Southern charmer and comedian Jeanne Robertson

The former Miss Congeniality on Left Brain, how the internet made her famous and where you can find her recipe for pound cake.

Jeanne Robertson

SOLD OUT
The Capitol Theatre, 405 Cleveland St., Clearwater. July 8, 7:30 p.m. $36.25-$49.25. 727-791-7400. athecap.com.

Jeanne Robertson is charming as a bag of kittens wearing bowties. It's not her fault, really — she's from North Carolina, and if you've ever met a true southerner, you know what I mean.

"Now I gotta tell you another story," she says. I started the interview with 10 questions, but it's clear within 30 seconds of our phone call that I don't need them: Over the next 80 minutes, Robertson's going to tell me everything I want to know, and quite a few things I didn't know I wanted to know.

While Robertson held the crown of Miss North Carolina she spoke 500 times in one year, so it's no shock she has no trouble keeping a conversation going, but the real danger in talking to Robertson is that she'll sweep you away in her stories and all of a sudden the afternoon's gone and you have to cram the fun you just had on the phone into 750 words.

I first laughed at the misadventures of Left Brain on Facebook, and she won me over instantly. See, I live with a Left Brain myself. 

"In the mid-nineties, I was talking about Jerry and I said, "I call him LB, for Left Brain'," she says. The audience reaction to her nickname inspired her to keep calling her husband "Left Brain" when she spoke.

"I couldn't really do a speech or a show without Left Brain stories in it. They expect it. He's a great sport. He does things and says, 'You're going to tell that, aren't you?'," she says.

Robertson's Deep South and we're New South; I ask her for her take on "south of the South" and she almost gushes about Florida. This, much like the 80-minute interview that feels more like lunch with a new friend, doesn't happen much in my line of work.

"For 53 years I've been a professional speaker. In that role, when I think about Florida, Florida has been my number two state forever, because of the conventions Florida pulls. I go to Orlando all the time, I go to any place that has a pretty beach and a nice hotel [for conventions]. I started doing theater shows six or seven years ago. [When] I went to Auburn, we vacationed in Florida. I think Floridians are great. They're my people. It's more the age thing with me than the area of the country. The one thing about Florida is people move to Florida and people want to quickly make friends. It's an upbeat attitude to me."

See, Robertson didn't start as a comedian — although technically, her approach to how she makes us laugh puts her squarely in the category of "humorist" — she started as a schoolteacher, and then became a professional speaker.

I think Floridians are great. They're my people.

"I loved teaching, too," she says, but after winning the crown of the 1962 Miss North Carolina and the title of Miss Congeniality in the Miss America pageant — not to mention those 500-plus speaking engagements, "I had developed a reputation for being funny. It was like a duck to water. I just love speaking. We didn't have the internet, cassettes hadn't been invented... but word of mouth began to spread. I would do anything to speak. Then people started calling [from farther away] and you couldn't go speak and be back teaching the next day."

Left Brain suggested she stop teaching and try her hand at speaking.

"I just gulped and stopped and printed a brochure and tried to get into professional speaking full time," she said. It worked: She books a full docket at conventions.

"The convention market is huge in this country. Right now with the internet, they don't want to hear jokes. They want to hear your stories. In the sixties I was going as the former Miss North Carolina and they didn't expect much, but I was young and I was funny and they liked it."

So how did Miss Congeniality turn into a touring comedian? Blame the internet.

See, Robertson used to sell her CDs on iTunes. You wanted to hear her, you bought the CD. 

"We weren't even on YouTube," she says. "My assistant, Tony, called one night and said, 'Sit down, you're not going to be happy. Your grocery store [story] is flying around... somebody has uploaded your CD with it."

The video went viral.

Reach back to a time where we all had an illusion of privacy — before social media made it possible for anyone to share anything at anytime. Remember, too, Robertson didn't grow up with social media; if she wanted to share something, she made copies on a mimeograph (Millennials: Google it, but until you've smelled it, you don't realize how awesome they were).

"I didn't understand the power of the internet," she says, then added that someone suggested she sue whoever uploaded the video, because they also changed the name of the story to "Don't Send a Man to the Grocery Store."

"Sue 'em?" she laughs. "I would hire them! Are you crazy? That's a much better title."

"Never Send a Man to the Grocery Store" had one million hits within a month. As of last week, it had 36 million hits.

Robertson conducts herself with all the grace you expect from a former Miss North Carolina. She and Left Brain live in North Carolina, where they shop at Harris Teeter (Publix fans: It's better. Trust me.) When Left Brain goes into the grocery store — hopefully without the numbered list — staff announces, "Left Brain is in the store." 

"People like to laugh," she says and, Friday night at the Cap, they will. 

Oh, and yes: If you'd like Robertson's pound cake recipe from the video, you can get it here.

About The Author

Cathy Salustri

Cathy's portfolio includes pieces for Visit Florida, USA Today and regional and local press. In 2016, UPF published Backroads of Paradise, her travel narrative about retracing the WPA-era Florida driving tours that was featured in The New York Times. Cathy speaks about Florida history for the Osher Lifelong Learning...
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