Now celebrating his 30th year in stand-up, Tom Rhodes is living what he calls “a dream life.” Rhodes’ career highlights include being Comedy Central’s first comedian spokesperson, releasing three full length stand-up albums, becoming the host of a late-night Dutch talk show, and hosting the insightful podcast Tom Rhodes Radio. Rhodes spoke to us from his hotel in Las Vegas where he was busy doing a week of shows at Brad Garrett’s Comedy Club in the MGM Grand.
Isaac Kozell: I just came through Vegas two weeks ago. It had been a few years since I had last been there. I always forget how beautiful sadness can be when it’s bathed in neon lights.
Tom Rhodes: I don’t know, man. I think it’s our truest self in America. It’s where our whorish impulse and monetary greed just ejaculate at full power.
IK: Sure. When there are very few rules, you really get to see how people are on the inside.
TR: I was a real San Francisco snob for many years, hated Vegas, never wanted to perform here. In the last few years I started doing gigs at the MGM – Brad Garrett’s – and that was my first taste of the Rat Pack Vegas. Vegas is great when done correctly.
IK: As soon as you’re done in Vegas, you’re heading to Europe again. What is your connection to Europe and travel, in general? What fueled your desire to take your comedy all over the world?
TR: It kind of happened organically. I’ve been a comedian since I was 17 years old. I’ve performed in every city in America 15 to 30 times. I had a sitcom on NBC for a year, 1996-1997. I lived in San Francisco for seven years. That was my left-wing utopia. But the sitcom was the nightmare scenario you hear about. I couldn’t do jokes on my own show. I was the straight man. It was a children’s show … anyway, I was very frustrated. I had a truckload of money when that finished and I looked at it as my NBC artist’s grant. I had lived in New York City like a dog once when I was younger. I always swore that if I had enough money I would live there in style. So, after the sitcom ended, I moved back to New York and got a rockstar apartment in the Wall Street area, just doing tons of sets all over New York, while still doing the road. Then, I began to branch out and go to London because I’m good friends with Greg Proops and Rich Hall and they thought I would do really well there. Once I got in with London, that led to gigs all over Europe. I fell in love with a Dutch girl, moved to Amsterdam and was given a late night talk show on Dutch television. I was like the David Letterman of Holland.
I lived in Amsterdam for five years. Then I started doing comedy festivals all over the world. After Amsterdam, I lived in L. A. for a couple of years, paying rent on a place I was never at and I didn’t care for Los Angeles that much so, I threw everything into storage eight years ago and … I don’t live anywhere currently. I just travel the world.
IK: Do you like not having a home base?
TR: Oh, it’s fucking fantastic! My wife’s a photographer. She travels with me. She, you know, takes advantage of doing street photography all over the world. When we have time off, the last three years we’ve gone to Rome and rented a place. A couple of years ago went went to Bali for a couple of weeks. In the States, we usually go to Austin and New Orleans. It’s great. It’s a dream life.
IK: What is it about your comedy that connects with people all over the world?
TR: Hmm. Wow. Umm…
IK: Are you looking for a humble way to say it or are you really grasping for what the connection is?
TR: I’m looking for the existential answer to that question. The Bush years were hard, man. It’s a lot better now that Obama is President. But for my appeal, I don’t know. The jokey answer I give is “universal topics.” Pain, suffering, heartbreak. It works everywhere. Also, the power of a well-written joke. Be as truthful as you can be. And then, the observations that you have on those places while you’re there. I don’t know. That’s a mysterious question. You knocked my block off with that. I don’t know how to answer it, really.
IK: You know as well as I do that pain, suffering, and heartbreak exist in different manifestations no matter where you are. Even in the United States. When you come through the South and swing up the East Coast, then cut back through the Rust Belt, you’ve gone through five or six different types of life. It’s hard to connect with all those places sometimes. The audiences are … it’s like a business deal. They’re sitting on the other side of the table saying, “What’s in this for me?” I can’t even wrap my head around what it’s like to connect with an audience in say, Asia. Sure, the themes are the same but how do you translate those themes?
TR: I’m glad you mentioned that different parts of the United States are like different countries. Playing in California is different than playing in the South. It’s also the collection of people you have that night. Sometimes you go to a party and it’s a great party because it was a great collection of people. Other times you go to a party and it sucks because it was a bad collection of people. It’s like that in a comedy club. The variables are different every night. There has to be something for people to connect with. Sometimes, the jokes don’t translate and you have to find that out. In England an ATM is called a cash point, just small little things like that.
IK: So when you head into a new area for the first time, it’s probably like an open mic. You have to put it out there and see what clicks. Is that accurate?
TR: It’s 100% accurate and for me it’s the most exciting part. It’s happening so fast while you’re on stage. It’s also being a great entertainer, putting your heart into it and acting out the jokes. Some things are funny everywhere. Other things you have to figure out and it’s exciting for me to do that. It’s an adrenaline rush. I don’t bungee jump or anything like that. This is what I’ve got.
IK: Do you consider yourself a spiritual person?
TR: Yes. I come from Jesus Freaks. I’m turned off by most organized religion. But the beauty in nature I think is God. I see miracles everywhere.
IK: What role have drugs played in your spiritual quest?
TR: I used to do mushrooms once a year for spiritual purposes. I needed an answer. I didn’t know where my life was going to go. I only like natural things. I love mushrooms. Being outside, feeling the molecules, seeing the trees breathing, knowing that you’re one with the universe, I love it. I haven’t done it in a very long time because my father was killed by a drunk driver in 2009 and my little sister died of breast cancer in 2011. So, you’ve got to be in the right headspace to go on a journey like that. But I think I’m getting closer.
IK: You just celebrated your 30th anniversary doing stand-up. What do you think contributes to your longevity? You’ve seen several waves of stand-up come and go.
TR: I never considered doing anything else. I’m a lifer. I’m a comedian because of my father. He had comedy albums and I grew up with comedy records. Pryor, Bill Cosby, Bob Newhart. My dad took me to an open mic night when I was 12. The comedian pulled me onstage and interviewed me. That moment changed my life. I never considered doing anything else with my life. That’s the good thing about comedy. No one can kick you out of comedy. I would do it on the fucking sidewalk if I was homeless.