Years ago, a friend gave me a baseball cap emblazoned with the phrase “American by Birth, Southern by the Grace of God.” I love that cap. I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned it in this space before because it sums up how I feel about my native region. Most of the time. There are, alas, some queasy moments, those dread occasions when the shenanigans of some of our inhabitants make me feel as though I might have been born under a bad sign—or flag, as it were. The third week of Jimmy Fallon’s triumphant debut as host of The Tonight Show was just such a time.
It had been a pretty good week so far. New Orleans was in the midst of Mardi Gras celebrations and I’d had the honor of being selected Honorary Muse in the very cool Muses parade, for which I’d made a lovely headdress out of a leopard print bra from Walmart, a purple-satin-and-crystal Manolo Blahnik shoe buckle, and a handful of ostrich feathers. I got to ride in a gigantic red shoe while two very nice crimson-wigged minions handed me beads and bracelets and cups and glittered shoes to throw to the thousands of pumped-up parade goers lining St. Charles Avenue. As anyone who has done it will tell you, it’s the closest the rest of us will ever get to being Bruce Springsteen. So I was still in a giddy mood the following evening after some parade watching of my own.
That’s when it happened. I was enjoying a civilized nightcap with my good friend Elizabeth McGee Cordes when her sister Anne came hollering down the stairs from the guest room where she was bunking. She dragged us back up to the TV on which she had recorded the last bits of Fallon’s monologue, which turned out to be a Trifecta of the Embarrassing South: Honey Boo Boo’s Mama June discussing her sex life with her older daughter, the confused Pumpkin (“Wham bam what?”); the Mississippi coroner who pronounced a live man dead and sent him—in a zipped-up body bag—to the funeral home; and Paula Deen, who declared her comeback at a Miami food festival by mounting and riding Food Network chef Robert Irvine, who was on all fours on the stage.
Our initial collective reaction was not unlike that of Fallon, who knew he’d hit such gold that he just stood there speechless and wide-eyed for a full beat. After the astonishing clip of Paula’s ride, he did manage to quip that “even Mama June was like, ‘Ew.’” But let’s take it from the top. I had heard of Honey Boo Boo, of course, but had carefully avoided actually watching the show, which I was shocked to discover is broadcast on TLC. For obvious reasons the network no longer refers to itself as The Learning Channel, but you could make the case that the exploits of this particular bunch demonstrate to the rest of the country what is meant by Peckerwood Mayhem, a terrifyingly apt term coined by my buddy the Thacker Mountain Radio host Jim Dees. Mere words really cannot do justice to the clip Fallon showed, but then words apparently are a problem on the show generally. As Fallon pointed out, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo uses subtitles even though it is broadcast in English (sort of).
Then came the second bit, which hit a tad too close to home for the McGee girls and me, since it occurred in our home state, Mississippi, in a town, Lexington, that is not all that far from our own. Since Fallon didn’t get into the details of the premature death pronouncement, we immediately Googled the story and came across a trove of information, the kind you really can’t make up. Fallon really sort of wasted an opportunity by not devoting his entire monologue to the story of how Walter Williams, a farmer and family man who was admittedly very sick, ended up at Porter and Sons on the embalming table.
First, there’s the fact that Holmes County turns out to have the lowest life expectancy rate, among both men and women, of any county in the entire United States—a fact, we conjectured, that might be explained by the coroner’s apparent knack for declaring live people dead. Second, this same coroner shares a first name, Dexter, with cable television’s most beloved serial killer—a pleasing irony, really, unless you happened to be Mr. Williams. This particular Dexter (last name Howard), like all coroners in Mississippi, is an elected official. He also does not happen to be in possession of a medical degree. When he felt for a pulse and couldn’t find one, he shipped poor Mr. Williams, who later said he’d been taking a nap, off to the mortuary, where the owner, Byron Porter, said he was a couple of minutes away (“no more than that”) from the embalming needle. Then his legs began to move. “We noticed his legs…like kicking,” the coroner told local news channel WAPT. “He also began to do a little breathing.” Mr. Porter was a bit more succinct: “He was not dead, long story short,” he said, noting that at that point it was unanimously decided that they would not inject him with embalming fluid.
Under the circumstances, the family of Mr. Williams, who has since passed away for sure, has been remarkably gracious, expressing gratitude for the extra time with their loved one as well as for the outpouring of public support after the news broke. When asked what happened, the coroner opined that Williams’s pacemaker might have stopped working for a bit or that it was just a flat-out miracle. “I’ve never seen anything like it.” Either way, as Anne herself opined, the whole episode gives new urgency to the saying “shake a leg.”
Finally, we come to Paula, the gift that keeps on giving. She’d already been on my mind that week because one of the more hilarious and spot-on Muses floats had been devoted to the brouhaha that got her booted off the Food Network in the summer of 2013. The parade this year was all about fashion (“Off the Rack and Ready to Wear You Out”), and the Paula float was the fittingly titled “Separates.” Riders wore white wigs with headpieces made of red lips swallowing a stick of butter (a suggestive image not unlike the Rolling Stones’ Hot Licks logo first used on the album cover for Sticky Fingers), while the sides of the float itself were decorated with images of white meat, white beans, blond brownies, Aryan 100% White Sugar, and a quote reading, “Y’all, in the South, we don’t mix and match.”
The Muses parade is one of the few that still carry on the long and welcome tradition of Mardi Gras satire, and plenty of folks, including Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal, who rated an “Insincere Sucker” float, got equal treatment. I know Paula still has legions of fans, and I’m sure those who saw the float objected to it, but I mean…seriously. I will confess up front to my own classism when it comes to Paula, because those weird blue contacts and that cloying accent and all those diamond rings on her fingers while she’s kneading dough got on my nerves long before she—well, pick a transgression. But it must be said that she is not her own best advocate. At the South Beach Wine & Food Festival, she did a demo on the Today show during which she made so many raunchy jokes about “chicken balls,” the name of the dish she was cooking, that Al Roker finally said, “Set your watches; that’s where it all went wrong.” Nah, I’m pretty sure that had happened the day before when she hopped onto Irvine’s back and shouted, “Giddy up, I’m back in the saddle.”
At first the clips from Fallon’s monologue put me in mind of the scene in The Last Picture Show in which the late great Ben Johnson tells Timothy Bottoms, “I’ve been around that trashy behavior all my life. I’m gettin’ tired of puttin’ up with it.” But then I was reminded that pretty much everybody puts up with it at one point or another. A few nights after the fateful Fallon show, Jimmy Kimmel hosted Toronto’s crack-smoking, hard-drinking, seemingly insane mayor Rob Ford, who also had a bad moment in Florida, where he was charged with marijuana possession and DUI. Ford’s over-the-top antics, which involve racist, homophobic, and misogynistic outbursts far too lengthy to go into here, are enough to give even Mama June pause. Apparently, Peckerwood Mayhem knows no boundaries.