Thus far, you won’t spot Dan Whitney’s name anywhere in the credits of any of Pixar’s three Cars films, but they wouldn’t be the same without him.
That’s because Whitney usually goes by the far more famous moniker of Larry the Cable Guy, his down-home, Southern-inflected stand-up comedy persona best known for his top-charting albums, bestselling books (Git-R-Done), frequent appearances in film and on TV and as a member of the Blue Collar Comedy Tour. But Larry — and Whitney’s — greatest impact has undoubtedly been in the form of the Cars‘ films’ big-hearted, if small-I.Q.’d, tow truck Mater, Radiator Spring’s charming naif with a redneck drawl differing from Larry’s by the slightest of degrees.
But as Mater drives onto the big screen once again for Cars 3, opening this weekend, the comic tells CBR that the role actually has a lot more of Dan Whitney in it than Larry, and that they share a love of family and making kids happy.
CBR: The first time I met you, we talked like this for the very first “Cars” movie.
Larry the Cable Guy: Oh, for the first one, which was a great movie! It was a great movie. It’s still my favorite movie. I like it even better than [Cars 2]. I know Mater was the main guy in 2, but I’ve got to tell you, I like the first one. 2 was kind of like more of a Mater tale. It had really nothing to do with the movies. It was more of a Mater dream — which I got, and which I don’t think anybody else understood that, except us at Pixar.
It’s been a lot of miles down the road since that first one. Your character has become so beloved by a couple generations now of fans. As people want to talk to you about it when they meet you, and little kids want to meet you as Mater — tell me about that whole experience over the last 10 years.
You know what? It’s been life-changing. It’s just been awesome. When it first came out is when I first had my first little boy, my first kid. And then it kind of threw me into the family, the kid-movie type stuff. I’ve done two or three kid movies since then, with Fox Home Video. It just kind of changed and brought new blood into what I do. I always wanted to do stuff like that. So I’m glad that Cars came along, because it enabled me to do that kind of stuff.
There’s things that people don’t even know. The movie comes out, and yada-yada-yada, this happens, this happens. I Every month, I’m probably on the phone with, I’d say, anywhere from 10 to 15 kids a month, doing Mater calls to kids in St. Jude [Children’s Hospital], or kids at Madonna Rehabilitation. That’s why it’s cool. That’s the cool thing about it.
I had a great career. I’ve done other movies and we’ve done great concerts. This is just another thing that came along, and people go, “Oh yeah, they do it because the money. Yeah, the money’s fine — for me, it’s that part of it. But the part of it is the coolest thing where you can call, and you can cheer these kids up. That’s really fun, so I think that’s the cool thing about Pixar movies and Cars movies.
People really fall in love with the characters. People really like Mater, you’re right. He’s just such a fun little tow truck and such a sweet guy. Everybody wants to know somebody like that or be around somebody like that. So that’s the fun thing about Cars.
Tell me a little bit about how different Mater is, by degrees perhaps, from your standup persona.
My standup persona I don’t think is anywhere close to Mater, because the standup persona that I created is this Archie Bunker-type character. Now, as I’ve evolved throughout the years, it’s gotten a little different. There’s things that I’ve done in my act I would never think about doing now, especially now that I have kids, as you grow as a person, as an individual.
When I started doing Larry the Cable Guy, I didn’t have any kids, I didn’t have a wife, I had 26 different girlfriends, you know what I mean? Then you get married, and you have a kid, and then your priorities change, and your thought process changes. So Mater’s nowhere near Larry the Cable Guy. Mater is closer to me personally than Larry the Cable Guy.
It’s like my wife says when she watches Cars. She loves Mater because “it’s almost like that’s who you are around the house. Just without, you’re going on stage and doing Larry the Cable Guy. You’re more Mater.” And that’s why Mater was successful, because I put myself into the tow truck, pretty much. I think that’s why it works. So Mater’s closer to me, Dan Whitney, than it is Larry the Cable Guy.
The reason why we do Larry the Cable Guy as Mater, is that’s what I do. That’s my brand. That’s what I created. So that’s why we do everything Larry the Cable Guy because it’s all grouped into one thing. But when you’re doing things like this as far as personalities, if there was ever a time where I would have put my real name to a project, that would have been the one, because Mater is way more me than any other Larry the Cable Guy project I ever did.
So we didn’t do it specifically for the reason of I have a brand out there. I have a foundation. All my Larry the Cable Guy products fuels the foundation. So we thought that’s the best way to approach that. But as far as who Mater’s more like, he’s more like me personally.
In this one, you’ve gone from him being at the center of the story, to he is like so strategically and perfectly used in this one. Every time Mater shows up, it’s at the right moment, or it’s for the right joke. Was that a carefully planned thing?
I think it probably was. I don’t really know much about it. I have not seen it. I just remember doing my parts. Look, you cannot do a Cars movie without Mater — Mater and McQueen, they go together like bread and butter. So I think they wanted to introduce new characters, because you’ve got a new generation of kids.
But you still have that other generation of kids, and now they’re grown. People love Mater. People love Mater and McQueen together. So I think that not only do they want to bring in new characters, but they wanted to make sure that Mater was in certain spots to bring the humor, to bring a little bit of heart to it.
In my opinion, Mater’s a little like Joe Pesci. Joe Pesci’s great, as long as it ain’t all about Joe Pesci, you know what I mean? So I think that they’ve done it the right way.
Tell me about the times when a parent is telling their kid, “That’s Mater,” and you’re standing right there. The kid doesn’t see Mater in you until you open your mouth. What’s that experience like?
That’s another reason why it’s so much fun, just to watch their faces, and how they start smiling. At first they’ll be frowning, or they won’t have a smile on their face. Then you’re like, “Yeah, just like Toe-Mater, without the Toe.” Then you see them smile, and then they hug up on their mom because they’re kind of scared of you. Oh yeah, it’s fun. That’s fun to do. That’s the cool thing.
You’re always busy. You’re touring, you do specials. What’s in the future, and what are the career bucket list things you want to check off?
Honestly, I don’t have any! I have done way more than I ever thought I would do. I wrote a book that was on the bestsellers list. I’ve done arenas, and I’ve done a football stadium. The only comedian in the country that did a football stadium was Kevin Hart — I did it before he did!
Honestly, I’m very thankful. I’ve done more than I ever thought I would do. So I don’t really have a bucket list. I think my bucket list is to just be a good dad and enjoy the blessings that I’ve been given. So that’s basically it. If something comes along, maybe it’ll be worth looking at doing. Right now, I just enjoy doing a show every now and then, and being home with the kids, and hanging out with the family, and golfing in the afternoons. That’s what I enjoy.
When it comes to standup, what is the joy of it that’s the same as when you started, and then what’s fresh and new about it for you?
To me, it’s always fresh and new. I’m always coming up with new stuff. I’m trying to write new material. Anytime you can get on stage and watch people laugh at something that you’re saying, it’s great. It’s no different now than it was 10 years ago. People are paying to come out and see you. I still love doing the jokes.
The only difference would probably be, now I just want to get home with the kids. I want to make sure. I don’t want to be gone too long. I want to make sure that I don’t have too long a trip. That’s pretty much it. It’s fun to be home and hang out, and do your thing, and then go on the road every now and then, play star for the weekend, sign some autographs. It’s good for your ego. Then I go back home.
In my opinion, I think that’s a career that everyone would dream about, where you’ve had a certain amount of success, and you’re a trivia question on Jeopardy every now and then, and you can make out your own schedule, and you can pretty much do as you please. I think that’s what everybody in entertainment likes to aspire to, to get to that point. So I got to that point, and I’m enjoying it.
Do you remember the moment when the Mater character came alive to you? Do you remember the specific discovery?
Yeah, right when I got in there. My first line was, “My name’s Mater, just like Toe-Mater, without the Toe.” That was the first line, and [John Lasseter’s] telling me about it, and I’m thinking to myself, and there was like a couple other words they used that I didn’t think sounded good. And I said, “Can I say…?” He goes, “Say it how you would say it! But basically just let them know you’re Mater.”
So I went, my opening line. It was like, “Hey! My name’s Mater. Like Toe-Mater without the Toe!” And John Lasseter went, “That’s it!” And right then I said, “Holy mackerel, that’s awesome. I didn’t even do anything.” But right then, I just felt comfortable, and from that minute on, we were steamrolling down the tracks with all kinds of good stuff. So the minute that tow truck started talking, the minute I started talking for the tow truck, that was it. That was all I needed.
Cars 3 is in theaters now.
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