The Fowler Family Radio Hour (FFRH) is a testimony to the old "you can take a Southerner out of the South" adage. The comedy troupe is stationed in Chicago, but every member of the Fowler Fam is originally from Dixie, and they make it known in their act. "It's kind of our love song to the South," says performer Shelby Burton. Of course, a comedy show's expression of affection for the South isn't complete without a bar-fighting conspiracy theorist who dabbles in voodoo. But, that's the fun of a satire created by insiders. They try to exploit the outrageous, without being too mean-spirited.
The setup for FFRH is similar to the last time the group rolled through town, back in 2009. The performance takes place on an AM radio broadcast variety show called — you guessed it — the "Fowler Family Radio Hour." Inspired by "the old time radio shows," it entails skits, musical performances, and the familial hijinks that transpire. Burton says it's the "best format to highlight all the talents from the cast and really explore these characters."
Don't worry if it sounds familiar, because during the past eight years they have played around with the original formula. This time around, the Radio Hour goes into uncharted territory by featuring an overarching story, as opposed to the skit format of the earlier performances. The story centers around the Fowlers' radio show and producer Tom Crystal trying to decide if the program should continue. He tries to introduce it to new audiences by jazzing the show up, which leads to tension among the already bizarre Fowlers.
"We just kind of got inspired by some new people that moved up to Chicago from the South," syas Burton. Original members Shelby and Joe Burton, Jeff Gandy, and Robert Cass will be joined by new castmates Sarah Mobley and Matt Bivins. The reworked FFRH will also see some new characters taking the stage like shy wannabe Nashville singer Ash and lovesick cat-hoarder Fanny Lou. "The characters have really evolved," says Burton.
Much of the new direction was caused by a six year hiatus for the group, that began after their Piccolo show in 2009 and ended in 2015. In those years, Shelby and Joe became parents, a couple of castmates left, and others joined. That much time expanded the show in more than just its jokes.
Along with the plot and new characters, the Fowler Family will get in touch with their musical side a lot more in this performance. They'll be indulging in Southern music like comedic bluegrass, humorous church hymns, and an "improvised murder ballad," where two audience members will have a song about their deaths performed.
A lot of the show is centered around showing "the things about Southern culture that people might not think of right away," along with the stereotypes that people with a good sense of humor love. One of the skits in the program is all about answering the unanswerable: "Is Florida part of the South?" Good luck with that.
That sketch portraying a cultural identity crisis represents a lot about the Fowler Family Radio Hour. Burton said that she didn't become aware of the influence Southern culture had on her until citizens of the Windy City were pointing it out. "This is our culture, but we didn't know it until we moved here."
A lot of that's at the core of the show, just as much as it's at the forefront. This comedy troupe isn't purging their Southern nature because they're too busy basking in it.