Remembering Shannon Whisnant and His American Dream.
911 Operator: “What’s the problem there?”
Caller: “I got a human foot.”
911 Operator: “Have a what?”
Caller: “A human left foot.”
911 Operator: “What’s your name?”
Caller: “My name’s Shannon Whisnant and it’s plum nasty, got me grossed out.”
When Shannon Whisnant was a child, the dreams he wished upon stars involved being on TV a bunch, standing on stage, or simply living that movie star lifestyle. The closest he ever came to achieving those fantasies was when he purchased a storage locker in 2007, and found a severed human foot stowed away in a smoker. He took that limb, crafted a BBQ display case, and started charging admission to onlookers – $5 for a peek, $1 for children. Problems arose when the foot’s original owner, John Wood, came looking for his lost limb. This human interest horror story was fodder for Good Morning America, CNN, Fox News, and a slew of shock jock radio programs. Last year, documentarians Bryan Carberry and Clay Tweel took this absurd dispute and crafted Finders Keepers, a film that examines obsession, addiction, and that chase for the American Dream.
The first time you watch the trailer for the film, you react with gob smacked astonishment. Who are these hillbilly weirdos, and how can such a conflict of extremities exist outside of a Jerry Springer stage? Fun fact, it can’t, both Shannon and John appeared on The Jerry Springer Show to wage full blown white trash combat with its audience, making hay while the sun still shined. Carberry and Tweel’s documentary takes you from that ridiculous FOOT FOUND IN SMOKER headline and has you reaching for hankies when revealing the tragedies of both men’s lives. Finders Keepers is our portal through the news bite; there is a saga here beyond the head scratching curiosity, and the buffoonish 911 call.
Shannon Whisnant took his fifteen minutes, and found a way to stretch it into ten years of Barnum & Bailey showmanship. He sold t-shirts, ball caps, and bumper stickers all sporting his Foot Smoker logo. He adopted The Foot Man personality, and found every opportunity to tell his story to whatever human being was willing to listen. He was a born salesman, and constantly on the lookout for new ways to earn a buck from his trials. John Wood’s foot was just another chance to prove his “Win Win Winning” mantra.
This past Saturday, at the age of 46, Shannon Whisnant suffered a fatal heart attack. He is survived by his wife, Lisa Whisnant; mother Shirley Whisnant; and brother, Gene Whisnant. Right up to the moment of his death, Shannon was pursuing ways to get his name out to the public. He had just completed a series of short humorous essays called Eastbound and Drowned, and was attempting to get the ebook published through Amazon.
Soon after the release of Finders Keepers, I reached out to Shannon via Facebook, and asked if he would be willing to participate in an interview for my In The Mouth of Dorkness podcast. Happy to have another ear to bend, Shannon agreed to participate as long as we mailed him an ITMOD coffee cup for his Foot Man media collection. One click over to Café Press later and we were in business.
When talking with Shannon, the first thing that becomes crystal clear is that The Foot Man persona seen in Finders Keepers is absolutely genuine. He marks his introduction with thirty seconds of howling and the catchphrase, “Round and round and back again.” He was a pro, and he had his shtick. The second thing is that Shannon was not particularly happy with how he was portrayed in the film. He blatantly states up front, “I disliked it from the first time I seen it. It could have been 10 stars instead of 8.8. It’s hard to get 400 hours of footage into 83 minutes…fuck editors, they should be stoned to death.” But Shannon, how do you really feel?
The only thing he could say positively about the movie was how it continued to keep his legend alive. “I was blown away to hear the story made its way to Rolling Stone. One of my neighbors told me I was in Entertainment Weekly.” You can hear the smile on the other end of the line; his voice brightens at the thought of strangers seeing his name in print. He quickly guided the conversation away from the film, and actually appeared to have grown tired of being The Foot Man. He had milked John Wood’s leg for all that it was worth, and spent his remaining time offering samples from Eastbound and Drowned.
Finders Keepers roots around in a lot of Shannon’s pain. He was a man deeply proud of his entrepreneurial spirit. “I’ve always been business minded,” he halts us during one of our probes. “When I do flea markets, I would advertise. I had funny sayings, riddles, and rhymes…I’m Working on 16 different reality shows, 2 movies, and six books.” He did not want to spend any time discussing the fiasco with The Duke of Haggle television show. The film obviously exposed a lot of wounds, and he had no interest in picking over the scabs.
Shannon Whisnant was impossible to steer on the podcast. You would ask him one question, he would answer with a totally irrelevant story. You would attempt a follow-up, and he would plug the book again. The interview only hit its stride when we quit with the questions and submitted to his storytelling barrage. Tales of sewage disaster, antique Barbie Doll hunting, and Benny Hill worship had us in bewildered stitches.
Anyone reading this website probably grew up suffering the same affliction that infected Shannon Whisnant. Whether our poison was Gene Tracy or Eddie Murphy, we fell prey to their genius, and craved the impossible dream of garnering Hollywood’s favor. The chance at sneaking a living from the arts is just too damn delicious to resist. Shannon Whisnant spent a lifetime looking for his way in, and came closer to cracking that doorway than most of us ever will. To dismiss him as a senseless yokel is a tremendous disservice to our own flights of fancy.
Towards the end of Finders Keepers, Shannon Whisnant calls out from the darkness of his living room, shouts over his wife, and explains his very existence, “I’m chasing a dream I had many, many times of being famous on TV every day. And getting paid for making people laugh. And have a good time. That’s what I’ve been chasing. If I die before I get it, might as well, because I made plenty enough laugh.” I say that’s win win winning.
To listen to the complete Shannon Whisnant ITMOD interview, click below: