Oh my God! America's funniest woman?
In another era her unthreatening Christian comedy would have amused a handful of fellow-believers. But the digital age has turned Anita Renfroe into a nationwide sensation, whose motherly voice regularly wakes up America. By Andrew Gumbel
Thursday 28 February 2008
Some time in the middle of last year, a suburban mother from Atlanta, Georgia, put together the kind of skit you might imagine being performed at a family party or – given her involvement with her church – an evening at the local community centre.
Anita Renfroe wrote down all the things she catches herself saying to her children every day – get up, brush your teeth, chew slowly, no texting at the table, that sort of thing – then arranged them into a long list, made them vaguely scan and rhyme, and set them to the music of Rossini's William Tell Overture.
It was a fun idea – the sort of thing that, as a pastor's wife with an outsized personality and an easy-going comfort with the limelight, she'd been doing for a few years through religious groups and community organisations. She ended up performing her skit at an arts centre in the Atlanta suburb of Kennesaw, where it went down a treat with the overwhelmingly white Baptist audience. In fact, by the time she reached the end of her three-minute song, they were on their feet in rapturous applause.
In an earlier era, that might have been that. But we live in a digital age, so, naturally, someone caught the whole thing on a decent-quality video camera. On Mother's Day last year, Renfroe was cajoled by her kids into posting the clip on YouTube. Nothing unusual about that. A few hundred people checked it out, and Renfroe forgot all about it.
Then something really crazy happened. The video clip got discovered by the blogosphere – not immediately, but over a period of months. By early September, a staggering 800,000 people had seen it. By early October, that number had doubled. By late October, it had gone viral, clocking eight million viewers. Parents across the country found links to the clip in their e-mail, usually in big group messages sent out by their neighbours who had decided Renfroe had tickled enough of their funny bone to be worth three minutes of anybody's time.
Still, she remained a strictly internet phenomenon. After all, we've seen similar buzzes rise and fall, over anything from a man eating locusts, to a toddler sitting with his baby brother and acting cute (the "Charlie bit my finger" video). But Renfroe had something else on her side: impeccable, if completely fortuitous, timing.
Right around the time she was getting her clip on iTunes, Hollywood's film and television writers went on strike. That didn't just put everyone's favourite television dramas and sitcoms at risk. It also meant that chat-show hosts and satirists were suddenly bereft of material. For executives at network television stations, with ratings already under siege from cable and the internet, this was cause for considerable anxiety.
A producer at ABC's early show Good Morning America saw the William Tell skit and thought she might have something. She called Renfroe – at 5.30 one morning – and asked if the programme could air her YouTube sensation. Soon after that, Renfroe was invited on to the show, and impressed everyone with her fearlessly easy manner around her superstar hosts, Diane Sawyer and Robin Roberts.
The ABC executives decided, on the spot, that she was a satirist of modern living in the mould of Erma Bombeck (author of Motherhood: The Second Oldest Profession). The fact that she was also a heartland Christian was also appealing. Like Mike Huckabee, the Arkansas preacher turned governor who's been running for the Republican presidential nomination with a similarly amiable delivery style, she held out the promise of reaching constituencies the establishment professionals couldn't touch.
And so Renfroe has become a bit of an instant celebrity. Since last week, she's started up a regular guest slot on Good Morning America. Over the weekend, she was profiled in The New York Times magazine. She has been putting out modest videos and books featuring her comic material for years, but now they are popping up on Amazon.com and interesting serious publishers. According to The New York Times piece, she has earned about $250,000 (£125,000) over the past year. Not bad for a career based on a single skit that, in Renfroe's words, "took 24 years to live and two hours to make it rhyme". What makes Renfroe remarkable is not her comedy – more on that in a moment – but rather the manner of her ascension up the ladder of fame. It used to be that comedians had to earn their chops the hard way, working the clubs, getting noticed one sketch at a time, suffering the highs and lows of often unforgiving audiences, and slowly gathering a repertoire of material so by the time they got their lucky break and ended up on television they would have enough substance to last more than five minutes.
Renfroe has done none of that. She's jumped right from her own front parlour, a 45-year-old stay-at-home mother-of-three, to the living rooms of tens of millions of Americans. She's an amateur, in the true (and not necessarily disparaging) sense of the word; in fact it is her amateurism that accounts for much of her charm. When she does her skits about menopause, or mammograms, or her waistline, she doesn't blow anyone away with her wit or her cutting insight. Rather, she makes people feel she is accessible, recognisable and somehow safe.
It's not an especially inspiring feeling, but it does seem to be a consoling one. It's the same impulse that caused many hesitant American voters to opt for George Bush in 2000, on the basis that he seemed more fun to go out for a beer with thanAl Gore; the same impulse that is causing surprising numbers of Republican primary voters to gravitate towards Huckabee, even though – by Huckabee's own admission – he knows nothing about foreign policy and gleefully equates keeping up with the latest news on Iran's nuclear ambitions with knowing the freshest Britney Spears scandal titbit, or remembering who won Dancing With the Stars on TV.
Will it last? In both Huckabee's case and Renfroe's, almost certainly not. For evidence of this, look no further than Renfroe's debut skit on ABC last week, when she did a number on bad hair.
"It begins with hope," she said. "As you take the picture of the hairstyle that you believe will now change your life into your hairdresser, you show it to her, she nods, assenting that she can do this magic upon your head... Thirty minutes later, she wheels you around to face the mirror, you put your glasses back on, and you move into the next phase, shock. Yes, shock that this hairdo looks nothing like the picture you brought in. You're very upset, and you move quickly to the next step. Denial..."
Is this funny? It may not be fair to reduce Renfroe's performance to a few printed sentences on the page, but the generous response to that question can only be: not particularly.
Here's Renfroe on something she calls Beach Therapy – a yearly girls-only outing she fantasises about with "no bras, no limit on chocolate or inane chatter, no subject off limits, no laundry, no responsibility – in short, no guys". Beach Therapy almost certainly does not involve putting on actual beachwear, not at her age, because, "if you're trying to wiggle all your stuff into that piece of Spandex, you can sprain your thumb". And it doesn't involve swimming either – "because the lifeguards are not going to try as hard".
Much has been made of the fact that Renfroe is a southern Baptist, not a group previously known for their sense of humour. Much, too, has been made of her ability to present a vivacious, engaging face to that social label. (Hey, guess what, she's not just a pious, church-going, white shoe-wearing, gay-loathing, abortion-protesting, Prozac-popping caricature of southern American womanhood, she's actually human, and fun.)
From the evangelical point of view, she is part of a trend that recognises entertainment as an integral part of growing a church flock. Megachurch pastors such as Joel Osteen in Texas and Rick Warren in California focus on music, storytelling and jokes just as much as they do on theology, and Renfroe fits right into that pattern. (Her skit entitled "The purse-driven life" is a spoof on Warren's best-selling book The Purpose-Driven Life.)
Renfroe's humour, though, is never going to travel very far, and this is why. Humour is all about exploring the scariest, freakiest, most incomprehensible parts of life and making them bearable by turning them into jokes. The things that evangelical Christians like Renfroe are most scared of – bad language, extramarital and/or kinky sex, divorce, anything to do with race – are by definition off the table before she so much as opens her mouth. So she really has nowhere to go with her comedy other than a few safe places that can only reduce her material to terminal tweeness after relatively brief exposure.
If you don't believe me, check out her stuff on YouTube: putting on a blonde Faith Hill wig and rewriting one of her songs, Weird Al Yankovic-style, so it's about bad breath rather than sexual passion; the endless tame jokes about her weight, and so on.
While you are there, you might also check out the user comments, some of which manage to be pretty funny in themselves – though not in a way that Renfroe intended. "Condoleezza Rice is funnier than this woman," one post says. "Having said that, I urge you to accept Christ into your heart. If you don't, you will be made to sit through endless Anita Renfroe shows after you die. Just kidding. Have a blessed day."
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