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T. Bubba Is Anything But 'Confused'

By Ken Burke, December 2001

Bill Clinton once said that "Bubba" is Southern for mensch. Some country folks might tell you that "Bubba" is baby talk for "brother." Recently, James Terrance Bechtol IV, aka T. Bubba, has redefined "Bubba" to mean "King of Southern Comedy."

Regardless of iconography, the rotund 52 year old has just cemented his reputation as one of this era's brightest observational comedians with the release of his first major label album "I'm Confused."

A self-made man whose joviality masks the underlying hunger and ambition generated by his humble beginnings, T. Bubba spoke to us from his home in Pensacola, Fla/ and talked about his long, circuitous route to stardom.

"Well, I was born in Mississippi and grew up on the Gulf Coast. A little ol' town called Fountainbleu outside of Ocean Springs. I lived in Mississippi until I was 22. I know that's a long time to live in Mississippi, but I didn't know I was free to leave!"

"I come from a culture where I didn't have a television as a child. I didn't have electricity until junior high school. My mother worked in a garment factory and supported four boys on that. We didn't have a car. She rode the school bus into town to work and got a ride home in the afternoons. For comfort, we just sat around and made up stories."

Bechtol's grandfather and four uncles were Baptist ministers, and he was expected to follow in their footsteps. Like Sam Kinnison, young Bubba Bechtol worked in tent revivals at age 10. However, secular desires dissuaded him from a career in theology.

"When I got to college and found out about Jack Daniels and cheerleaders, I discovered that the Lord done called me to a whole different life! I'm still a deeply religious person, but I have a lot of fun with it. I tell people that I am a Southern Baptist. Baptists are a unique group in themselves -- they don't believe in premarital sex only because they believe it will lead to dancing. We don't even believe in synchronized swimming. Which is one of the reasons I kept my comedy clean."

As a teenager, Bechtol worked two summers as a driver for Brother Dave Gardner, whom he cites as his biggest comedic influence. During the early '60's, Gardner's albums "Rejoice Dear Hearts!" and "Kick Thy Own Self" hit number 5 on the pop charts. Though forgotten by comedy aficionados today, Gardner's impact on Bubba was profound.

"Brother Dave gave us permission to be Southern. My favorite quote of his was 'You can't go through life with two catchers mitts on -- every now and then you've got to throw something back.' When I was a kid, I just tuned into that totally."

It's with no small amount of pride that Bubba mentions his scholastic accomplishments and the advice that would forever change his life.

"I was a President's List student -- I made straight A's. I was playing football in college, got my junior college degree and went on to Southern Mississippi, University of -- and after my first year there they sat me down and said, 'It's time for you to choose a major.' Professor Higgins said, 'Bubba, what do you want to be?' I said, 'Rich!' He said, 'I guess I'm not making myself clear, what do you want to become?' I said, 'Hell, I want to become wealthy! Preferably at something legal.' He leaned back in his chair and I never will forget what he said, 'Well, you don't need to be in college. Because the biggest failure the university system has in this country is that we teach people to work for companies, we don't teach people to own companies. If you want to make money and that's all that's important to you, go find something you believe in that everybody wants to buy and sell it.' That made more sense to me than anything in the world, and I left college the next day and went to work selling."

A natural closer, Bubba had a knack for predicting and selling consumer fads. During the '70's, he scored big by importing the Wolf Tanning Bed systems from Germany and became a millionaire before the age of 30.

Bubba also thrived as a member of the Jaycees, and eventually was elected their national President in 1979. As his term ended, a fellow Jaycee - Ronald Reagan, asked him to run a presidential campaign program called "Commitment '80." When he was voted into the White House, Reagan took Bubba with him as a member of the speechwriting team.

"Reagan was a pretty funny person. He just had a lot of fun with contrasts -- he loved to tell people the difference in things. Actually what I did on the team was not funny. Occasionally I would give him an idea about what I thought was funny or strange. But my job on the team was to research which service organization he was talking to and make sure he knew what he was talking about if he didn't already know 'em. But Reagan wrote most of his own humor."

Did Bubba ever edit or punch up Reagan's speeches?

"No, he did that with one person -- usually Lyn Nofzinger. But he'd sit there and fine-tune it all himself though. We'd send a speech in, and it'd come back just redder than hell. He'd just take what he wanted out of it and get out there and plain talk it. He knew what he wanted to say."

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