Like most Kansans, Will Averill is stubbornly proud of his home state. The Lawrence comedy writer and performer is also defensive.
So when Averill moved to Norwich, England, eight years ago to live with his then wife, he was surprised to hear the stereotypes from folks across the pond.
"I kept hearing Toto jokes and Dorothy jokes, even in England," Averill says, "which I never thought I'd get."
By 2007, he'd had enough. Averill decided to publicly address his heritage — and take a jab at his British compatriots — by turning his frustrations into a comedic poem called Fuck You, I'm From Kansas.
Two inches of snow in Norwich, and this city shuts down.
There just isn't enough grit!
Fuck You, I'm from Kansas
Where grit comes from the inside
Where blizzards bury children in as little as eight minutes
And you just deal with it.
Socialized health care?
Fuck You, I'm from Kansas
If you get cut, you die. Simple as that.
The epic, which goes on for a few minutes, became a staple of Averill's comedy act in performances at Edinburgh's Fringe Festival, and at London's Bang Said the Gun poetry competition, which he won.
In 2011, Averill and his wife divorced, and the comedian returned stateside. His first summer back in Lawrence, Averill performed "Fuck You, I'm From Kansas" during a bawdy sketch-comedy show, Victor Continental, at a sold-out Liberty Hall, and brought down the drunken house.
"It seemed like there was something there," Averill says, "but I wasn't quite sure what it was."
On a lark, he created a F*ck You, I'm From Kansas Facebook page. The homage to his home state's tag line: "A page dedicated to Kansas art, artists, culture and character. Flyover my ass!"
"I started it very much in the vein of 'Fuck You, I'm From Kansas' the poem," he says. "The initial tone was very much, 'Hey, fuck you! Biggest prairie dog. We've got the largest ball of twine, motherfuckers!' Just sort of throwing things out there."
Averill invited five friends to join the page. Sarah Mathews, part owner of the bar Frank’s North Star Tavern, in Lawrence, monitored the first-day stats. Within a half-hour of going live, the page received 37 likes.
“The day Will started it, that night I texted him and said I’d stay up until it hit 1,000 likes,” Mathews says. “I fell asleep at midnight, and it was only at 800. But when I woke up the next morning, it was way over a thousand.”
The thousand-likes-a-day trend continued for a solid week. Averill’s friend Jacqueline Grunau and Mathews — both comedy performers in Victor Continental — helped him keep fresh posts on the page.
“There were so many revelations in that first week,” Averill says. “And discussions, too ... about what it was and what it could be.”
The trio settled on a mix of genuine Kansas celebration, self-deprecation and irreverent humor. During the page’s early evolution, Averill worried that they’d run out of content to keep readers happy. Those fears evaporated as fans sent in a daily stream of suggestions and a slew of photos, ranging from beautiful Kansas landscapes to Kansas-themed tattoos to Beard Team Kansas (a group of hairy dudes, mainly from Emporia).
Most days, FYIFK opens with a photo of a stunning Kansas sunrise and signs off with a glowing sunset. No matter how obscure a photo may be — a barn out in western Kansas or a distinctive tree along Interstate 70 — someone recognizes it.
Grunau travels as part of her work with the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, and one day she snapped a photo outside Natoma, Kansas (population about 300), and posted it to FYIFK. Shout-outs from Natoma followed.
“People from places like Natoma get a little bit of a voice whereas they wouldn’t, normally, outside their hometown or county paper,” Grunau says. “Clearly this site has struck a chord with so many people. We’re the laughingstock of the country so many times. But there are people here who are wonderful, amazing people with so much to offer, and we’re not those stereotypes we’re portrayed as.”
Throughout the day, FYIFK features a mix of trivia, famous Kansans, and a hodgepodge of well-known and obscure places and things. A photo of Big Brutus, the world’s second-largest coal-mining machine that was retired in West Mineral, Kansas, led to an outpouring of heartfelt memories from family members of the men who worked with it.
“We’ve gained a real appreciation for how much these stories and photos mean to people,” Averill says.
Every few days, FYIFK posts a “Kansas Badass of the Week,” highlighting interesting or notable but often not-well-known Kansans, such as women’s wrestling champion Mildred Burke (who competed for a couple of decades starting in the 1930s) and the world’s oldest college graduate, Nola Ochs (who received her degree in 2007 at age 95). FYIFK has also been known to hold dear sites in Kansas City, Missouri, like Kauffman and Arrowhead stadiums.
“It should be noted that we love all Kansas City people, even if they’re from the Missouri side,” Averill says.
And the fans have claimed FYIFK as their own. A typical Facebook message: “You actually make me proud that I live in Kansas. Thank you.”
“There are a lot of Kansans who feel like we’re more than what we’re portrayed as in the media,” Averill says. “We’re more than the Westboro Baptist Church.”
“Which we’ve banned,” Mathews cuts in.
That’s true. Averill, Mathews and Grunau agree that pretty much anything about Kansas is fair game with two exceptions: The Wizard of Oz and Fred Phelps’ Westboro Baptist Church.
“Well, maybe if it was the 100th anniversary of The Wizard of Oz we might post something about Dorothy,” Mathews says. “But never Fred Phelps.”
“We try to make a balance of keeping the raw feeling to it,” Averill says, “but I wouldn’t want to go to making it completely milquetoast and Kansas tourism bureau with only pretty pictures.”
A fan has suggested that FYIFK is doing more for Kansas appreciation than any Kansas tourism group. If Facebook “likes” are any measure, the fan may be correct. FYIFK’s Facebook page has more than 18,000 likes. Kansas Travel & Tourism? Fewer than half that many.
About two months after starting the page, Averill and friends want to start an official FYIFK website. They say FYIFK has outgrown Facebook, and an official site would do the photos and stories justice. An official site would direct Kansans to noteworthy events, restaurants and destinations across the state. And they might sell T-shirts — not to make a quick buck but to fill merch requests from fans.
“Who knows?” Averill says. “There could be a coffee-table book at the end of it, but we’ll see what happens. Every time I think I know what the end goal is, something comes from the site that makes me think it could be something else. You can’t pin it down to one type of person or one story. That’s been an eye-opener.
“We’ve gotten all these stories and photos, and there are so many beautiful things here and so many people who are passionate about Kansas that I think we’re all kind of collectively saying, fuck it. We’re not going to be self-hating anymore,” Averill says. “This is a beautiful place.”