Kidsday interviews Jeff Foxworthy
We met comedian, game show host and author Jeff Foxworthy when he was visiting Manhattan a few weeks ago at Sirius Satellite Radio Studios. He just published another great kids’ book, “Hide!!!”
What inspired you to write children’s books?
I always wanted to do it because when my girls were little, I always made up, like, silly songs and little rhymes and stories. And then, when I started hosting “Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader?,” suddenly every kid knew who I was because they didn’t, like a lot of kids didn’t, know who I was from standup. And so my daughter said, “If you’re ever going to do a kids’ book, you should do it now, because kids know who you are.” And so I sat down to do it, and it was a lot harder than I thought it was going to be.
When you were a kid, did you like to play hide-n-seek?
I did, and we had an old house, and we had a great hiding spot. In one bedroom above the closet, there was a little sliding door that kind of, like, went up to the attic, and if I climbed on top of the bunk bed and jumped across, I could get in there, and it was full of old quilts that my grandmother stored and pillows, and it was, like, the most comfortable hiding spot of all time. And if I got in there, nobody would find me for about three years. I missed the entire seventh grade from hiding.
Who is your idol growing up?
Comedy-wise, Bill Cosby. When I was a kid, I would save my allowance, and I would buy all the Bill Cosby records, and I would memorize them. I would go to school and do them, and I would get in trouble for disrupting the class and trying to make everybody laugh. And my principal would always look at me and go, “What do you think you are? A comedian?” And lo and behold, that’s what I am.
Do you like being the host of “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?”
I do, as long as they give me the answers. If they quit giving me the answers, it’s going to be a very short show, because I don’t know much of that stuff. On “Jeopardy!,” Alex Trebek always acts like he knows all those answers. Not me. If I didn’t have the cue cards, the show would be about 30 seconds long.
What is like being the host?
It’s a lot of fun. It shows kids in a very positive light, because a lot of times, in the news, all you hear is bad stories about kids. Kids getting into trouble, kids doing drugs, whatever. I get more letters now from teachers now saying, “You made it cool to be smart again.” So, I like it when these adults that are doctors or lawyers or astronauts, when they don’t know the answer but then we show a fifth-grade kid and they do know the answer. I love that it makes kids look good.
As a comedian, how do you come up with your jokes?
I never sit around and think about what’s funny. I kind of think . . . here’s what I do. When I think of something, I think, “OK, well, if I think of something or my wife says something or my kids do something, surely we’re not the only people doing this.” So, I kind of trust a lot of people do that, and so I just kind of think about my life. Like, if you go back and look at old HBO or Showtime specials, old albums, it’s pretty much a snapshot of what’s going on in my life that year.
Are you going to write any more children’s books in the future?
I hope so. I like going to schools and reading to kids. It’s kind of fun when people tell me that it’s, like, their kid’s favorite book, because my girls had books, and some of them they only read once, and they put them on the shelf and never got them back out. When somebody really likes it, that kind of makes you want to do more of them.
What would you like to be if you weren’t famous?
I enjoy writing. I often thought about it: if I wasn’t a comedian or an author. I might work in advertising where you think up ideas for commercials and stuff like that. And I would probably try and make them funny. But I like being creative. The being-famous part is not really important. For me, it’s just liking what I do.
As a comedian, game-show host and author, what do you enjoy the most?
I like them all. I love being able to do different things because I never become bored. But if I only had to pick one, probably a comedian, because I’ve been a comedian for 26 years, and I think most people get into standup comedy, get in because they see it as a stepping stone to then doing movies and TV shows. And for me, I never thought of it as a stepping stone. To me, standing there and making people laugh was, like, the coolest thing. For me, 26 years later, to still be able to make people laugh is a really neat thing.
How long have you been writing books?
I think I wrote my first book in 1987. So, that would be 23 years that I’ve been writing books. So, it’s at least one a year since then.
Is it hard to be an honorary chairman for the Dukes Children Classic Golf Tournament?
No. Well, if I don’t have to play golf, it’s not hard. If I play golf, they always check me for ticks at the end of the round. I’m always in the woods. I lose my golf balls. But I’ve been working with kids in the hospital for 20-something years now, and when I go up there to do it, I go to see every kid in the hospital every time, which takes me about 6-7 hours to go do. But I also do stuff with the Children’s Healthcare Hospitals in Atlanta. Egleston Children’s Hospital. I like kids a lot and especially kids that are sick and in the hospital and can’t go home. Sometimes, just stopping by their room and giving them a book, cutting up with them, makes them feel better for a few minutes.
Are you going to encourage your kids to follow in your footsteps?
I don’t know. I tell them all the time, I want you to do something that you love doing and because I believe everybody has a gift and our gifts are not alike, but if you do a job just to make money but you don’t really love doing it, even if you make a lot of money, you’re not going to be happy because you don’t love what you’re doing. I tell them, “Find something that you love to do, and in that way, if you don’t make a lot of money, it won’t matter because you love doing what you’re doing.” In the first few years I did comedy, I hardly made any money at all, but I loved doing it. I would want them to do something they have a passion for.
Do you think of some questions for the show?
No, I’m not that smart. It’s very interesting if you come to the fifth-grader show. There’s a room with about five or six people there, and they have textbooks from first grade through fifth grade. Just a room full of books, and their job all day long, they have these textbooks, and they have to go through and pull the questions out because we have to prove — there has to be a lawyer there — that this was an actual question out of a third-grade textbook or a fifth-grade textbook. That’s their job. All day long, they go through these books and find questions.
Where do you get your ideas for books?
You know, I try to think back when I was a kid and what kind of stuff that I liked. Like “Dirt on my Shirt,” that idea came from when I was a kid, you came home so dirty that your mom made you take your clothes off on the porch before you came into the house. You had had a good day. That was a fun day. So, within that, I was thinking what would kids like to do. They would like to pretend that their bed is something other than a bed, like it’s a rocket or a camping trip. With this one, with “Hide!!!,” I had an idea that even with today, people with video games and everything else, I’ve never met a kid that didn’t like to play hide-n-go-seek. So, I thought, “Why not do a giant game of hide-n-go-seek, except the reader has to find the kids hiding?” Then, Steve Bjorkman, the illustrator, said, “Well, what if they not only have to find the kid, let’s hide 20 other things on the page, and so they have to find a ton of stuff?”
How do you choose the contestants?
People, they sign up and they go online. I think like it’s 5thgradertvshow.com, and they register online and, like, you can’t be related to me . . . I think you just have to be 18 and older to come play.