No comedian has done it like Tom Rhodes. After proving himself as a top tier American club comic, life and love took Tom elsewhere. He established a fierce international presence and for decades maintained relevance in both spheres. He is simultaneously both relaxed and hungry to conquer. He's sharp, newly-sober, and luckily for New Times Tom Rhodes is from Florida (or he might be in Hong Kong).
See also: Nery Saenz: Killer Comic
New Times: Thanks for talking to us. I got a tip to ask you up front about your family mini-golf tournaments.
Tom Rhodes: [laughs] I'm from Florida. I grew up in Oviedo, a small town outside of Orlando. I come from a very competitive family. We play miniature golf to the death. It's not an enjoyably family experience for us. We actually have a family trophy the champion gets. It's very serious. Some people drive by a mini golf course and think "oh that's a cute little silly activity", I drive by one and think I could get there and practice. Work on the bank shots into the clown nose and destroy my family when I get a chance.
December 12th you'll be in Miami at Open Stage Club and later that night at the Comedy Inn. Are you stringing together more shows while you're here?
Those two, the black box theater in Fort Pierce, and then I'm doing the Tropical Cinema in Key West. My favorite city in Florida.
Ooh nice. Working your way all the way down.
Of course. That segues perfectly into travel. You are among the travel-iest comedians, if not the travel-iest comedian.
[laughs] Yeah, I travel a lot. This month I spent five months in Europe, one month in Asia, and the other six months relentlessly touring the United States. So I don't live anywhere. January will be nine years I've had everything in storage. I've had two extensions put into the passport. It's officially as thick as an American passport is allowed to get.
I love it. It's been a great year for me. I did the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
The whole 30-day stretch?
Yeah, for the first time.
Wow, I'm surprised it was your first time.
I had gone there just to check it out and do some sets, but I was never officially part of the program doing a solo hour show. It was great. I had a great theater, I got great reviews. I mean it rained 26 out of the 30 days I was there... but it was really inspiring as a performer because there's just thousands of shows going on. It's really intense, you have to do a lot of interviews and press every night from the very critical British newspapers. Fortunately I had great reviews.
How do you think your show differed from night one to night 30?
A lot acts aren't used to doing an hour every night. Fortunately I'm a headliner so my biggest problem was containing it all in an hour. I cut out all the fat. Anything that was a medium laugh I got rid of and went for hardest hitting megaton bomb stuff I could drop on these people.
So it wasn't the same set every night.
The first week you're definitely shaping it and molding it. You're in Scotland so it's different than playing in England. I do these gigs internationally. To me there's nothing more exciting than going from a different country and having to adjust on the spot. What's funny in Ireland may not be that funny in England. I just did a couple comedy festivals in Holland and Ireland.
Do you think you'll do it again?
I will but I won't do it next year. I don't want to want to go out there with a watery act. I used my hardest hitting stuff and I want to go back with hard hitting stuff. You're not going to come up with a brilliant hour every year.
Then you hear about these shows where people do some big blood-letting. Talk about their uncle molesting them or the worst thing that ever happened to them. I didn't become a comedian to get on stage and cry about the worst things that ever happened to me. I've had a lot of tragedies in the past few years. My sister died of breast cancer and my dad was killed by a drunk driver - and I'm still processing it. I don't find either event particularly funny. And to have some sad moment at an Edinburgh show would sell out their memory and the very reason I became a comedian in the first place.
No reason to force that. Well, you know, tragedy plus time right?
[laughs] So one day my sister's cancer death will be hilarious!
One day huh? Any joke about someone on your family is a little tribute I suppose, although some comedians would never get that personal. But it seems like you're the type of comedian that will.
True. Some of the funniest stories I talk about now I never told another living soul for 10 years. So maybe it's a matter of time.
So speaking of travel, another one of the travel-iest comedians is Greg Proops, who you recently defeated on @midnight. Congratulations! How does it feel to have won the Internet?
Thanks! Ahhh, I would like everyone to give me a dollar now. Just one dollar.
You've become spam.
...Which could be problematic because if you mailed it you'd need a 42 cent stamp, and if you send it to me on PayPal they take a 30% cut so I guess you have to hand me that dollar in person.
Done. How was your experience on @midnight?
It was incredible. I came prepared. I did really well last time but I didn't win. It's really exciting to do that show because they tape the show at 4pm and they send you the questions and video links at 1:30pm. So this time they scheduled my pickup at 1:30 when they sent the questions. I thought they were going to send it sooner, I'm chompin' at the bit for these questions. I woke up at early at 9, had my coffee, I'm just ready to tear into it. So I'm scribbling my joke ideas on the way over there. It's really exciting in the short amount of time you have to come up with jokes.
They cut a lot of things out for time. I destroyed on the hashtag war. Like my family with the miniature golf, I'm not a fun person to play gamed with because I'm so competitive. I was so focused on giving answers and you have to hit this little button like on Jeopardy! so I was just gunnin' all these - boom boom boom! And then when it got to the end when it was time to kick somebody off and they go "it's a tie!" and I go "Oh shit I've tied!" and I look down and it was a tie between them. You don't want to look bad so you've got adrenaline and fear and all these ingredients that make for great comedy. It was great.
The panel seemed a perfect fit.
I could not have felt more comfortable. It was kind of a San Francisco show. San Fransisco is where I moved to from Florida and got good as a comedian. Greg Proops is one of my oldest friends in the world and W. Kamau Bell is also a Bay area guy and good friend.
We interviewed Kamau not too long ago.
It's a shame his show didn't last. If you look at America right now, we need Totally Biased more than ever. An open conversation about race in this country? I saw him shortly after they pulled the plug. The Treyvon Martin thing happened and it was beautiful they way they dealt with it, but the sad part is there will be another Treyvon next month. There'll be another Michael Brown and Eric Garner next month. The story keeps happening over and over in the United States. FX is a ballsy network. I find it completely mystifying. The show was produced by Chris Rock...
There's some things about show business and entertainment that make no sense at all. If you're going to dedicate your life to it you have to understand that everything in show business is designed to hurt your feelings and that good ideas don't always come to fruition.
That makes sense coming from you as you've had a unique career among comedians. Did you always mean to choose your own path or did you just fall into not agreeing with the mainstream?
I would like to think I was smart enough that it was all planned but no - none of it was planned. For me the trick has been to enjoy life. As a comedian you need stories and experiences to draw from in your material. To be original you need to live a life.
It seems like many comedians today are trying to follow set steps to success rather than find their own way.
Comedians were trying to do it then. Back in the 80s everyone wanted to be Jerry Seinfeld. So you had all these clean cut comedians in their jackets and thin ties trying to be cute and cuddly. I was more of a The Rolling Stones vs The Beatles Guy. I grew my hair long because I didn't want to be TV guy, then oddly enough I got a sitcom. After that I started playing in Europe a lot, which led to me falling in love with a girl in Amsterdam. The relationship didn't work out but I was magically offered my own late night talk show there. Every thing that happened to me was because I was following my heart as a stand-up comedian.
What is your heart saying these days?
I would like to do more American television. This year was great for me. I was on Dave Attell's Comedy Underground, twice on @midnight, got an hour special on Netflix, I'm making tons of travel videos for my YouTube channel, and my podcast is very important to me - Tom Rhodes Radio. It's a labor of love. I don't make any money on it. I've been working on a book also about my best stories traveling the world as a stand-up comedian, called Colossus. Also, I stopped drinking this year.
I was drunk and fell off of a bar stool on January 1st in Philadelphia. I got six stitches in my forehead and even though I look like a Bond villain now it's probably one of the best things that's ever happened to me.
What changes have you found since you stopped drinking?
Total clarity, total recall. Onstage as I'm saying something I have jokes spinning around in one side of my brain, stories in another, new thoughts over here. I was never a sloppy drunk but now life is more productive. I think I'm ready to take it to the next level, as far as television goes in America.
Ideally where would you fit in the spectrum of American TV?
For years I've been pitching a show where I would be the Anthony Bourdain of comedy. I wanted to highlight comedy scenes and comedians from all these different countries, but nobody wants to make that show. So I don't know. I would like to do something with heart and higher intelligence.
So it's a back pocket project until something else happens?
Well all the television I've ever done was because somebody saw me kicking ass as a stand-up comedian. I just wanted to be, and I still want to be the greatest comedian alive. And I have not attained that so, you know, there's no rest. Keep pushing. Keep writing jokes. Keep following my heart.
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Tom Rhodes will be performing at both The Have-Nots at Open Stage Club and The Comedy Inn in Kendall on December 12. Tickets available at havenotscomedy.com and comedyinn.com. You can follow him at @_TomRhodes and listen to tomrhodesradio.com.
Daniel Reskin is a Miami comedian and writer. Listen to the full interview podcast at danielreskin.com and follow him @DanielReskin.