A 1987 article in the Chicago Tribune
describes Joe Bob Briggs as “the nation’s first and only drive-in movie critic.” The article goes on to note that Briggs was covering a unique beat, praising “scenes of decapitations, motor vehicle chases, rolling heads, rivers of blood, bared garbonzas and other staples of the B-movie industry” in a satirical fashion.
Born in Dallas and raised in Little Rock, John Bloom began his career as a writer at Texas Monthly
, eventually landing a gig at the Dallas Times Herald
. He created the Joe Bob Briggs persona as a way to explore the films and genres that were far off the usual beaten path of what the average critic would be writing about — and they certainly wouldn’t be covering them in this fashion.
As he describes it, he was able to be an “outlaw,” offering exposure to a genre of films that were not only niche, but “despised.” But at the same time, there was an audience for those movies that had been neglected — his column quickly found eyeballs and later, a syndication deal that put it in newspapers across the United States.
From his initial beginnings in January of 1982, it was only a handful of years before someone hatched an idea that it was time for the public to get a chance to meet Joe Bob Briggs in the flesh.
“I was performing as Joe Bob at places like Kiwanis clubs. People would know the written stuff and they would ask me to do it,” Briggs recalls in a phone interview. “I would perform it in an exaggerated redneck voice at civic clubs, I think I did a couple of conventions. But it wasn’t paid jobs. It wasn’t anything professional.”
As it happens, Cleveland was where Briggs would do his first professional show in 1985.
“This promoter at Cleveland State University — I don’t know if he taught there or what, but he was associated with [the university] — asked me to come to Cleveland and do my show. I said, ‘I don’t really have a show.’ He said, ‘Well, how long would it take you to do a show?’ I think I had three months to prepare some kind of show for Cleveland. I thought I would go in, and it would be a small space, and I would go in and get out. I didn’t know anybody there. I thought it would be a good tryout. Like they say, you go to a small comedy club in the middle of nowhere and you try stuff out.”
It was a scenario that made a lot of sense on paper, but Briggs had a different reality waiting for him when he got to Cleveland.
“It wasn’t like that at all! It was 600 people. It was in the paper the day I got there that it was going to happen! It was on the six o’clock news the night before,” he laughs. “My idea of sneaking into town and trying out some material and escaping quickly evaporated. It was a big crowd.”
The show took place at the Berea Convention Center, which Briggs quickly learned was simply the auditorium at Berea High School “right there in the flight path of the Cleveland airport” with the occasional plane rumbling overhead. He brought a punk band, Stick Men with Ray Guns, converted for his needs to play country western songs as his backing band — a good thing, as the songs bailed him out frequently when he perceived his material wasn’t hitting the mark.
“I walked off the stage and I thought, ‘I’m never doing this again,’” Briggs recalls with a big laugh. “It was a disaster from beginning to end. I didn’t really know what I was doing.”
He came out into the lobby and was surprised to find that the audience was still there.
“I’ll always remember that it was an awful show, but the people knew that it was my first time. They were so kind. That’s why I have a soft place in my heart for Cleveland. I walked out into the lobby and they stayed afterwards and were encouraging,” he says. “They were giving me advice on my show. They were just great.”
It ended up being an 'okay experience,'” Briggs reflects now. “Except for the fact that the promoter had vanished at intermission. He just took all of the receipts and left.”
The name of the promoter is lost to time — and Briggs was never able to track him down.
“It was harder in pre-internet days to find people,” he chuckles.
Nearly 35 years later, Briggs will return to Cleveland for a show at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 9, at the Capitol Theatre
, promising a “fast and furious two hours” of entertainment under the banner of How Rednecks Saved Hollywood
. Reviewing the history of rednecks in America using over 200 clips and stills from classic exploitation and mainstream movies, he’ll share the “identity of the first redneck in history,” the “precise date the first redneck arrived in America” and “the most sacred redneck cinematic moments.”
“I always try to give a little local color to the show because, eventually, the redneck menace infiltrated every part of the country,” Briggs explains. “There’s always some connection to every city. Most of the people that come, they’re exploitation movie fans, they’re cult movie fans. They love the fact that I’m doing a deep dive into areas that they haven’t heard about before, both in the mainstream movies, failed mainstream movies, and in the hardcore exploitation movies, including some that could never be exhibited today, could never be played in a theater today. They’re just too awful. Not awful in terms of filmmaking, but just the subject matter, you couldn’t show them today. I talk about some of those and show clips from them, and people are just horrified, which is the whole point.”
Host of two late night television shows that enjoyed lengthy runs on the Movie Channel and TNT, Briggs is currently hosting The Last Drive-In
on AMC’s streaming platform Shudder. Picking up where Briggs left off with TNT’s MonsterVision
in 2000, the new show was initially positioned as his “farewell to movie hosting,” but like so many times before when he’s tried to walk away, they keep pulling him back in — the program was so popular that it was recently renewed for a second season.
He’s also got a long-gestating book on the history of the exploitation genre that remains in the pipeline.
“I’ve been working on it forever, and I’ll probably be working on it forever,” he says, pointing to the Shudder show and his touring work as two things that have kept him too busy to put a lot of focus on the project. Of course, he still watches a ton of movies as well, mentioning 2009’s The House of the Devil
as one favorite he’d like to recommend.
“It’s not that popular with the fans — the fans think it’s slow — they have a lot of opinions about it. It’s a little bit hokey, in that it presumes this Satanic panic thing that happened in the ’90s,” he explains. “But it’s just a superb slowburn extremely well-crafted movie that really held my attention throughout. That was a real surprise to me. That was old-fashioned horror movie making. It wasn’t trying to be a horror comedy. There’s so many young film directors. It's like, 'Oh, it’s a horror comedy.' It’s like, you know, grow some balls and try to scare people!”
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