The concept of Thank God for Mississippi was always ninety percent humor. The South is full of legends of comedy, and I came from a family that was always ready to enjoy that. Growing up, I remember my mom flipping to the back of Southern Living to get to the humor piece first. Comedy laced with self-deprecation and Southern-style outrage/annoyance was always in the midst. Family storytelling with an emphasis on humor was and is very much a part of our lives.
For instance, my great-grandfather, after his first wife (my great-grandmother) passed away young, had remarried a no-nonsense woman who had worked in a Michigan airplane factory during World War II. Later in life, “Ma Lota,” as she was known, decided to make the drive from Tennessee to Michigan to visit some family. Of course, as much drama as possible was attached to the packing up, with some plain-speaking truths from Ma, commands for all of the family, and the ever-nagging worry attending the fact that everyone knew she was a horrendous driver. When the door was finally closed and she set out down the driveway for the first leg of her journey (with some breathing a sigh of relief and some holding their breath nervously) her son covered his face with his hands and said: “Oh, God. It’ll be Amarillo by morning.”
This was a story told often throughout my childhood, as funny to a child as to an adult—especially given that I had the pleasure of knowing Ma Lota. I remember many others in which the main characters were friends or family members. I think the kind of humor you grow up with molds you, but I also think there has to be something universal, or at least relatable, in the joke or comedy for it to actually resonate.
Writing TGFM was a natural process (except that it was so close to the bone that you had to get into a slightly different headspace), so I wasn’t really trying to do anything specific with the comedy style. But it definitely has a style.
Basically, as I explained to reader from Mississippi who was slightly offended by the title, it’s laughing at itself, but in a loving way. The readers may be crossing themselves and thanking God there’s a state with slightly worse ratings than their own (which is definitely poking fun at a callousness that is harmless but no less a flaw), but they certainly always seem to have a mess on their own hands, usually of their own making. But we see how good they are to their grandma, or they bake us a Crockpot of beans when someone dies, so we forgive them—and around we go.
It’s Ray Bud Slocumb (played by LL Cool J) in Kingdom Come yelling at his crazy family before his father’s funeral to ask: “Does everyone have everything they need? … For once in our lives we are going to do something with class and dignity!” It’s Melanie Smooter’s dad in Sweet Home Alabama telling her future mother-in-law, when she kills a mosquito, that she has just killed the state bird of Alabama. It’s Mississippi’s grandmother in Thank God for Mississippi thinking nothing of asking Joseph whether he had any family members killed in the Holocaust, causing Mississippi nearly to choke to death.
The makeup of this style is a combination of love and clear vision. You can see the flaws, see how far it is from perfect, and you could make jokes about that…but it wouldn’t be funny if you stopped there. There has to be love for it too. When you add the affection in there, smoothing out the cutting edge, the sky is the limit.
There’s something so good about being able to laugh at one’s culture without pillorying it. It makes the mundane hilarious, which makes people of the same tradition feel seen. It is vindicating, making us go: “Yeesss! Exactly!” It puts into words things that are difficult to explain but are actually quite important. It teaches us about who we are. At the very least, it releases a pressure valve on the seriousness of everyday life. At the very best, it transcends cultures and stirs empathy.
When I first returned to the town where I was raised after law school, I had a bit of trouble readjusting. The university structure and that of a small town are quite different—one isn’t better or worse; they are just different. There were things that were frustrating, of course. But I had a friend who saw the humor, who absolutely reveled in all of that frustration, seeing its high comedy value, and it taught me a loving, fun-filled, easier way of looking at things. That made all of the difference, and that is the essence of TGFM: taking our humdrum, vexing everyday lives and trying to infuse that element of magic, of glitter, of bearable-ness that is all bound up in laughing together.