because if it wasn’t for the American military, then America might not be as free as it is today,” he says. “He built this car out of wood, and it’s all hydraulics. He’s been offered like $3.5 mullion for it, and he won’t sell it because he says he has enough money and he likes it because he takes it down to the grade schools and the little kids like it. That’s the kind of guy he was. I’ve never met anybody like this guy. So he’s telling me this story, and he brings out this car. I started tearing up when he showed it to me. I myself had just come back from visiting the troops. It was probably three days later that I was filming this episode. It really got to me. I’m like, ‘Man, I gotta tell you, just to know that there’s somebody like you that loves the country so much that you’ll go to this trouble and do something like this, it really touches me.’ I think people will see that different side of me.”

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