Wednesday, January 26, 2005

An Article for Y'ALL Magazine

Hello all. This is an article I put together for an upcoming issue of Y'ALL Magazine ( It's about my dad, a Cajun humorist. I think you'll enjoy it...but even if you don't, you should still read it. It would be a shame to let 1200 words go to waste for lack of an audience.

-- J.

The first thing I noticed when Cajun humorist Tommy Joe Breaux opened the door of his Biloxi, MS, home to greet me was that he doesn't look like a Cajun humorist. At least, he doesn't look like a Cajun humorist usually does. A tall, middle-aged man in jeans, a t-shirt, and a Lynyrd Skynyrd baseball cap, Breaux is a far cry from the short-old-man-in-overalls persona popularized by Cajun comic pioneers like Justin Wilson. Looking him over, I came to the conclusion that he resembles nothing so much as a blue-collar American worker. But then, this is fitting, given that Breaux's career as a humorist began while he was working behind the counter of his family's auto parts business.

"The parts store was having a radio remote broadcast," he explained, "and during the course of that remote I ended up telling a few Cajun stories to the two deejays that were working. To my surprise, they approached me when the remote was over and asked if I'd like to join them on their morning show, telling Cajun stories to people driving to work. Naturally, I said yes and everything else just kind of took off from there. That was back in 1984."

Since that initial brush with fate, Breaux has gone on to record fourteen albums, publish two books, make numerous television and radio appearances, release two comedy concert videos, narrate the famous Cajun Night Before Christmas for Pelican Publishing, and serve as chairman of fundraising for the Mississippi Gulf Coast Multiple Sclerosis Society (Breaux himself was diagnosed with the nervous disorder in 1986.) Now, in his latest incarnation, Tommy Joe has begun putting his tales of Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, into the form of a comic strip – "Tommy Joe’s Cajun Corner" – which first saw publication in Biloxi’s Bay Press and is now being
featured right here in the pages of Y’ALL. To aid him in this endeavor, Breaux enlisted the help of Dominicus "Don" Maters, a painter and teacher from the Netherlands who now resides on the Gulf Coast.

"I really enjoy doing this stuff," Maters told me in a phone interview. "Tommy Joe gives me a free hand to draw these characters and express myself. He has lots of stories about women and big-bellied men. I have a lot of fun with those."

Asked if there were any inside jokes to be found in his pen-and-ink drawings, Maters said readers might notice that every wall in the strip has a mouse-hole in it and that the character of T’Bub the Bartender is a self-portrait. "Tommy Joe and I both pop up a lot in those drawings."
Indeed, there are a lot of things popping up in Tommy Joe Breaux’s little corner of the world these days. I sat down with him to learn all about it.

Y’ALL: Tell me, Tommy Joe, how did an auto parts salesman from Biloxi, Mississippi, become so involved with Cajun humor and culture, which is primarily associated with Louisiana?

TJB: I was very close to my grandfather, Gilbert, who was from Breaux Bridge. He and all my great uncles came over to Biloxi to find work in the seafood factories, and I used to night-watch with him and listen to all his stories about life in Breaux Bridge. He and my uncles had Cajun accents you could cut with a knife.

Y’ALL: Speaking of accents, some people may find it difficult to read through your heavily-accented comic strip. Why is it written that way?

TJB: For authenticity. Why write Cajun stories in an English format? It may be hard at first, but most people get the hang of it after reading three or four stories. It was funny. My son studied English in college and he once told me that trying to pick apart my stories was like reading William Faulkner or Mark Twain. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not. I just said thanks.

Y’ALL: Do you feel that being raised in the South had any bearing on the style of your storytelling and writing?

TJB: Definitely. I always tell people that I’m a storyteller or a humorist, but never a comedian. I’m not a one-liner kind of guy. I tell stories, because that’s what people do in the South. You know how it is. In the South, people take five minutes to give you directions to something across the street.

Y’ALL: Do you enjoy any one-liner type comedians?

TJB: Sure. I was really sad when Rodney Dangerfield passed away last year. He and Sam Kinison were two of my favorites. Richard Pryor too. There was a lot of feeling in what they did. They said it like they meant it.

Y’ALL: Those comedians are known for having pretty raunchy senses of humor, but your own work is very clean and family friendly. Why is that?

TJB: Well, one thing that’s very important to me is presenting the Cajun people with an air of respect, and I don’t think I could do that in an X-rated way. Cajuns are very family-oriented people, so I want what I do to be okay for families to listen to together. I also never present Cajun people as stupid, which, sadly, a lot of other humorists have. For me, this is about my grandfather and my great uncles and all those old Cajun people. I approach anything having to do with them with respect.

Y’ALL: It sounds like respect for your family is a big part of what you do. Is that why so many of your characters are based on your family members and friends?

TJB: Absolutely. I base characters on people I know so my listeners can relate them to the people they know. The Breaux Bridge you hear about in my stories is like a Cajun Mayberry, filled with characters that everyone knows.

Y’ALL: Which characters, specifically, are based on real people?

TJB: The bickering husband and wife, Elmo and Marie, are based on my parents, Emile and Helen. My bartender, T’Bub, is named after a friend’s father who passed away before his time. My own name is taken from two of my great uncles, Donoville and Danovile, whose nicknames were Tom and Joe.

Y’ALL: I understand you also have a lot of respect for the Southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd.

TJB: (laughs) That’s my band. I have an entire room in the house filled with posters and albums and videos and DVDs and everything you can think of. My wife and kids get embarrassed when they have company over, because I give everyone what they call the Skynyrd Tour where I show off all my stuff.

Y’ALL: So, are you just a really big fan of "Free Bird" and "Sweet Home Alabama"?

TJB: I love all their music, really. And it’s not just the music, it’s the way they haven’t let anything stop them. They’ve been through a plane crash and the loss of friends and drug addiction and all these different things, but they’ve just kept on going, making great music. As a person with a disability (multiple sclerosis), I’m very inspired by that. To just keep on going no matter what’s been put in your way. That’s commendable.

Y’ALL: That’s a lot to take away from a set of entertainers. What do you hope people take away from your storytelling?

Upon being asked this question, Tommy Joe thought for a moment before taking a sip from an oversized coffee cup, smiling, and saying simply, "A good laugh."


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