One day in 2015, Chad Prather sat at the steering wheel of his pickup truck mulling over a bad experience at Target. We all know how it is. A simple errand derails in a cascade of rudeness and incompetence.
Had it been me, I would have driven home on autopilot, blowing through red lights while my mind fumed and parsed every detail and assault on my rights as a shopper. Not to cast shade on introverts, but that’s our way.
It is not Chad Prather’s way. He is a confirmed extrovert. A friendly, outgoing Texan with a cowboy hat almost as big as his personality, Chad’s response would put him on the road to international fame. He turned his phone to “video” and hit “record.” By the end of the day, he had a million views.
When a viewer later mocked his southern accent, equating it with ignorance, Chad’s response attracted millions more and the attention of Fox News, CNN, and media outlets around the country. These videos weren’t his first or even the first to be popular, but they were seminal moments in the launch of an unexpected career.
On Saturday, December 16, Chad will bring his Star Spangled Banter Tour to Milwaukee’s Turner Hall Ballroom. His comedy and storytelling tour has crisscrossed the country, landing in approximately sixty cities, often selling out and earning him comparisons to Will Rogers. The married father of five, who turned forty-five last week, will put a comedic spin on family, marriage, parenting, and living the American life.
So why throw labels like “liberal” and “conservative” up there in the title? Although Star Spangled Banter mostly avoids partisanship, there’s another side to Chad’s comedy. He is also known as the “Political Cowboy” for his rapid-fire, improvised, conservative commentary on YouTube. These videos, too, are recorded from the front seat of his truck (or rental vehicle when he’s touring) and most go viral within hours.
Confession: when I watched Chad’s YouTube channel, I wondered whether we could have any kind of conversation. Politically, we’re opposite. My cynicism, in my defense, sprung from marinating too long in the acrid swamp of social media. Since when do Democrats and Republicans speak civilly to each other?
But I knew the polarizing mistake of dismissing people based on their political beliefs. Last winter, I “unfriended” a friend who is far to the right. He and I spent most of the election cycle lobbing stinky politically-charged social media cow pies at each other. Never mind that we’d spent the previous twenty years connecting over our shared love of classic television. I’d had enough.
Fast forward to November 2017. I was one of several organizers of an awareness-raising event for a medical condition I’ve had for years. Guess who was the first to say he’d come, the person who drove the farthest on a rainy, cold night, the person who had to borrow a car because his was in the shop, and who persevered when his borrowed car broke down on the way … and still got there early and was the last to leave? You guessed it. My “unfriend.” Am I too proud to say I was narrow for unfriending him? To say that I was wrong for forgetting that people are worthy beyond their political beliefs? He didn’t forget that about me. I am not too proud to say I was wrong. Am I too proud to send him a re-friend request? Well ... yes, I am.
Last week, Chad kindly spoke with me by phone. We spoke, but did we talk? Please read on.
Chad’s early career
Teme: I read that your career began with traveling the world. Where did you travel and what did you do?
Chad: I started in my early twenties. As soon as school got out for the summer, I'd get on an airplane. We went around the world from Central America to Africa to Southeast Asia to Europe and Moscow and did a lot of humanitarian aid work.
Those experiences opened doors for me. Back home, I began doing motivational speaking. I became known as the guy who also makes you laugh. It got to a point where people were more interested in having me make them laugh than get motivated.
Years went past and the advent of social media came along. I started doing little motivational snippets on Facebook and YouTube. Some were funny. Some were inspirational and motivational.
People said, "You need to translate this into doing comedy." I said, "I'm not really a comic in the traditional sense of how that's defined. I'm more of a storyteller." And they said, "Who cares? Just get on stage and sell tickets. If people show up, you can call yourself whatever you want."
So a couple years ago, I took the risk and started going to different theaters and started selling out venues across the country. I’ve been touring for the last couple of years.
The Star Spangled Banter Tour is a look at the human condition as an American. Things that we all can relate to. Being married in America. Having children in America. Amusement parks. What we eat. The things that we're fortunate enough to have.
I have parents in their 70s, and they have no idea what the internet does. Here I am, a social media guy trying to explain to them what I do for a living. A lot of fun stories come out of that. I'm married. I've got five kids. If you can't find some humor in that lifestyle, then you've got a problem.
Teme: Who most influenced your comedy?
Chad: Robin Williams was a huge influence. Not just his comedy, but his life, and ultimately his death. I'm a very impromptu person and he was obviously a great improviser. And just a silly guy. I tend to be a bit silly sometimes.
And then George Carlin. I tend to rant in his style from time to time. He's a big influence. He could be vulgar, so my mother wouldn't let me watch him. I would sneak around and find ways to watch him.
Then Bill Hicks. All my favorite comics are dead now, except for Bill Cosby. As a person, Bill Cosby has his flaws and his failures, but as a comic he really influenced me growing up.
Teme: He was my favorite growing up, also. He’s an amazing storyteller.
Chad: No question about it. When I was a kid, I used to listen to Bill Cosby records, literal vinyl records, over and over again. I can tell a lot of those old stories verbatim still to this day. So I patterned a lot of my storytelling after the way he told stories. You take the silliness and the improv of Robin Williams, the straight-forwardness of George Carlin, the political rantings of Bill Hicks and the storytelling ability of Bill Cosby and that's kind of how you wound up with me.
What’s it like to go viral … and political?
Teme: How did your first viral video come about and what does it feel like to hit a million views?
Chad: Weeks before that, I started doing videos targeting local things in Fort Worth. At first, folks who knew me were watching. Then I started getting traction with more people laughing at the videos.
One day, I’d come out of Target and I'd had a bad experience. I did a comparison video talking about Walmart and Target. The thing went viral. It had a million views in a day.
When you see it take off like that it's exciting, but it's unsettling. Because now you're like, "Oh my god, I need to go hide the pictures of my children. I need to hide all of my private information. It's like you opened up the front door and invited people to go see your underwear drawer. Because now everybody's saying, "Who is this guy?"
By January, the videos will hit a billion views on Facebook alone. It's just crazy how many eyeballs are on this. I was smart enough, ignorantly smart enough because I didn't know what I was doing, to have the intuition of how to build on it.
Originally, I was just going to use observational humor. I didn't want to do current events because they come and go so fast. Then the political climate in America got to a point where it was, quite honestly, dumb for me not to comment.
So I started doing more political-type talks. Like everything in America, some people love it, some people hate it. I started the videos to open up dialogue and discussion, which unfortunately on social media is almost impossible these days simply because everybody wants to debate and argue.
Social media is not life
Teme: I feel like we throw contempt at each other on social media instead of having actual discussions.
Chad: Yes. I've found that people don't actually live like that in the real world. If you and I walked into a restaurant, we would not immediately start picking out people based on their political beliefs, their religious beliefs, or anything like that.
You get on an airplane and everybody in every seat has a different opinion. But we don't sit there and argue with each other for the entire trip. But that's how we do it on social media. It's really an unfortunate thing.
We may not know our neighbor's names, but we think we can get online and argue politics with somebody from seven states away. That’s not a healthy thing to do. Discussing, yes. Sharing our beliefs, our ideals, and our opinions and philosophies is one thing. Arguing is not healthy.
I tell people, “Always remember you've got another human being on the other end of the line.” That's something that we tend to forget. But it seems to be the world that we've opened up for ourselves in the United States, well, really worldwide, with social media.
The challenges of being a unifier
Teme: I’ve read that one of your goals is to be a unifier. Unifying seems like a very rare concept these days. It made me think of W. Kamau Bell, who’s a great unifier. Do you watch his show, United Shades of America?
Teme: How do you go about being a unifier in this political climate? What do you think all of us could do better?
Chad: Well, I do a couple of things. With my political videos, I try to take truth and wrap it in humor. I take things that are polarizing and I give a very strong viewpoint. But then if you listen, I will bring it back to the middle. Sometimes people get lost in the polarizing, extreme things I said and they aren't hearing the moral of the story.
For instance, today I did a video about “if Matt Lauer had touched my mother.” It's a misleading title, because everybody immediately thinks that I'm about to wax eloquently about how I would defend her honor. But no, I come from the South. My mother would have beat Matt Lauer half to death.
Teme: Good for her – yeah!
Chad: It's a tongue-in-cheek way of saying, hey, women are very strong individuals. Stronger than we're willing to give them credit for. I want people to have the discussion of how we've objectified women when we have no right to do that. Woman can demand equality and equity. Those are the discussions I want to have.
A lot of times, the discussions wind up in the comments under a video. I'm hoping that dialogue is helping to unify.
My podcast, The Chad Prather Show, has more drawn-out discussions with people who have differing opinions, but it’s also about what we share.
Teme: Although we're not in the same place politically, a lot of your videos have expanded my perspective and I feel like that's valuable.
Chad: I have the best conversations with people who don’t agree with me politically and I have best friends who don't agree with me. Sometimes I jokingly say, "I don't even necessarily always agree with myself." But I like to put things out there just to see where people are.
For me, social media was for a long time a sociological experiment. I wanted to see what made people happy. What made them cry, laugh. What made them upset. A lot of times, my videos are the same way. I can sit back and watch my videos a month later and have an argument with myself.
I asked Chad about a video that troubled me …
Teme: May I ask you about one of your videos that I didn’t understand? It was the video about the travel ban where you say, for example, that all Iranians feel a certain way.
Chad: My videos are not written out. I'm just sitting in a parking lot and I have these thoughts. There are always things that I could qualify and say better. My point was that people in Iran are living under an Iranian regime whose affections, by and large, are not positive towards America. Now that doesn't mean that you lump everybody in there. I could say the same thing about refugees. I'm a humanitarian. I have compassion for people. I don't care where you come from or who you are, what your nationality or religion is. I don't care about the color of your skin. I care about people.
I encourage people to understand that the discussion we’re trying to have is not anti-Syrian. I’m not anti-Iranian, or anti-Iraqi. I’ve been all over the world and to a number of these countries and I’ve gotten to know folks who are tremendous human beings.
To summarize an old Mark Twain quote, nothing destroys travel like prejudice, and nothing destroys prejudice like travel. When I got out and around the world, I saw real quick that people are people no matter where you go. Unfortunately, and it's true even within America, we see people who wish to do harm to other people. That's what we have to protect ourselves against.
Sometimes I'll issue things that sound like a blanket statement, but I never intend them that way. I wish everybody in the world could just get along with each other. It's unfortunate that we live in a world where we can't. We all have our various demons we've had to fight and our various enemies, whether they're real or perceived. I wish as a global community we could get past that.
Why is communication in this country so broken?
Teme: What is the biggest misconception that liberals have about conservatives? And the biggest misconception that conservatives have about liberals?
Chad: I think the biggest misconception is that conservatives don't have any compassion. That they don't want anything to do with people who are not like them. There's nothing further from the truth.
On the conservative side, the conversation can get a little extreme because they're so afraid of that sense of “we’re losing our country” and it can very quickly be misconstrued as having no compassion for people that don't agree with them.
I think that conservatives misunderstand liberals by thinking that they don't have a sense of patriotism. That they don't have a sense of love for this country, that they're willing to sacrifice things that are foundational to our country in order to allow progressive changes. And that's not always true.
I'm trying to get Van Jones on my show. He and I could not disagree any more politically than a pit bull and a chicken. But I respect Van and he’s an incredibly smart guy. I heard him do a podcast with Adam Carolla which I shared on my pages.
He made a great point about liberty and justice. Conservatives are big on freedom, on liberty. We want the right to bear arms, free speech, all of these things. Whereas liberals, progressives and Democrats want justice. They think the NFL kneeling is protesting. I get it. I understand. They want justice. They want to fight police brutality and discrimination. Rightfully so. And we'd agree with that. We're going to disagree on the method they've used to protest it.
But it does take both of us, if we're honest, on the left and the right. We all love liberty and justice. The problem is, we each have a skewed view of the other. A healthy bird has two wings. One on the right, one on the left. And it makes it fly straight. Otherwise, if you've got one big left wing or one big right wing, it would keep flying in circles and get nowhere.
We need each other. That's been the unifying message if people can sit down long enough to talk.
The three minute messages I do online, people say, "Man, you're a jerk. You're coming across as this guy who is so dogmatic." And I say, "Yes, but it's opened up the door for me to have these bigger, longer conversations with so many people across this country," like this one right here.
If I had not done those [videos], it would have never opened the door for us to have true, legitimate, longer, and meaningful discussions. I'll keep putting them out there just to stir the pot a little bit. I definitely don't try to be mean-spirited. I don't want to be a firebrand or a flamethrower. I never want to be that person. But I definitely want to open up legitimate discussion. And I think so far, it's done a good job of doing that.
How will history judge us?
Teme: I feel like people are starving for these discussions. All the acrimony is not working out for anybody. We're not making any progress.
Chad: In all my shows, all the airports I’ve been in, all the cities, I see people being polite and gracious. They help somebody with their bags, help somebody open a door.
Throughout history, people have put their stories on a wall. Whether it was Egyptian hieroglyphics, or a cave drawing, or Native American drawings, we see their stories told. Today people are still putting their stories on a wall, but it's digital. Whether it's Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, or Reddit.
I tell people be careful because the future is going to look back and tell our story based on what they read on our wall. We're not responsible enough to make sure we're saying the right things. If one hundred years from now people interpret our life today based on our social media wall, they’ll think we are absolute barbarians.
Don't mistake me. I still have a sense of humor, and yes, I can be snarky sometimes. And I am a consummate smart-ass on occasion, but I try to keep a guiding force inside of me that says, "You know what, I do love people and I want to respect people. And I want to receive the same in kind."
Saving a life
Teme: That reminds me. I wanted to ask you about your $20 bill video.
Chad: It's funny you bring that up. I'm sitting here looking at the bullet.
My friend Dave Warner is a Marine. He was in Fallujah. Came back with some pretty bad demons. Strong PTSD. He decided one day he's going to end his life. He put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger. It didn't go off. He ejected the shell and looked at it, and there's a dimple in the back of it where the firing pin hit the bullet. He picked up the phone to call his wife. He was so shaken. And when he did, his phone was open to Facebook and there was this guy in a cowboy hat in his pickup truck, holding a $20 bill, talking about self-worth. And how regardless of what you've been through, you're still worth something just like that $20 bill [no matter how it's used or how torn it gets].
He sent me a message. He and I connected, and we got to know each other. He's a beautiful man. I saw him two weeks ago. He's become a good friend. [Note: Dave gave Chad the bullet which Chad keeps on his desk.]
I got a message this morning from a guy who said, "I watched your videos all last night. You saved my life last night." I don't know yet know what that means.
If you just put yourself out there and let your voice be used to make a difference, you have no idea how just a word of encouragement can save somebody's life. It's a very humbling thing.
I get a lot of hate messages, as well. I don't like that, but it's par for the course and the world we live in. I've asked myself from time to time, is this something that I want to continue doing? Ultimately, using comedy and funny stories is a tool for a greater mission. I want to see this country in a better place. I think that the United States of America, for all of its sins, scars, and flaws, is the greatest idea ever put on the planet. It's a tremendous country to live in with tremendous, kind-hearted people, by and large.
What happens at the Star Spangled Banter show?
Teme: What can people expect from your show? Is it political?
Chad: No, it's more storytelling. It's not a political show at all. I will throw out a few groaners that are political. People get a kick out of those. I go both ways with it, by the way. I don't just pick on Hillary or Obama. I'll make some jokes about Trump, as well. It’s too easy.
I've never been in a theater where people weren't having a good belly laugh. That's healthy and that's the medicine we're going for.
Teme: Who is your audience? Who would you like in your audience?
Chad: I love everybody. Typically, the people that have responded the most are the folks in the middle of America. Not necessarily your coastal elites, but your Rust Belt, your Bible Belt. The hard working folks, blue collar people out there that have no idea what it's like to be wealthy. That's a foreign concept to them. A lot of times they feel like they've been forgotten. They've been brushed over. Everything's being dictated to them by Hollywood, Washington, DC, Manhattan, and Wall Street. They're saying, "Hey, we're out here. We count. We vote. We care about this country. What about us?"
The good ol’ boys, the good ol’ gals. The folks that make their living with their hands a lot of times. But I've been surprised at the same time. I've had tremendously successful shows in parts of the country where I did not think they'd buy a ticket, like Seattle, Washington. We sold out. Even there, I've found that you have pockets of people who live around the outskirts of culture, and they're saying, "Hey, what about us? We've been forgotten." They come out and they have a good laugh, and they sit in a roomful of people that they can relate to. It's a good bonding moment for everybody.
Teme: What do you hope people take away from your shows?
Chad: Well, the biggest thing is I hope they laugh, obviously. That's every comedian's dream. Most of it is funny stories about life.
I’ve got stories about conversations with my wife who is a nurse. I jokingly say that being married to a nurse is a curse because every time she has a patient with an issue, I have to go get a test. Then I'll list some of the experiences I've had going to doctors and the humiliating things that happen because let's face it, it's just humiliating. I have stories about going with my wife to every obstetrician appointment, and situations with kids and aging parents. I hope people can come away saying, "You know what? I've been right there and I can relate to it."
From time to time, somebody will send me a message after a show saying, "We were a little disappointed. We wanted you to be that ‘political cowboy.’”
This is not a political rally. I'm not here to motivate you. This isn't a church service. I'm not here to inspire you. I'm here to make you laugh. I hope that you can relax and let your guard down a little bit.
Chad Prather’s Star Spangled Banter Tour is Saturday, December 16 at 8:00 p.m., at Turner Hall Ballroom, 1034 North 4th St., Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Tickets and more details here. More information about Chad and nationwide schedule here.
The Chad Prather Show podcast is here.
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