If A Prairie Home Companion hooked up with Hee Haw and had the sensibility of urban Chicago, you’d have The Fowler Family Radio Hour.
At least that’s how actor Joe Burton describes it.
Coming to Piccolo from Second City’s Donny’s Skybox Theatre in Chicago, this live comedy revue takes the form of a weekly radio broadcast from the fictional, small Southern town of Henley. Eccentric members of the Fowler Family perform a radio variety show that could include segments on everything from cooking to high school sports, with a healthy dose of humorous commercials and bluegrass mixed in. Burton plays Calvin Coolidge Fowler, an octogenarian and patriarch of the family.
“He’s a self-described history buff, but he doesn’t really get the facts straight,” Burton says.
Burton’s wife, Shelby Jennings, plays his sister on the show, the football fanatic Essie May Leonard. Other members of this dysfunctional family include an ambiguously gay, butt-shaking, tap-dancing cowboy named Taylor Hickok and his oblivious wife, homemaker Lori Beth Fowler Hickok.
Although The Fowler Family certainly does a fair amount of picking on Southern culture, Burton stresses the show is not making fun of the South.
“We’re not playing stereotypes of Southerners, because we are from the South,” Burton says. “We’re playing members of our family, really.”
All six members of the group come from an improvisational background and developed most of the show with techniques honed at Second City. Unlike most Second City shows, there’s a set storyline for The Fowler Family, and the actors play the same characters throughout the one-hour show.
“It kind of defies characterization in Chicago, because it’s more like a play than a sketch show,” Burton says.
This will be the group’s third year at Piccolo Spoleto. The first Fowler Family Show in 2006 sent up the small town the family is from. The 2007 show winked at current events involving a city council election. This year, it takes place at the fairgrounds at Lake Alapacoochie. The topic for discussion is the local drought.
“It’s not heavy-handed satire,” says Burton. “It’s a subtle allusion to the problems that are nationwide, but that’s the reason why we’ve chosen to center the story on the drought.”
Burton says some of the inspiration for the Fowlers came from the Carter Family, the legendary country music group. Charleston bluegrass band Flatt City brings its “high mountain sound on flat ground” to all Fowler shows.
The show is completely free of curse words, with some very limited innuendo, and should be suitable for all audiences.
“It’s hopefully a broad range of emotions in the show, with laughter, tender moments, and music,” says Burton. “It’s sort of our love song to the South — from Chicago.”