Well well well. The Grand Ole Opry lately has been making all manner of surprising moves, doling out more Opry debuts than ever before in 2022, inducting new members who feel like they actually deserve it such as Jamey Johnson and Ashley McBryde as opposed to the flavor of the day, and even inducting songwriters and musicians in the form of Don Schlitz and Carlie McCoy. But who had on their Grand Ole Opry bingo card for 2023 the return of comedians to the ranks of full-blown Opry members?
During a special Facebook Live presentation on Friday night (1-6) from backstage at the Grand Ole Opry, radical preservationist and Opry member Marty Stuart invited comedians Henry Cho and Gary Mule Deer to both be the next official members of the Grand Ole Opry. It is the first time in nearly 50 years that a comedian has become a member of the Opry cast. Jerry Clower, who passed away in 1998 (& whose ghost haunts the SCM comments section), was the last to be invited in 1973.
If you’re not regularly paying attention to the Opry, these inductions may come as a surprise. But those who tune in via WSM religiously will be able to tell you these two are regulars on the program, both having performed on the Opry over 100 times. And of course with Minnie Pearl, Stringbean, Homer and Jethro, and artist who regularly worked comedies into their routines such as “Little” Jimmy Dickens, the history of comedy and the Opry is long.
To start the year, the Grand Ole Opry has temporarily moved back to the Mother Church of Country Music, the Ryman Auditorium for performances. Marty Stuart prefaced the invitation by talking about comedy and the Opry with Henry and Gary on Facebook, before dropping the surprise. “They wanted to start the year off with a smile … On behalf of the Grand Ole Opry, the staff, and the cast, we just don’t think we could do without you any more. You’ve been family for a long time, and we’d like to invite you to be members of the Grand Ole Opry.”
Of course, the two comedians accepted.
“Marty, Henry, and Gary said it best themselves when they were talking before tonight’s invitation,” said Opry Executive Producer Dan Rogers. “Comedy has been an integral—and more importantly, FUN—part of the Opry for decades. It’s going to be fabulous to have both Henry and Gary as Opry members and for many of their fellow comedians on Opry shows to keep ratcheting up the fun factor every night.”
Henry Cho is a long-time, world-recognized comedian who began his career juxtaposing his Korean heritage with his Knoxville, TN upbringing. Since then he’s appeared on all of the late night talk shows, television specials, as well as his own show on GAC. Henry Cho becomes the first ever Asian-American cast member of the Grand Ole Opry.
Gary Mule Deer has made over 350 appearances on television himself, regularly mixing music with his comedy. The 83-year-old from Deadwood, South Dakota has paid as many dues as any musician that ever took the Grand Ole Opry stage, and the next time he takes it, it will be as a Opry member.
Both comedians will be formally inducted in the coming months.
We already knew that under the leadership of Executive Producer Dan Rogers, a renewed commitment to what make the Grand Ole Opry a storied American institution had been undertaken. But who knew how deep that commitment would go. With comedy restored within the membership ranks, the Opry reminds us how important humor is to good country music.