TV

Comic And Musician Whitmer Thomas On Mining Personal Tragedy For Laughs In His New HBO Special

Plenty of comics embrace the idea of a homecoming when they record stand-up specials but few use the experience to facilitate a reconnect with family or relive past trauma. Whitmer Thomas does exactly that in The Golden One, his first HBO special (premiering Saturday at 10pm ET), which serves as a chance for the comic/musician/actor (recognizable from appearances on shows like The Walking Dead, Glow, and The Good Place) to better introduce himself to mainstream comedy fans. And with a mix of observational humor, original songs, and heavy yet funny deep dives into a life impacted by abandonment, death, and a kidnapping, Thomas presents as a unique talent and storyteller. Oh, and the special also features an interwoven documentary where we (and Thomas) come across some of the family members that factor in as players in his stories as the Los Angeles based comic remerges with his southern roots.

Recorded at the Flora-Bama Lounge in Pensacola, Florida on the state line and where Thomas grew up in Pleasure Island, Alabama, the venue holds a powerful connection to his origin story as a space where his late mother, her twin sister, and their band, Syn Twister performed before, as Thomas mentions in the song “Partied To Dead,” his mother’s substance abuse issues overtook her.

Reading this back makes me feel like you’ll come away thinking that this all sounds like A LOT, and it is but in the best way. Across 65 minutes, Thomas is inventive with the form, biting with his wit, free of walls and fences, and inquisitive when reconnecting with family previously lost to estrangement — all in an effort to earn a kind of catharsis that he’s still reckoning with months after recording. Again, in the best way. When we spoke with Thomas recently we discussed that journey and where he is now, shifting from this material, being weird again, how Kumail Nanjanni helped bring out his comedic voice, and the compulsion to bleed for your audience in pursuit of making them laugh.

Is it easier for you to open the vein [of talking about personal topics] with comedy or with music, or does it have to be a blend for you to feel comfortable?

I think it’s easier for me to write about it in music, but I feel more comfortable talking about it in comedy. If there’s a joke or if there’s a larger funny thing, then it’s easier for me to talk about grief and stuff like that. Trauma.

Was the plan with the special always to loop in these documentary aspects? To go home and reconnect with family?

No, that wasn’t the plan. Initially, I just wanted to do a normal comedy special. But then when we decided it would be cool to shoot it at the Flora-Bama, I was like, “if I shoot it there, then there’s so many people that I’ll have to talk to because everybody is down there. My family. That’s going to be uncomfortable to have them even watch the show.” I didn’t realize that that might be kind of interesting. That it might be a good idea to have the audience get to meet these people because it humanizes them. That’s my goal with the documentary. I didn’t want to just go out there talking shit about my family and then you don’t ever get to meet them. So this way, I feel like… at least I hope you can see how these things have affected everybody. People make choices based on their traumas sometimes.

How did your expectations for what you were going to experience mesh with what the reality was?

Well, dude, it was so different. What I wanted, and what I dreamed of when making a comedy special was always to have a Stop Making Sense comedy special. Something like the Talking Heads Stop Making Sense where, as the show goes, the band behind me builds and builds, and then finally my brother appears at the end, and it’s this big moment, and it would be filmed at some cool art space in New York or LA. But when we and Bo Burnham and Chris Storer were talking about what I would ideally do, they were like, “How does a cool art space lend itself to the story?” And I was like, “That’s a good point.” So when we decided to shoot it at the Flora-Bama, I knew that just looking at the place… It looks like I’m performing in the hull of a ship. I was like, “This isn’t my aesthetic.” My expectations completely went out the window at that point. It wasn’t going to look how my vibe is.

HBO

With regards to reconnecting with your family, though. I know from personal experience that when someone goes into something like that, they’re thinking, “I don’t know what the hell to expect here, because I haven’t seen these people since I was a kid,” or whatever. Obviously, then people reveal themselves to you. What was that like for you?

I really was thinking that nobody would want to talk. I thought that everybody would just be like, “Dude, let’s just not talk about this. Let’s go out on the boat or something.” Like, “Can’t I show you some cool stuff I do, some fun stuff I do, instead of talking about all this sad stuff?” But I found that everyone was excited to talk about it. It almost felt like everybody was waiting to talk about it. People wanted to say things. They had been thinking of things to say to each other for a really long time, and it was really nice.

How are those relationships now? How have they been impacted by that?

It’s been great. They’re all in touch, and I’ve stayed really close with my Aunt, and my dad. I’ve remained close with my dad. Me and my brother are best friends, and my cousin Wilkes who’s a charter boat captain, he’s always out of the country taking people fishing. But we’ve remained as close as ever. As close as possible. It’s been really cool, man. It’s been definitely life-changing in every aspect.

Obviously, this is an introduction for you to an audience. Was there a temptation to avoid heavy subject matter like this and go down another road? I’m looking to see why it was important to you to really hunker down with this heavy material.

That’s an interesting question. You know, for the longest time doing comedy, I would just talk about myself and things that I like, the things that I saw, and I kind of tried to really not to talk about this stuff. [But] there’s something about the vulnerability of talking about these things that I really enjoy. I like going to these places, and I don’t know if it’s a great introduction to me, because it is mostly about all these things that have happened to me, or my family. But yeah, I’m not really sure why I’m drawn to it. I just like these stories. I just like hearing about it, and I love it when other people talk about it.

The first joke I ever wrote that was in this thing was a joke where I talk about my mom. She partied to death, and I turned it into a song, but I wrote that a long time ago. It was at some show where I did it for the first time, and Kumail Nanjiani went after me, and he was making fun of me and going, “What’s really, really great is sometimes bad stuff will happen to me, but then I’ll just call my mom and we’ll talk.” [Laughs]

So he was making fun of me, and he and Emily Gordon, and Jonah Ray were really an important part of my life. I think they maybe felt bad that Kumail was making fun of me so they asked me if I could do their cool fancy show called Meltdown. Probably one of the best shows in LA. And that moment I felt like I was accepted into the comedy scene in a way. I guess I just started to lean into that stuff a little bit more. I think I found my voice that night, and I think that was the big game-changer for me, creatively.

I saw on Twitter that you had performed this specific material for the last time recently. So you’re moving forward with other material. What’s your connection to this now versus four or five months ago? Do you feel like it’s something that’s in the past and now you’re just completely ready to move forward?

I feel so connected to it, and it’s really hard to think about not doing this anymore. It’s been really good over the last however many years, going around doing this show. It’s brought me so much closer to my mom, and I’ve learned so much about her doing it. The fact that I was offered this opportunity to do a comedy special is really exciting and cool, and then performing the show after filming the comedy special. Knowing that that’s going to come out has been a really fun thing because it’s wrapped up the story in a nice way for me, and for my mom, too.

She, I think, would be really happy. The fact that I’m not going to do the show anymore, I worry that maybe I’m going to lose that closeness. But at the same time, filming this special and closing that book, that chapter… I’ve found all my mom’s tapes. I found all of her recordings all the way back to 1975, and her and my aunt’s band. I’ve gotten all of those remixed, and I’m going to release them, put them out online just to where people can access them really easily. They’re all really good. So my hope is now that this is coming out, people will be able to find it and go connect with it, and then they’ll go listen to her music, and they’ll Google Sin Twister, and that connection will grow stronger because other people will be connecting to her in some type of way.

Is it exciting to start working on new material as well though?

Yeah. Totally exciting. I can’t wait to not have to be wrapped up in my dead mom [laughs].

Like just to do some stupid shit. I really can’t wait to be going on stage and act like an asshole, and goof off, and I don’t have to talk about being kidnapped or anything like that. I’m sure I’ll still talk about my mom and my dad because they did a lot of funny shit. But the trauma shit, I don’t know if… I can’t think of any other fun stuff about that. So excited to just be an idiot again. Hopefully, now I can just go back to being more of an observational comedian. I have a bit of it in my comedy special, but for me, that’s what I want to do after this is just go on to being more irreverent and silly.

HBO

I’d really like to unpack the lyric, “Pre-cum Jim Carrey.” Where did that come from?

I’ve just been compared to Jim Carrey since I was five-years-old. I remember taking a picture for my first baseball team when I was five or something, and they just kept saying, “Stop doing the In Living Color face.” I’ve got big teeth and expressive eyebrows. Anyway, then I saw Ace Ventura. That premiered and it affected me in such a way, such a psycho way, and I think it’s kind of in my bones. Everybody used to joke, “Oh, I think your mom was in LA around the late 80s. Maybe.” Then a long time ago, a few years back, me and my friend Drew Tarver, who’s also a really funny comedian, he called me shitty Jim Carrey as a joke. So I just started calling myself pre-cum Jim Carrey. A version of Jim Carrey that didn’t get all the good chromosomes or whatever. [Laughs].

When I was a kid I was obsessed with Jim Carrey and In Living Color and all that stuff, and I had kids in school call me a Jim Carrey wannabe. That was my scarlet letter to wear so I can semi-relate. His comedy career is very interesting in the track that he took. Do you get some inspiration from that too, just because he’s somebody who constantly reinvented himself, constantly went to extremes to keep throwing out new things. Just completely torturing himself at times. Do you get inspiration from that as well?

I do. I don’t know if I’m as extreme of a person as he is, but I can definitely understand his commitment. He always commits… I don’t know. I’m watching his Sonic press tour, and he keeps doing all this really fun wild stuff for this Sonic kids movie, and I just really appreciate it. He tries so hard, and I love that. Nowadays it doesn’t feel like comedians are vis-ib-ly trying as hard as they probably are, which is a good thing, but I like it sometimes when I see a comedian who is just over-prepared and they have all these props at the show. I love that kind of stuff. It’s like Jim Carey is just wearing his heart on his sleeve at all times, and I love that. I really love it.

Why do you think that is? That level of disconnection with comedians, do you think it’s just a want to try to fall into that “cool” space and be disconnected and above the fray? What do you think brings that out in people?

I think wanting to be cool. Wanting to be cool, and serious, and I think you maybe get a little further doing that. You’re not seen as annoying or anything. But I can’t shake it. I’m a naturally annoying person. So I always joke that I’m a really private and mysterious guy. If I go on stage and I go, “Yeah, I’m sort of a private mysterious guy,” people just laugh at that because they just know that it’s not the case. I had that urge to be this cool guy. This dark, cool, mysterious guy, but that’s just not who I am. The shit I grew up liking is all aggressive and in your face kind of stuff. I grew up loving punk music. The first band I ever really loved was Blink-182, and they’re the most ridiculous guys. Especially back in the early days. Then it was Jackass and that kind of stuff, skateboarding. So everything was always aggressive, and that’s I guess why I can’t shake it.

My idea of funny still now as a 31-year-old man is just falling down a bunch of stairs. Looking back, I kind of screwed myself with the things that I grew up enjoying. I feel like maybe if I would have gotten a little bit more into reading a book or something I might be more of a chilled out, cool guy.

All the stuff you’re mentioning: Jackass, Jim Carrey even. People that really committed to literally throwing themselves at an audience to get a reaction and get a response is, I think, something that is in the DNA of a lot of people, but I think a lot of people suppress it. Obviously you’re trying to not do that.

Yeah, it’s totally in our DNA, and the whole oversharing thing is in my DNA because it’s the kind of stuff that I enjoy. Like shifting from that into the whole emo music thing, that music is all about oversharing, and that’s just who I ended up becoming, and some people aren’t that way. Some people don’t want to share details of their personal lives or their traumas, and I totally respect that. They can be funny without doing that. But right now, that’s all I got [laughs].

To make the connection, we’re talking about the physical comedy of a Jim Carrey, or a Jackass, where people throw themselves in front of the audience to get a laugh. Really, it’s the same thing when you’re doing it emotionally. You’re emotionally throwing yourself down the stairs in this special to get a laugh.

Yeah. You know, I never thought of it that way. You’re totally right. I’ll emotionally throw myself downstairs to get a laugh until people stop laughing.

Or until you break your neck.

[Laughs] Yeah.

[Laughs] Well, what an up note to end this on, right?

Yeah. Totally. [Laughs]

‘Whitmer Thomas: The Golden One’ debuts Saturday February 22nd on HBO at 10pm ET.

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