Country Boys Can Survive 

The Boys of Red State Update have Risen from Murfreesboro Obscurity to National Fame

For 27 seconds one fateful July night, before the eyes of America on national TV, the gaze of perhaps the next commander of the free world is fixed on two men. The occasion is the CNN/YouTube Democratic Debate, and the stage at Charleston, S.C.’s historic Citadel military academy is set for eight presidential challengers, ringed to face a live audience in the star-spangled glow of an American flag flying digitally overhead on an enormous video screen.

“And now it’s time for something completely different,” says CNN moderator Anderson Cooper. The eyes of all eight candidates swivel to the screen. There, before a backdrop of equal parts trailer park rec center and hostage bunker, sit a bristly, gray-bearded old cuss in overalls and a young whippersnapper in trucker hat and red-striped T-shirt. “I’m Jackie Broyles,” says the old-timer, in a gruff straight-outta-Lascassas drawl that makes his last name come out as “Brawls.” “And I’m Dunlap,” pipes up his chum.

For weeks prior, CNN and YouTube had granted the online realm the wish of anyone who’s ever chain-popped nicotine gum through yet another dull, bloodless, ritually stage-managed presidential debate. Hey, America—this time you ask the questions! By the thousands, videos poured in from hopefuls who wanted to put a question directly to the possible next president of the United States. To get your question heard in this forum—why, the odds were like hitting Pick Four. And up there on the screen, the caption identifies Jackie Broyles and Dunlap from Murfreesboro, Tenn. Jackpot! How will they use their 27 seconds of executive-branch access? Poverty? Education? Illegal immigration?

“The mainstream media seems awful interested in ol’ Al Gore these days,” Dunlap says. “They really wanna know if Al Gore’s gonna run again.” He says “Al Gore” in roughly the same way Al Gore says “ozone depletion.” In his brusque rasp, Jackie lays the cards on the table: “What we wawna know is...does that hurt y’all’s feelin’s?

Silence. Stunned silence. Suddenly, the live audience roars. John Edwards, all John Denver hair and teeth, grins that automatic foot-wide aw-shit grin. Sen. Hillary Clinton gives the clenched, inscrutable smile of a monarch waving to a homeless man from the royal limo as she reaches to raise the window. Cooper puts the question again to the candidates—does anybody have their feelings hurt?—and a chorus of abrupt “no”s tables the discussion. “I think the people of Tennessee just had their feelings hurt,” Sen. Joe Biden says.

Zing! At that moment in the fictional alternate universe of Red State Update—some 430 miles away at mythical Jackie’s Market in Murfreesboro—the phone begins to ring. Jackie Broyles, proprietor, is watching TV, but he is oblivious to the spectacle unfolding live on CNN. That’s because he is watching Animal Planet. Among the first callers is Dunlap, watching from his own base of operations (i.e., his mother’s basement). Dunlap and Jackie Broyles don’t see eye-to-eye on many things—the moon landing, the aesthetic virtues of horse sex, Fred Thompson. But on this they are united: Joe Biden just snubbed them on live TV. This aggression will not stand.

Meanwhile, in Pacific Time on the West Coast, stronghold of the liberal media, the real-life alter ego of Jackie Broyles is watching in disbelief. He is Travis Harmon, 37, a burly, red-bearded ex-Oscar ceremony usher with deep family ties in Murfreesboro. In a flash, he calls up the real-life Dunlap: Jonathan Shockley, a writer-performer in his mid 30s from a small town near the Tennessee-Alabama border. Over the next three days, thanks to 27 seconds of airtime, they will become political pundits, talk-show guests and viral-video heroes. And for that, they owe two make-believe Rutherford County rednecks peering out at the online world from behind a fortress of Budweiser empties.

In the days before the Internet, celebrity was much harder to come by. You went to Hollywood, you scrambled for a label deal, you worked the comedy clubs angling for a slot on Johnny Carson. Maybe you just took a short cut and killed somebody. But the Internet has become a sort of supercollider of fame. Instead of trying to shoot outward and upward, you can build a following by ricocheting around inside a seemingly infinite chamber, bouncing from site to site and link to link among tens of millions of other particles. The chamber is unimaginably huge yet deceptively tiny. You can be a star to hundreds, even thousands of people every week online who hang on your every post. And yet, to the larger population of TV watchers and moviegoers, you’re a stranger.

Somewhere in the middle are Jackie Broyles and Dunlap. For less than two years, the fictitious Middle Tennesseans have hosted Red State Update, an Internet show that uploads several times a week, usually in three-minute increments. The basic format rarely changes. Each show usually starts with Jackie and Dunlap hunkered down at a table littered with empty cans and bottles, framed against Old Glory and the Tennessee state flag. What follows is a news-desk dispatch from the ragged loop of the Bible Belt, full of skewed perspectives on the day’s events, be they political campaigns, celebrity vaginas or Brokeback Mountain. (To Dunlap’s outraged refrain—”But Jackie, it’s GAY!”—the nonplussed codger replies, “It’s hard to mess up a good Western.”)

Dunlap is the man of action, the hawk: the one who, in a memorable Independence Day sketch, berates peaceable Jackie because he won’t make some toy Transformers do anything more violent than tend goats. Jackie, by contrast, is an elderly farmer who works his jaw like he’s crunching phantom Chiclets. His voice suggests a cross between a Cannon County moonshiner and the Hamburgler; he always seems on the verge of a nap. Yet the excitable Dunlap inevitably manages to snap him out of tipsy half-hibernation into sputtering bluster.

With more than 6,600 subscribers, they’ve received upwards of 3 million views on YouTube alone, with almost 1.2 million more from their MySpace page. They’re regulars on the DirecTV network The 101. Salon.com, of all places, has an exclusive arrangement with them for original content. How the mousepad-challenged duo have managed all this is a mystery, since Jackie’s technical know-how begins and ends with locating this week’s episode of Ice Road Truckers with the remote.

A greater mystery, though, may be the schizoid nature of the show’s fan base. As with Stephen Colbert’s berserkly ironic reactionary act and The Onion’s facetious editorial parodies, Red State Update is on one level a satire of the far-right echo chamber, and much of its audience appreciates it as such. “Red State Update is a perfect mix of professional satire and wry wit,” says a fan who posts under the handle QuasiEvilScott. “It has a different kind of audience, a more responsive one, than does [sic] most non-stage forms of performance. [With] the current politics of the age, intelligent humor is the only kind that can slip in and out of our collective consciousness and remain both poignant and funny.”

At the same time, Jonathan Shockley says he hears often from 14-year-old boys in Alabama who love the whole “Larry the Cable Guy aspect” of the show. Other posters in the show’s voluminous comment threads praise the Red Staters in all sincerity for sticking it to the liberal media and goofing on bleeding-heart lefties.

“We speak in fake Southern accents ’cause I lost mine moving north from Texas and [my co-host] Obar is from Jersey, but we really do it for affect,” writes Dion Hill, a fan who started his own show called Blue State Update. Inspired, as he says, by “The Red State Update, Gordon Liddy’s book and the lack of Republicans” in his home state of New Jersey, Hill says he “[wants] to help The Red State Update and the rest of the conservitives [sic] in the strugle [sic] to keep our political party alive and well, and to win the minds and souls of the ones who dont [sic] know who they are loyal too.”

The criticism they get is no less divided. “Red State Update is nothing more than Republian propaganda gear [sic] toward influencing less educated people from the Bible Belt,” writes one chevman64, who describes himself as “NOT a fan.” At the other extreme is poster elvisjulep. “I’m particularly put off by the trite portrayal of people from the South as ignorant, tobacco chewing, overall wearing rubes,” he writes. “The insinuation is obvious: Bush voter (or more accurately, Southerner) = ignorant hillbilly.” By the way, he adds, “I’m from Mississippi, so I get the jokes. They’re just not that funny.”

For many people watching the debate on CNN—and in the studio audience, as evinced by the lack of audible reaction when the two showed up onscreen—the question heard ’round the world was the first time they’d gotten a look at Jackie and Dunlap. Those who didn’t tune in may still be in the dark.

“Where’d you say they have a TV show?” asks Jackie Goff, who has run the real-life Goff’s Barbecue & Market in Murfreesboro for 35 years. The caller explains, over the clatter of lunch rush on the other line, that Red State Update is on the Internet. “I don’t even have a computer,” Goff says, “so I wouldn’t’ve seen ’em.”

Even if Goff has never seen Jackie and Dunlap, he remembers Travis and Jonathan fondly. It was back in the early ’90s when they were students at MTSU, and they would come down to the Murfreesboro barbecue joint to visit Andrew Conley, a longtime employee. Conley, who led a killer garage-rock band called Jack in his off time, presided over a salon-slash-saloon of garrulous types who chewed over the events of the day.

“There used to be a bunch of them that came in here, with their own group,” says Goff, whose plainspoken bluntness carries more than a hint of Jackie Broyles. “Yeah, they were a good bunch of boys.”

“That’s where a lot of Red State Update comes from,” Travis Harmon says, “those conversations sitting around drinking beer at Goff’s.”

Travis Harmon grew up in Murfreesboro, where his dad ran for Rutherford County trustee and served as chairman of the county Democratic Party. In high school, he was a frequent fixture at Jabb’s, a scuzzy “international restaurant” (think rubbery Scotch eggs and canned Niblets) that evolved into a creative steam valve for the town’s bored, restless teens. Jonathan Shockley came to MTSU from Huntland, Tenn., a town of 916 residents just north of Alabama.

They met, Jonathan recalls, “on the night Carlito’s Way opened” in 1993. Travis was dating the roommate of Jonathan’s now wife, Jenny, and at a party one night Jonathan noticed the red-headed, larger-than-life guy in a white T-shirt emblazoned with “FUCK.” “It got my attention,” Jonathan says. The first thing they tried to write together, he remembers, was a song called “Goin’ on a Lesbian Cruise.” He was stumped finding a rhyme for “Martina Navratilova,” and all seemed lost until at once Travis blurted out, “...got up in her ova.” They’ve been a team ever since.

Jonathan moved to Hillsboro Village and got a job at the then Carmike-run Belcourt through his college friend James Brown, and Travis started hanging out at the theater also. They became part of an employee pool known as the Belcourt Boys, a gang of endearingly disaffected slackers who spent hours riffing on the front stoop about the movies they watched and wanted to make, hoping anyone obnoxious enough to want a ticket would go away.

“It’s hard to remember whether Jonathan worked there, because nobody really worked,” says former ticket seller Danny Limor, who starred with Travis in Jonathan’s award-winning short film “Bittums Bites It.” “His job was mostly to keep Travis out of trouble.”

That was a full-time job. Travis started performing with a sprawling Nashville art-attack ensemble, Holtzclaw, whose legendarily chaotic live shows resembled Jesus Christ Superstar performed by costumed Mongols. Stripping, public urination, large-scale production numbers, unspeakable acts involving a bear suit—every Holtzclaw show toe-danced on a razor’s edge between genius and disorderly conduct.

Jackie Broyles would have taken one look at Holtzclaw and calmed himself with a swig of lukewarm Bud. Travis and Jonathan, on the other hand, were emboldened. In 2000, Nashville’s community-access station CATV-Channel 19 began airing a half-hour comedy program called The Travis and Jonathan Show. (You can find it on their website, travisandjonathan.com, along with their brilliant takeoff on the Werner Herzog doc Grizzly Man—a clip seen by a half-million people.) In some ways, it was a warm-up for Red State Update in its mix of pop-culture savvy and dialect humor. The hosts’ personas were considerably different: instead of hillbillies, Travis and Jonathan essentially played chirpy morning-show personalities, greeting the public with surreal obliviousness from an actual Laundromat or loading dock while puzzled customers wandered in and out of the shot.

“They can riff off each other for hours, and it’s scary how they don’t make each other laugh,” says Blood Oath director David Buchert, a former Belcourt Boy who shot the Travis and Jonathan episode filmed in one unbroken 22-minute take through the streets of Murfreesboro. “You’d think all that was line by line from a script, but they just balance each other out.”

The show captured something uniquely Murfreesborean: that sense of killing time in a college town poised between artsy restlessness and rural quiet. It even incorporated much of the peanut gallery from Goff’s, some of whom turned up as regulars in a bewildering game-show parody called “What’s Your Favorite Bird?” Only eight episodes were made, but they were taped and traded across the country, finding fans in the offices of Comedy Central and the CBS Late Show. Another fan pledged allegiance by offering to get Travis and Jonathan laid.

The irony, Travis Harmon says, is that they’ve had to go to Los Angeles to do the same ’Boro-centric humor they were doing in Middle Tennessee—only for a much wider audience. (The shows are written mostly in Travis’ apartment kitchen in Crenshaw, the stereotypical ’hood of urban Hollywood dramas.) Whenever touchy posters accuse them of mocking Southerners, Jonathan Shockley brushes off the criticism. “Even though these are broad characters, the people who like us most are from the South,” he says. “They understand. I think sometimes Southern stuff scares people off [on the Internet]—they see two redneck guys, and that’s all they see.”

So that’s where Travis and Jonathan stand: they’re convincing enough that folks back home get the joke, yet goofy enough that a Beltway bubble-boy like Joe Biden could feel secure in giving them a poke. And their affection for Jackie and Dunlap shows through. Originally, they say, Jackie was going to be younger, meaner and cuss more. But as Travis developed him, he became a gentler soul—more like the older men they grew up around. “He tells people to quit cussing,” Jonathan says, “because that’s certainly what I heard all the time growing up.” Even Travis’ and Jonathan’s own real-life politics have shown through less and less. “They’ve taken on a life of their own,” Jonathan says.

Indeed. When contacted for this article, Jackie Broyles and Dunlap were actually holed up in a Los Angeles hotel, awaiting the moment they hoped to meet Fred Thompson—actually, Jackie says “greet”; Dunlap says “ambush”—en route to his surprise (yawn) official announcement on Jay Leno. Dunlap wants sparks to fly. Jackie wants to present him with a gift.

“It’s an angel, yessir, a macaroni angel,” Jackie says, before muttering something about a malfunctioning glue stick. It didn’t help that recording the call took some difficulty—which prompted Dunlap to yell, “You need to call the damn Village Voice up and say, ‘Put down the bong and get us a damn phone that works.’ ”

Right now, nothing sends Jackie into orbit faster than Dunlap’s ongoing attempts to insert him into the 2008 presidential race as a write-in candidate. Since spring, they have offered running commentary on the shortcomings of both the Democratic and Republican slates of contenders. This reached its zenith in the episode in which they compared Dennis Kucinich to Opus the cartoon penguin (startling resemblance) and Sam Brownback to Smiling Bob, the grinning pitchman for male-enhancement drug Enzyte (uncanny).

The flop hit the fan, however, when Jackie’s support of strategic latecomer Thompson threatened to derail the “Draft Jackie” campaign. That forced Dunlap to go negative with a preemptive Thompson attack ad. “Did you know that Fred Thompson likes smokin’, drinkin’ and sluttin’ it up?” Dunlap says, in his best ooh-scary voice. “But there are also some bad things about Fred Thompson.” Exhibit A for the prosecution is Baby’s Day Out, a John Hughes-written bomb with Thompson in a supporting role that indeed just might be bad enough to catapult Hillary Clinton into the Oval Office.

Undaunted, Dunlap takes his case for the Broyles Ultimatum straight to the people in the ad’s big finish. “Who would you rather have as your president,” he says—“somebody joy ridin’ around in a truck, gettin’ hand jobs from Lorrie Morgan...or somebody who will sit his ass in the White House and take care of business...because he can’t see to drive?”

“Jackie thinks everybody on TV is real,” Dunlap gripes. “That’s why he’s voting for Fred Thompson.”

“Fred Thompson is a good man…,” Jackie sputters.

“His hands are like giant slabs of ham!” Dunlap retorts. “Everybody says Fred Thompson is real lazy, and he shows up real tired and can’t get his words out. In his defense, I will say that he’s not lazy. He’s just real, real old.”

Sounds like Jackie would make a perfect running mate. Any interest?

“I don’t wanna be no running mate!” Jackie shouts, at the volume of someone trying to be heard above a jet engine. “I just wanna meet the man and get his autograph and vote for him….”

“Vice president would be a good job for you, Jackie,” Dunlap interrupts. “Nothing to do but sit around, wait for somebody to die…fly to Germany… I don’t know who would die first, though, that’s the problem.”

So where do Jackie Broyles and Dunlap see themselves in 10 years?

“I think we’re gonna be runnin’ the free world,” Dunlap says, without a beat. “I’ll have a little Jackie protégé ready to run in the next election.”

“In 10 years I’ll be at the store servin’ up some fine barbecue,” Jackie says proudly.

“Wait, 10 years?” Dunlap says. “Aw, well, in 10 years, Jackie’ll be dead….”

“Dead! I won’t be dead! Why….”

“Who you gonna leave your stuff to?”

Why, look at the time. Jackie cuts the interview short—it seems the Gene Autry Museum will be closing soon—and Dunlap wants to test the waters with “those strong-armed women” he’s seen from his window jogging below. He hopes to impress them with the fact that he’s “Internet famous.” The caller asks what the difference is between “famous” and “Internet famous.” He thinks for a moment, then seizes upon the perfect analogy.

“Being famous means people know who you are,” Dunlap says. “ ‘Internet famous’ is kinda like working for the Nashville Scene.”

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