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'Liberal Redneck' Trae Crowder talks comedy in the age of Trump, and this weekend's Orlando Indie Comedy Fest 

The Orlando Indie Comedy Fest achieved a lot in its first two years of existence, but the thing that may solidify its reputation for selecting top up-and-coming talent is its early championing of Knoxville, Tennessee's Trae Crowder.

The 30-year-old comedian was introduced to Orlando audiences during the festival's first iteration in 2014. When he returned in 2015, festival organizers went out of their way to give him the opening slot for festival headliner Eddie Pepitone. "That was one of the better sets I've had, maybe ever," says Crowder when speaking to us in late 2016. "As I was walking off, Pepitone grabbed me and was like 'You're too fucking funny. How the fuck am I supposed to follow that?' He was smiling. He was saying it good-naturedly. So that was extremely cool. That was a very awesome night."

Now, Crowder's career is exploding. A series of Facebook videos he produced at home went viral, pushing the self-styled "Liberal Redneck" into the public eye across the country. Shot mostly on his back porch on a cell phone, the videos featured Crowder's humorous rants about political controversies like transgender bathroom bills, LGBT rights and the Black Lives Matter movement, delivered in his natural Southern drawl, but turning upside-down the cultural expectations of what a "redneck" position on those topics would be.

The videos struck a chord with millions of people due to Crowder presenting a point of view that was – and is – woefully underserved in the media. "For a lot of these people at our shows in the South, there's a feeling of like, 'Ah, finally! Finally there's someone who sounds like me, or sounds like my daddy, who isn't a fucking racist, idiot piece of shit.' Because that's all you ever, ever see for the most part."

That demographic – Southerners with left-leaning politics – is so underrepresented, in fact, that Crowder consistently runs into people from outside the region who have trouble believing that it's a common thing. "When we are in California, or in the Pacific Northwest or the Northeast or wherever, we'll talk to some people who, like, it is very clear that they think that we are like unicorns. Before they found out about me, they didn't think there was anybody like that. And now they think it's just me and my buddies."

The success of his "Liberal Redneck" persona has enabled Crowder to start a well-received tour, the wellRED Comedy Tour, with his writing partners Drew Morgan and Corey Ryan Forrester. But Crowder cringes at comparisons to Jeff Foxworthy and Larry the Cable Guy's famous Blue Collar Comedy Tour, a comparison that relies on the same kind of cultural conflation based on performers' accents that Crowder tries to combat. "I understand why people would immediately think that. I get why it jumps out at people in that way," says Crowder. "But my thing has always been my thing, because it's not really a 'thing,' it's who I am. Genuinely. And Cory and Drew are the same way."

click to enlarge Jackie Kashian
  • Jackie Kashian

The trio didn't set out with the intention of filling in a particular niche, but they have found an audience, quickly landing a book deal for The Liberal Redneck Manifesto: Draggin' Dixie Outta the Dark, published this past October by Atria Books. Crowder himself is also set to star in and co-executive produce an as-yet-untitled television project for Fox via Party Down co-creator Rob Thomas' Spondoolie Productions.

It's difficult to say whether Crowder and his compatriots would have had the success they've enjoyed over the past year if it weren't an election year – and an uncommonly circuslike election year at that. But the 2016 election brought to light a lot of the disparity between the worldviews of typical city-dwelling liberals and rural conservatives, a fact that Crowder concedes probably helped his profile rise.

"Let me preface this by saying none of that is worth it to me, as far as I still wish Trump had lost. I'm still scared. But, I would be lying if I said that the current landscape of America doesn't make me a little more relevant," he says.

As a byproduct of being one of the only white, Southern liberals given any spotlight in the media, Crowder has found himself under misguided pressure to explain Donald Trump's presidential victory. "I've already run into it a lot. Hell, when I was on Bill Maher, they told me that that was one of the main reasons they wanted to have me on was to talk about this," he says. "To a lot of liberals in the rest of the country, I'm one of the 'enemy,' except that I agree with them. They want me to explain these people to them or whatever. 'Why did this happen, why did this happen?' You know, that sort of thing? I'm like a source for that now, apparently."

Crowder has found that, though the left is certainly tolerant and open-minded when it comes to accepting people of other religions, ethnicities and sexual orientations, they still hold on to a lot of misguided stereotypes about the South. "To generalize – which is what they do to us, which I don't appreciate – there's undoubtedly a stereotype or a misunderstanding. You know what it is. They think the South is backwards, and filled with stupid people, and is more racist than the rest of the country. And I don't think that's true." Citing a segment from Last Week Tonight With John Oliver, Crowder points out that recent studies on racial segregation in schools have shown that the South is actually the least segregated region of the country, while liberal stronghold New York City is the most.

"There's some truth to some of it. But some of it is just not fuckin' true. But those stereotypes still persist: racist, homophobic, stupid, Jesus freaks, slow, backwards ... fat. All that shit. And again, my whole thing. I've never once tried to act like those people don't exist down here. They do. It's just they don't represent the entire region. They don't represent me. And they don't represent a whole bunch of the people I know. And they also just don't represent the South, period. There's a lot of awesome shit about the South. Those people exist, but there's shitty people everywhere."

click to enlarge Mark Normand
  • Mark Normand

And while there are just as many harmful stereotypes about liberals from the conservative side, it seems that the left isn't quite as interested in changing minds. "They feel like [liberals] think they're better than all of us, they think they're smarter than all of us. They don't care about us at all. I think there's some truth to all of that," says Crowder. "A lot of liberals, they do care about people, generally speaking. But I don't blame those people for feeling that way. I don't agree with it, and I don't think it's helping ... but I get it, though."

Growing up in Celina, Tennessee, a town whose economy was decimated by the effects of NAFTA, Crowder has seen firsthand the working-class desperation that Democrats overlooked in the 2016 election campaign. "The only time you ever hear anything about where I'm from, my home, where I grew up, it's always bad," says Crowder. "That whole 'basket of deplorables' thing with Hillary? I defended her a little when she said that, but that represented a larger thing. ... A lot of liberals everywhere have acted this whole time like all these Trump voters in the South and mid-America are just racists and bigots and everything else. And again, not trying to act like that isn't there. But it's shitty to me to act like they don't have some legitimate concerns."

The center of Celina's economy was a clothing factory, and when that closed, says Crowder, "my hometown is absolutely desolate now. It's like 15 percent or more unemployment for 20 straight years. Crime and drug abuse, rape and shit skyrocketed. It's really, really bad. And there's a lot of my hometowns in America."

Straddling that split between blue and red America, Crowder hopes that his comedic perspective can help bridge the gap. In a political climate characterized by violent rhetoric, extreme polarization and an unyielding "us versus them" mentality, Crowder's advice to people on both sides is simple.

"This is what I've told rednecks my whole life, when it comes to gay people or whatever else. Just sincerely try to imagine for one second that you were that person. How do you think you'd feel about it? And if you still feel the way you do, then fine, whatever, you're not gonna get there. But it's just fuckin' empathy, you know what I mean? And there's very little of that on either side. Just listen to 'em."

Of course, when asked what he thinks rednecks and liberals will actually do to come together, his answer is simpler: "Uh, not that."

Orlando Indie Comedy Fest Highlights

The Underwear Show, brainchild of Atlanta comedian Joe Pettis, kicks off the festival this year at 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 19, at Will's Pub. It's pretty much exactly what it sounds like: a comedy showcase where all of the comics perform in their underwear, giving you just a little bit more to laugh at.

Austin, Texas, comedians Ella Gale and Katie Stone bring their showcase to Will's later that night at 9 p.m. The co-hosts invite a few comedians to do a short set, then sit down with them and give them sex advice based on their set, kind of Loveline-style.

Friday's festivities kick off in the middle of the day with the What a Joke showcase at noon at Barley & Vine. Scheduled to run during the presidential inauguration, this showcase is also a benefit for the ACLU, so bring any extra singles you have left over from the Underwear Show.

Headliner Trae Crowder's showcase is at Will's Pub at 8 p.m. Friday, followed by Mark Normand's showcase at 10 p.m.

The Late Late Breakfast returns from Chicago again this year. Hosts Tyler Jackson and Danny Maupin put several comedians through the wringer with games and challenges that they have to complete while doing their set. It kicks off at 3 p.m. at Will's Pub.

If you're into the idea of comedy game shows, stick around Will's to catch the Rip-Off Show at 8 p.m. Hosted by New Orleans comedian Geoffrey Gauchet, the show combines stand-up sets with competitive trivia.

We Still Like You, a popular show from Chicago that's also available in podcast form, invites comedians to tell their most embarrassing or confessional stories, who then get absolved with chants of "We still like you!" from the audience. There's often free drinks at these showcases to get the audience in a forgiving mood. The show kicks off at 8 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 21, at Spacebar.

Headliner Jackie Kashian's showcase starts at 10 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 21, at Will's Pub.

Sunday, the hangover day, starts at 3 p.m. back at Will's Pub for departing local comic Shaw Smith's Shady Brunch showcase. Wish him well (or tell him he's a garbage person, whatever) before he moves down to South Florida.

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