Mo Mandel’s new special on Discovery, Small Town Throwdown (which you can stream on the Discovery app and here) gave me pause. It’s brim-full of charming reminders to not judge a book by its cover while the comic gets hands on to free towns from the infamy of being saddled with a label like “drunkest” or “most boring.” There’s nothing at all wrong with the special, but it did cause me to wonder if I had, in my long career, written anything that veered into the space of municipal shit-talking. As best as I can tell, I think I’m clear. Though, as I confessed to Mandel when we spoke recently and briefly made it about me, one of the first things I ever wrote online was a lazy absentee article about North Conway, New Hampshire where I confused the words naturist and naturalist, quite possibly sending a bunch of nudists to the quaint New England town.
I’ve been to North Conway since and can report that while there’s a relaxing, scenic train ride and welcoming outlet center, I didn’t see one bare-ass in my travels. And that’s the full point of Mandel’s special: going to small towns like Appleton, Wisconsin (allegedly the drunkest) and Lubbock, Texas (allegedly the most boring) to see if he spots their much-publicized bare-ass or if they offer a more nuanced, label defying experience (spoiler alert: they do).
While Mandel (who created Comedy Knockout on truTV, has an Amazon special, and who has appeared on Conan) lives in Los Angeles now due to the demands of his job as a comedian and screenwriter, he doesn’t dig the “anonymity” of it, craving the communal bonds that he once knew. Not to sound like a Mellencamp lyric, but, he was born in a small town, his parents still live in that small town, and he’s seen it all before… when it comes to rural living and flung aspersions. Growing up in Booneville, California around about 699 other people, Mandel lived through the jokes about living in “The Boonies” and noticed how the people in the adjoining town would write off him and his as “hicks.” This despite being only nominally bigger. It’s a territorialistic quirk he’s seen all over on the road as a comic for more than 15 years. “Springfield’s got its Shelbyville. Everywhere’s got that,” says Mandel. But throwing a few elbows at the town next door is one thing. Taking far away heat from strangers is another.
“I read this article that came out three years ago in a big national newspaper where the reporter had written that this town in Minnesota was the worst town to live in in America. Red Lake,” recalls Mandel when I ask about the show’s DNA. “The town got really pissed off because it turned out the reporter had never been there. He was just throwing out all these statistics. So they demanded that this reporter come to visit. And when he showed up, he not only wrote a retraction, he loved it so much he actually moved there and still lives there to this day. He’s written a book about it.”
The nature of the media beast means you’re going to see pieces like the above referenced and aggregation of pieces like that. (Full disclosure: in 2016, we apparently wrote about the article about the drunkest town in America that sparked Mandel’s journey to Appleton.) People love to read that stuff. I’m looking to move and I’m all about dumb “best place to live” articles that have zero basis in local understanding.
In a perfect world, writers would slip and slide into a bone-chillingly cold lake (Appleton) or join the rodeo (Lubbock) in the towns they’re writing about or talking about, as Mandel does (with vigor!) in the special with the help (and to the delight) of the folks whose towns he’s trying to redefine. If nothing else, it would make for better content with the ability to say something more tangible about the color and shape of the experience. And everyone knows that. I don’t know a single writer who wouldn’t rather put boots on the ground before putting finger to keyboard. But alas, it’s not a perfect world so those kinds of articles exist, coloring public perception. It’s part of the reason why Mandel is also teaming with USA Today (who has also run those kinds of articles, it should be said) to write about his experience in Appleton and Lubbock and, he hopes, supplant the other content when it comes to search results that people might encounter on a road trip or when looking up these towns.
If you’re looking for a comp for the special before committing to the hour runtime, WHY!? What else do you have going on right now? But also, Dirty Jobs feels like a fit. In that show, the ever-likable Mike Rowe committed to doing the work that too few people think about, revealing the spirit of a country of no-bullshit hard laborers who get stuff done and occasionally have some fun doing it. A spirit adjacent to the one fully on display in Small Town Throwdown. These shows are, in essence, microscopes instead of telescopes, demanding just a bit more attention than some dumb article because they bring more clarity than blur.
Anthony Bourdain is another figure who comes to mind when thinking about Mandel’s special — a hero of his and a wit who luxuriated in new experiences and the intimacy of sitting with someone and getting just a peek into who they are and what fires their life. Something Mandel also attempts, joking with locals while he keeps a wide-open mind about what they feel defines their towns. And isn’t that a devastatingly missed thing right now? Discovering strangers, new places, and things. I miss that more than getting a haircut (my self-administered fauxhawks are lit) or going shopping.
It’s hard to not look at this special through the COVID lense. Mandel says he’s received calls and emails since it debuted with people pitching new destinations (and also inviting him back to Appleton and Lubbock), but until things can more widely and safely open up he’s obviously not going to be able to have the kind of shoulder to shoulder experiences that pump blood into his mission to show off the personality of and within these places. Assuming, of course, that Discovery feels like there’s value in future editions. And I think there is. Especially in these fractious times.
“It’s nice to see a show about different parts of America with different kinds of people,” Mandel says. “And they’re just talking about regular life stuff, about loving their town, about what they do for fun. And not having to get involved in all the other bullshit that this country has gotten sidetracked about, I feel, over the last however many years, and losing sight of the commonality of what it’s like just to exist and be alive and live in a place, and respect your neighbors.”
Mandel says all this near the end of our talk, and he’s damn right. In fact, I’m so inspired by his words in the moment that I… get sidetracked by political bullshit, remarking that it’s nice to not be distracted by the site of red hats in rural America. Which I mean as praise for the apolitical nature of the show but which I now feel sounds smug and exclusionary — the kind of big city thinkybrain nonsense that this show is pushing back on (I live in the suburbs, but aspire to be a big city elite!) And this is my favorite part of my time with Mandel — he’s post-political in a prescriptive way when it comes to the mission statement of this special.
“Even if there is a red hat to be seen, that’s fine. We don’t want to talk about politics,” he responds. “I could be sitting there talking to a guy in a red hat. He could be wearing whatever hat, and as long as he is talking about what kind of Mac and Cheese burns a hole in your mouth and what they like to do on the weekend, that’s great. That’s 99% of what makes us human beings, regardless of our political affiliation.”
Let’s forget dumb divide-y labels and just eat fiery mac and cheese together for fifteen minutes is a unique pitch and one a lot of people might reject right now when all we can see are red hats and bumper stickers… rivals, villains, enemies. But seeing people as neighbors and remembering our commonality — even while the most universally affecting thing of our lives somehow gets used to press on our fractures — feels like… a start?