James Gregory is the funniest man in America, and if you don’t believe me head over to his website to see him declare it yourself. For 37 years Gregory has been a staple of Southern and Midwestern comedy clubs, the sort of legend local comics tell each other about unexpected acts who blew them away. Even as the mainstream industry has largely ignored him, Gregory plays to sold-out crowds across America drawn in by his brilliant stories and lack of swearing. Oh yeah, did I mention he’s a mostly clean comic?
James Gregory may seem like the wrong person to cover on a mainstream comedy website. After all, he’s older than any of our audience, without any nostalgia from a previous decade to hook readers. But in a comedy scene where storytelling has elevated everyone from Hannah Gadsby to Bert Kreischer to stardom, Gregory deserves a mention. Because if you can look past your first impressions of the man and the title of his album, Crock Pots & Chicken Legs, James Gregory might just leave your jaw sore for laughing.
For nearly 20 years, Southern comedy has been largely defined by the Blue Collar Comedy Tour. While Larry the Cable Guy’s act as aged like a racist Datsun truck on bricks in someone’s yard, it’s understandable why the others have persevered. In particular Ron White and Jeff Foxworthy made for a perfect tour team of surprising darkness and family friendly whimsy. But while Foxworthy’s squeaky clean reputation might be where you think Gregory’s style lies, it’s fans of Ron White who should take notice.
Gregory is a masterful storyteller, spinning mundane life events like a pulled muscle, getting a crock pot, and family funerals into fully formed bits brimming with jokes. He makes it easy to understand his world. Crock Pots and Chicken Legs offers a look at the mind of working-class white Southerners. Family is incredibly important, even when they’re crazy. God is real, even if aliens aren’t. And, most importantly, death is just around the corner.
For such a silly album, full of jokes about overeating and being overwhelmed by modern life, death casts a strangely long shadow over everything. Gregory dives deep into the unspoken politics of death, from how Southerners bury one another to the lies we tell about how we pass. “We don’t have heart attacks in my family,” he drawls, “we just cross the median.” “Backyard Funeral Gossip” finds the extended family trying to figure out when to ask about the recently deceased truck. The memory of family is forever, but a reliable pickup is priceless and one must call dibs.
Of course, the silly stuff is just as compelling. Gregory’s always the brilliant narrator of his tales, a modern Mark Twain recounting his neighbors’ foibles and goofs. His cousin learns that geese are birds. Captain Sully stands as an example of why he refuses to fly, turning a tired joke premise on its head to create a wonderfully ridiculous attack on air travel. “The Pope’s Wardrobe” gives a shockingly dark take on the Holy Father informed by some of the South’s worst history.
Each bit is lovingly unwrapped, with the glint in Gregory’s eye seemingly audible over the tracks. There are subtle nodes and winks to unpleasant things that aren’t polite to talk about in public, but are alright when you’re among friends. While he mostly refuses to fly Gregory concedes the point that he’ll fly once a year “just to catch up on my drinking and my praying.” Set to the truly uproarious laughter of his crowd, like a Def Jam recording held in a church, each punchline hits like a confession at Sunday dinner. Southern comedy, at its best, feels like listening to family talk, and James Gregory sounds like he’s fixing a plate with loved ones.
Not every idea is perfect, with a few throwaway jokes about climate change, endangered animals, and foreign aid to other countries. Even in these moments, however, Gregory is a brilliant performer, full of laugh out loud jokes. Laughing along to a well-meaning old guy at a bar who’s holding court even if he sometimes talks out his ass is a Southern tradition. Occasionally, Crock Pots and Chicken Legs feels like that, leaving you shaking your head awhile giggling along.
In the era of Trump, I understand why some comedy fans may be apprehensive to put their trust into listening to 45 minutes of comedy by a 73-year-old man from Georgia. Outside of a few brief mentions of the sort of things old people don’t believe in, like climate change, Crock Pots and Chicken Legs isn’t a political record. In fact, I would say its general lack of politics is what makes it so important to consume.
As we become more divided, it’s incredibly easy to paint people with a broad brush. It’s something Gregory himself is sometimes guilty of. But laughter and family are universal, as are dark secrets. Even if you’ve never haggled for a truck at a funeral or put a crock pot on layaway, most people have oddball family we love in spite of everything. We all know well-meaning idiots and the stress of simple frustrations.
The fact that James Gregory is so funny in spite of how little you might have in common with him is part of why you should listen. At the very least, give it a spin to understand just once what having a funny, odd, occasionally brilliant Southern Grandpa is like. James Gregory is everything I love about Southern storytelling, with a few frustrating reminders that the past still needs to be dragged kicking and screaming into the future. But at least you’ll be cackling as you drag it into the now.
John-Michael Bond is Paste’s assistant comedy editor. He’s on Twitter @BondJohnBond.