Our risible rubes

October 20, 2012|By John E. McIntyre | The Baltimore Sun

After a strenuous day of making paragraphs, I returned home last night to find my wife watching an episode of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. Not only was she watching it, but she informed me, with a little more glee than I thought seemly, that the Bo Boo clan lives in McIntyre, Georgia. 

Imagine taking that from someone who grew up in cosmopolitan Columbus, Ohio.

I immediately noticed two disturbing things about the program. The first was that the producers apparently find it necessary to employ subtitles (!) to make the speech comprehensible. The second was that I did not need them. 

And, as seems to be characteristic of reality shows, it was impossible to tell how much of the grotesquerie on display was genuine and how much had been ginned up for television. 

I do not watch reality shows myself. Oh, once I looked at The Anna Nicole Smith Show for an excruciating ten minutes, much as one stares in fascination at a multi-car crash on the interstate. And, humoring Kathleen and J.P.'s enthusiasm for cooking shows, I watched many episodes of Top Chef until the repeated production of inedible food from improbable ingredients finally palled. 

But it took mere minutes for me to identify Honey Boo Boo as the latest manifestation of a long tradition of American entertainment: mocking the rubes. 

My parents, who lived their whole lives in Fleming County, Kentucky, and spoke with recognizable regional accents (though not the most pronounced variety), loved to watch Hee-Haw to laugh at the hicks. And I suspect that the show's gentle joshing was more popular in rural precincts than urban ones.  Fifty years ago, The Beverly Hillbillies appeared on television, placing a family of improbably rustics in the middle of wealthy Southern California. Before that, Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride reliably entertained as Ma and Pa Kettle. 

In the nineteenth century, the master of the craft was David Ross Locke, the creator of the subliterate Copperhead Democrat Petroleum V. Nasby, a prodigiously bad speller. A specimen paragraph from Swingin Round the Cirkle should give you the flavor:

"Never wuz I in so pleasant a frame uv mind as last night. All wuz peace with me, for after bein buffeted about the world for three skore years, at last it seemed to me ez tho forchune, tired uv persekootin a unforchnit bein, hed taken me into favor. I hed a solemn promise from the Demekratic State Central Committy in the great State uv Noo Gersey, that ez soon ez our candidate for Governor wuz dooly elected, I shood hev the position uv Dorekeeper to the House uv the Lord (wich in this State means the Capital, & wich is certainly better than dwellin in the tents uv wicked grosery keepers, on tick, ez I do), and a joodishus exhibition uv this promise hed prokoored for me unlimited facilities for borrerin, wich I improved, muchly."

Once Mr. Webster's dictionary and Blue Backed Speller were in wide circulation, and public education was getting a start in the United States, literacy and spelling were handy class markers. And since everybody likes to feel superior to somebody, hayseeds and bumpkins took their places as the handy butts of humor, and have remained in place ever since.

Sleep tight, Honey Boo Boo, legitimate heir to generations or ridicule. I won't be tuning in again.


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