‘Talk Is Cheap,’ but quartet of area humorists have plenty to say
By Steve Wildsmith (email@example.com)
Sam Venable is best known for the imagery and humor he evokes with a pen, but really, he’s been in training to do the same with his mouth for most of his life.
“You’ve got to be born to be a ham,” Venable told The Daily Times this week of his participation in the “Talk Is Cheap” show, featuring himself, WBIR-TV “Heartland Series” host Bill Landry and area storytellers Elizabeth Rose and Jim Claborn. “You’ve got to have a BS streak two inches wide going down your back. My dad was a college professor and a great public speaker — a phys ed guy who loved to do humor — and I picked up a lot listening to him and my Uncle Nelson. They would swap stories back and forth, and if you had any bent toward that, you just listened.”
A Knoxville native and University of Tennessee alumnus, Venable served as the outdoors editor for the daily newspaper in Knoxville for 15 years before transitioning to his current role as a humor columnist. Over the years, he’s won more than three dozen national and regional writing awards and put together a number of collections of his columns. It was early on his career, in the late 1980s, that he struck up a friendship with Landry, although the two have known each other for more than three decades.
At the time, Venable said, a regional association of dentists booked himself, Landry and University of Tennessee biologist David Etnier as the entertainment for a fishing derby. By that point, Venable had been doing speaking engagements for some time, and in some ways it’s more rewarding than writing, he said.
“When I very first started doing public speaking, it was a little intimidating at first, but it didn’t take me long before it just got to be fun,” he said. “I probably have more fun doing that with an audience because you have that immediate feedback.”
He and Landry hit it off and stayed in touch, and when Gannett (the owners of WBIR) reduced “The Heartland Series” to a handful of episodes per year, he encouraged his old friend to write a book.
“He came up with this ‘Talk Is Cheap’ idea and asked what I thought, and I said, ‘Hell, let’s try it!’” Venable said. “We’ve all done this type of stuff individually for years, but it was Bill’s idea to do a tour, and it’s just been dynamite. The least crowd we’ve had has been a full house, and most of the time they’re sold out.”
The show opens, he said, with Landry as the host introducing the rest of the gang; after each makes a few introductions, Landry goes into his set, followed by Claborn, Rose and Venable.
“What you’ve got are four different styles altogether,” Venable said. “Bill tells a lot of funny stories from ‘Heartland,’ some of them that never made the air, just these hilarious, off-the-camera tales. Jim, I liken him to a Southern Appalachian Jimmy Stewart. You know the way Jimmy Stewart would tell those tales in fits and starts and go off on a tangent until you’re asking, ‘Where is this going?’ And then all of the sudden he’s got you right back there.
“It’s just funny, funny stories. And Elizabeth does not only storytelling, but she has this beautiful a cappella voice and sings some old mountain ballads, and boy, some of them will just about make you cry. And I do mainly just stand-up and whatever strikes me.”
It truly is an off-the-cuff arrangement, Venable added, with little — make that no — rehearsal involved. In fact, when the quartet agreed to be a part of the project last year, they gathered at Venable’s house to practice. Things didn’t go as planned.
“We met up at my house and started trying to rehearse, but that didn’t last long,” he said. “A few beers later, we said, ‘This ain’t working. Let’s just go do it.’ And 99 percent of it, we do on the fly. There’s so much of it that’s spontaneous.”
They try to save time for some questions from the audience at the end of each show, and the ones Venable fields are similar to those he gets from regular readers of his column: How does he come up with his material?
“You just open your eyes and ears, take out your pad and start scribbling,” he said. “There’s just so much hilarity out there.”