We had the opportunity to work with TOM RHODES for a week at the Punchline in Atlanta. It was his first time working in the states in a long while. He's been hosting a talk show in Amsterdam (the one in Holland, not in upstate NY). It was a shock when I initially encountered him in the parking lot. My image of Rhodes (and I am sure nearly everyone else's image) is of the swaggering, hip-hop hippie on the MTV specials and the ABC sitcom. The flowing locks are gone now, the show is a faint memory, but the swagger is still there. His nearly 20 years of doing standup in Florida, America and Europe have forged an attitude and an act that is alternately outrageous, goofy and rousing. The offstage Rhodes is happy to be here and happy about where he's headed.
What could a 17-year-old joke about? Especially a 17-year-old who is claiming to be older than he really is?
I had some big, flashy props and I did a lot of silly things like parody Boy George, who was popular at the time, and dance out wrapped in a twister game to a little piece of haha I entitled "Boy Tom." I had a bunch of props and it was horrendous like it is for everyone when they start, but I did get some laughs talking about high school. I just poorly disguised it by saying, "When I was in high school..." and everyone would laugh because they knew I was lying.
Did you have a difficult time relating to the 30-and-over audience members?
Everyone knew I was underage, but they loved me and I became sort of a mascot little brother to everyone. This was also Florida in the 80's, when everyone thought they were in Miami Vice and massive amounts of pure contra rebel-supporting cocaine was everywhere and an underage child was hardly the biggest of the crimes going on at the time. The roughneck Florida flip-flop, Margaritaville audiences quickly extinguished my shinny prop period and I adapted the best I could. For the first five years I did standup I was terrified every time I took the stage and pushed on through the fears because this was my dream and I wasn't about to let being scared shitless stop me. Thankfully I must have done something right, because they kept asking me back.
You started touring while you were still a teenager and since it was the 1980's--and we all know what was going on in the comedy scene during the '80's--just how much trouble did you get yourself into?
I'm afraid all those rock 'n' roll biographies I'd read as a teen and my mystical reverence for John Belushi got me sucked directly into the undertow of temptational pull. I worked with all the beautiful beasts and vikings of the road, John Fox, Ollie Joe Pratter, Tim Allen. Notorious road guys and people you've never heard of. I got to work with everyone and I'd hitchhike, take the bus anywhere for $100 to emcee, I was just so happy I was in show business. Many guys were key in helping me branch out and teaching me the Warrior's Code and how to be a comedian. I got into loads of trouble and I was a cocky little shit too but I think I've always been nice and sincere and the best people I know are comedians and, because of what light and wisdom the right guys showed to me, I try to do the same with young guys I like. Every warrior must become a wise man and the wise man must pass on what light and wisdom he can to the young warriors who are coming from a true place. Blah, blah, blah-- Is he done with that zen light sabre talk yet?
If you had a 17-year-old would you let him become a comic?
Fuck No!!!!!!! I'll make him study the bible and tend to his garden that I will never let him leave. I'm teasing. I won't let the boy wait that long, I'll train him from the time he's a toldler to dress and dance in a monkey suit while I grind the organ and my boy jumps around like a monkey, and the people at the pier will fill our hat with coins and dollars. I figure it will be around the time he turns 17 that we'll have to try new material away from the monkey suit and organ.
Had you ever scene live comedy before becoming a comic yourself?
Yes, my uncle Bob (Shouldn't everyone have an uncle Bob?) tried open mike nights for a year in Washington D.C. where my family is originally from and my dad took me to see him. I watched all these comics go on at a place called El Brookman's in D.C. I was 12 years old and I had a Redskins jacket on and the door was right beside the stage, and, as me and my dad came in, the comic onstage grabbed me and pulled me onstage and interviewed me as if I were the coach of the Redskins. I was embarrased but thrilled that people laughed while I was up there, and afterwards, as I was letting the red subside from my cheeks and sipping a Coca-Cola, I marveled at these fabulous humans who got up and made everyone so happy.
Is there one particular comic from your childhood that had the most influence on you?
Richard Pryor as a boy growing up, he was a big family favorite and my Dad had his records along with Bob Newhart and I listened to those fellas records as if they were gospel. I always liked Rodney Dangerfield until I met him three times and he was a cock to me three times. Sam Kinison, Bill Hicks-- I saw both of them as a teen. One of the best guys I ever saw was a guy in Florida named Ron Bennington, he greatly influenced me until his tragic death of being eaten by sharks off the Florida coast (the details were never fully disclosed to protect the feelings of his family). From childhood the greatest influences were Johnny Carson and David Letterman and I watched them like religion and I miss Johhny to this day like a dead relative.
After ten years or so in the business you got "heat." What's it like when you have heat? Are you constantly afraid that it will go away or, even worse, go away and never come back?
I thought once you got heat you couldn't lose heat. And I only found out later, when I couldn't get all the cool people on the phone again, that my heat had gone cold. I wasn't afraid of losing it, but I'm glad I did. It's more valuable to see the true nature of people even though it stung greatly to know that I had let all those boys feel me up and none of them really wanted to date me after all. Nonetheless a good whore always bounces back.
During that time you got high-powered management and did the festival scene. Did the pressure affect you positively or negatively, either onstage and off?
I had the same high-powered management long before the festival and they are the same management I have now. I just can't get them on the phone as often as I used to and their mission to help bring the full magic of Tom Rhodes to the people seems to have somewhat lost it's focus.
Is there any loss of control when you have management and/or representation? In other words, were you able to maintain a vision of what you wanted? To put it another way, how much of your path was decided by you and how much was dictated by others?
I lost control of my sitcom instantly, between my management, my agents, the network and the studio, everyone had their ideas of what should be happening. I originally wanted to be a public defender lawyer, which was the idea NBC paid for when it was written. Eventually they decided I should be a teacher. I was overwhelmed by all the big flashy lights I guess, but I lost all control when I accepted the teacher idea.
Your NBC show Mr. Rhodes lasted for one season back in 1996. What was the best part of the experience? The worst?
The best thing was getting flown to New York for the new season announcement and getting paraded across the stage at the Lincoln Center with all the other NBC stars. Then, at the party afterward, doing shots of tequila with Brooke Shields, John Lithgow and Warren Littlefield to toast the new season. The worst part was casually flipping through magazines and newspapers like USA Today and Entertainment Weekly and seeing that they thought I was a turd and that my show sucked.
When someone calls you "Mr. Rhodes" in real life, do you wonder if they are referring to the show or just being polite?
When I still had long hair I would wonder but after I whacked that nappy tangle off my head it never crosses my mind.
Mandatory HAIR QUESTION: Okay, so when did you cut your hair, why did you cut your hair and how has the new 'do affected you onstage?
I cut my hair off about five years ago. It affected me at first. It felt wierd swaggering without my lion's mane flapping from side to side, but I worked through that feeling and eventually got comfortable with the short hair. I initially cut it off because I was sick of being the longhair guy and thought if I was funny I could do it without it, too. Now it's thinned, so it's not much of an issue.
For the last few years, you've been doing standup all over the world? What type of crowds are you usually performing to?
Multi-ethnic, multi-national everyone is everywhere and the majority of them want to laugh.
Where is your favorite place to perform outside of the U.S.? Where is your favorite place to visit?
The Melbourne (Australia) Comedy festival was the best month of my life and the shows are in the city hall building that is converted into theaters for the festival. The intimate and magical wonders of The Hotel du Nord in Paris is another of my favorites to perform. The Comedy Store in London is balls out one of the best. My favorite places to visit are anywhere in Spain or Mexico-- I love stifling heat, ice-cold beverages and brown-skinned women.
After being away, do you find it difficult to once again perform in the good old US of A?
No. However it does take an adjustment every time you go from America to Europe or Europe to America with the material, like squeezing and unfolding an accordion. I've built nice followings in certain cities in America like San Francisco, Chicago, Washington D.C, Houston, Austin and Atlanta-- I feel energy and excitement jumping off the people and I'm most happy and comfortable telling my stories like Chicken George in Roots relating the things he had learned in his journeys.
For the past few months, you have been hosting your own talk show in Holland? How the heck did that happen?
I was living over there in Amsterdam with this Dutch girl and this network had heard about me from the local club I play in Amsterdam and they contacted my London management. I showcased at the club, we had meetings, they wanted to do an American Late Night talk show on Dutch television with an American as the host, interviewing Dutch celebrities and interpreting Dutch culture and they chose me to drive the space ship. Kicked ass on the pilot just before Christmas and the show started production the first week of January, airing every Monday night at 10pm on Dutch television. The season ended in April and I've been back in the states pimpin' my haha biscuits ever since, as I will be all summer, until I go back in August to start a full season of Tommy Rhodes Late Night.
What kind of guests do you interview? Do you have to be up on your Dutch pop culture?
Dutch Celebrities like actors and rock stars and your standard talk show fare but also politicians and scientists and their one astronaut. The Dutch are highly intelligent people, which is why they all speak English and multiple other languages, but they also are big thinkers and like ideas and feelings of expression. I'm honored and humbled by the mercy of our sweet Lord that I get to be the late night talk show host I always dreamed of being. I'm also honored that I get to interview and meet all these facinating people and I am once again blessed with higher levels of learning taught to me by gentle, intelligent people. I do have to study in the week leading up to the show about the guests. I read about them and watch videos of people's work but as you could imagine that's the funnest job I could ever imagine for myself. Hooray!
The show has recently been renewed. Are you looking forward to starting up again?
Hell Yes! I can't wait to sit behind that desk again and make sly jokes to my musical director, E-Life, and play film clips that bust up my studio audience. Working on a show you love makes all the difference in the world. Dutch people are the coolest, and I want to meet all of them and have them all on my show. I'm trying to learn Dutch and have been driving around America all summer listening to my Dutch language tapes, I miss my Dutchies and can't wait to tickle them in the evenings again.
What if you become the David Letterman of the Netherlands and you are on the air for twenty years? Would that be ok with you?
I would consider my life triumphant. To do a show you love for people who care, instead of having a show that turns your stomach and pays massive amounts of money but doesn't leave you feeling creatively satisfied makes all the difference in the world. I would be happy to have this show on a considerably smaller scale than be doing something like this for American television. For now it is making me happy and, besides, some people dream of conquering the world... I just want to conquer one little tiny part of it. Hooray for the windmill people!
Are you still living the dream you had back when you were seventeen?
I am still living the dream. It has gone beyond my wildest dreams. And I am still having fun and I'm better than I've ever been as a comedian and I'm still growing. And I have the fortitude to know that I can spank comedy ass in London, Amsterdam, Beijing, Los Angeles and Kansas City. It's a gift to be able to go as far as I've gone around the world and be able to make so many laughs from all different walks of life. It's something not many people ever get a chance to do or could do. Being funny is the best life imaginable and I have dined with kings and romanced young girls on seashores because of it. It is better than being a pirate, because pirates only ever made themselves laugh, and everyone was happy to see them leave town. I'm still not rich, but I am wealthy from experience. I couldn't be happier being a little older and a little wiser, and I think if I was the 17-year-old me looking at the 35-year-old me, I think the 17-year-old would be pretty damned pleased with how it all turned out.
||SHECKYmagazine.com HOME||Back to the Top||