“It fucking hurts to be alive/Oh, the fragility of life.” No, this isn’t a lyric from one of your favorite emo punk records; it’s the opening line of Whitmer Thomas’ comedy album, The Golden One. Everyone capable of feeling real human emotion is probably wondering why the reminder of our seemingly meaningless existence is funny, but Thomas brings it back around with his equally dark punchline, “My identity is ‘My mother died’/Anything to distract from being straight and white.” In just a few lines, the tone of the record is set: finding comedy in the inevitable pain and tragedy of being a person. The thirty-year-old comedian, who incorporates music into his act as a means of delivering some deeply personal and revealing material about his upbringing in Alabama and the fallout from his mom’s death, has carved out his own comedic alcove for his tragic style of comedy.
You may recognize Thomas from the ranks of fellow young, talented, and equally hilarious Los Angeles comedians like Patti Harrison, Kate Berlant, Mitra Jouhari, and Casey Jane Ellison, to name a few. He uses his array of talents to his advantage, usually combining them to make for a unique experience we don’t often see in comedy. He’s a skateboarder, actor, musician, comedian, and podcaster, but they all fall under a single identifying word: entertainer.
Growing up Thomas was encouraged by his late mother, who was a musician, to play music, which he did all through high school. He later began making videos with friend and present day collaborator, Clay Tatum, sharing them with friends around school. With each video, Thomas’ hunger to be an actor grew until he did the very eighteen-year-old thing to do, and moved to Los Angeles after meeting someone in show business promising him a job in the industry. It’s a classic Hollywood story: a kid who stands out from the norm in Alabama with aspirations of becoming a big movie star or something of the like. This kind of bold ambition didn’t come out of nowhere, it came from, as Thomas would say, being “his mother’s son, ‘the golden one.”
Thomas can’t help but notice some parallels between his eager stardom and his mother’s life during her run in a semi-famous eighties band, Syn Twister. The band was on the brink of a popular breakthrough, about to make it, until they didn’t. They remained local Alabama legends playing at the famous Gulf Shore venue Flora-Bama, where Thomas fittingly filmed his HBO special, The Golden One, to accompany his debut dark comedy record drenched in dark eighties new wave. Since living in Los Angeles, Thomas has compared his life and success to his mother’s — almost like trying to “break” a family curse of “not making it.” His HBO special grapples with the idea of failing to live up to his mother’s heavy words and her constant praises, while confronting his own personal tragedies. There aren’t a lot of comedy specials that make you want to cry, and though it may be unintentional, Thomas forces the viewers to examine their own life and trials, as much as he examines his. I had the pleasure of talking with Whit about moving to Los Angeles, Syn Twister, his special, and what it means to be dubbed “the golden one,” amongst many other things.
Hey, how’s it going? Tell me about your upbringing in Alabama and how you originally began playing music and acting?
My mom was a musician, so I grew up watching her play shows. I got into music through her and my older brother who was in a band and more into the DIY, punk, hardcore scene, ya know? Then I was really serious about music — in bands all through my time in school — until I was a senior in high school. Me and my buddy Clay, who’s still my main collaborator, decided to make funny little videos. That was my introduction to performing, writing, and acting. Soon after, I stopped playing in the band and we kind of decided to pursue that.
I know you moved to Los Angeles when you were eighteen. How did that happen? Did you see a response from the videos?
No, we were so stupid. We didn’t even know about YouTube or even uploaded any of them to the Internet! We would just show them to friends at school and stuff. Savannah College of Art and Design saw some little shorts and they gave Clay a scholarship, and in the meantime I met a guy, a friend of a friend of a family friend who worked at a special effects company out in LA and I told him my dream was to go to Hollywood. He said, “Well if you’re ever up there give me a call and maybe I could hook you up with a job.” So I truly moved here. And he never answered the phone.
What happened when you drove out here?
I was lucky my dad was able to float me some money and I was able to get a job at Active skate shop in Santa Monica, which was probably better for me. That’s where I met real skaters and all my friends. It was probably good I didn’t get a job in production at eighteen.
Was there a moment where you kind of thought about just pursuing skateboarding?
By the time I got here, I was so injured from skating and having had so many surgeries. I kinda knew I wasn’t going to pursue skating seriously by the time I was fourteen or fifteen because of all my injuries. Skating was just a fun thing I liked to do and it definitely informed the style of music I listened to.
What were your initial thoughts on California? Why LA instead of New York?
I chose LA because that’s what I would see the most in skate videos. I just thought LA is by the water and there’s skateboarders… and I really loved the movie Earth Girls Are Easy. I grew up watching that a lot with my older brother. I thought, ‘Well that’s what LA is like, so i’ll move there!” Looking back, New York was probably a better place to go first. I was so naive and probably was way dumber than I would say ninety-five percent of people who’ve only been here for like three weeks. I have a lot of hope for them. Moving here was hard. I didn’t know how to have fun. I would see three movies a day, and just sit in theaters all day. The first year I moved to LA i had seen every movie that was released into a theater; every single one. I would drive all over LA and walk around Hollywood Boulevard hoping to be discovered. I was so misguided and had no friends. And when I did meet people, my experience growing up in Alabama was so different from people who grew up in LA. Growing up in Alabama we would be jumping off shit and set each other on fire! It was really lonely when I got out here. But my buddy Clay moved down here a year later so it wasn’t as lonely.
I literally grew up here and I still go through cycles of not liking a lot of things about it and struggling to meet people and feeling lonely. You just need a solid foundation.
Yeah, I mean if you liked punk music or skateboarding in Alabama, you met other people who liked the same things, you would be friends because there weren’t a lot of us. Then I came out here and there were skaters and punk kids everywhere.
So you came out here to pursue acting; when did comedy come into play and why?
I was trying so hard to be a serious actor and was taking classes when I first moved to LA. I had a rude awakening when I discovered that a lot of actors that I would meet didn’t watch movies and didn’t know anything. They didn’t even really have a passion for it. I thought everyone would be a cool River Phoenix type; that wasn’t the case. It was all these people who were like on the show Gossip Girl, who would wear really deep v-necks and thick leather bracelets. It sucked.
A year in, I booked some student film projects and for some reason, Paul Scheer was in one. It was some program where you got to work with a well-known comedian. I was cast and I was going to comedy shows and would see him all the time at Upright Citizens Brigade. Then he suggested I take classes at UCB. There’s a long version of the story, but my mom died around that time and I inherited ten-thousand dollars from her and she wrote me a letter saying, “Don’t spend this money on rent.” I still spent it on rent, but I rented a little theater and me and my friends started a sketch group called Power Violence and started a show there. That’s where I really started doing stand up, coming up with new things with my group. I felt like a concrete member of the comedy scene.
What were some of your first stand up routines like?
It was bad. It was really bad. I bombed for one full year, straight bombed. I don’t know what the hell I was doing. Everything I was saying was a lie and made up. Then one day I realized, while telling a story about being kidnapped as a kid, that people were laughing about the way I was telling it. And maybe I could tell these true stories and people might laugh at it.
Was there ever a moment when you were like, “No, I don’t want to do this anymore?”
No, but that’s because I’m crazy. I would still want do it. The only time I could get people to laugh was by trying something new, like doing a sketch or a fake letter, and people would laugh at the writing. An awakening for me was just to tell the truth rather than lie. People don’t like it when I’m not honest. I’ve never been a guy who can just go on stage and be absurd.
How did you balance music and comedy? And how did you start working the two together?
It took a really long time. When I started doing comedy, I would only write music for fun. I decided to record an album of really sincere songs dealing with the death of my mom, alcoholism, codependent relationships, and shit like that. Once I heard all the mixes I felt super embarrassed by how sincere it all was. The comedian in me wanted to tear it apart and make fun of it. I decided to take out all my attempts at metaphor and instead of alluding to how my mom drank herself to death, I’d just say “My mom partied to death.” I found that if I sang that line with the production value I already had, people would laugh. It was just a giant game-changing moment for my comedy.
Is that how The Golden One came about?
I already was doing a show called The Golden One, but I wasn’t doing music in it. When I started doing the music, that’s when it really started to tie together and make sense. When I started music, people actually started to pay attention. They could kind of put me in the box a little bit easier.
Do you think it felt like it made sense, performing music as part of the act, since your mom was a musician? And because she used to call you ‘the golden one,’ it all kind of came clicked?
Yeah, I didn’t discover that parallel of life and that part of the show until I started to sing songs. I think it’s kind of crazy that I’m now at the age she was at the peak of her career. Now I’m desperate to make a name for myself. As far as ‘the golden one’ thing goes, I talk about being my mother’s son and being ‘the golden one’. That was an older song I wrote when I was about 27 and I didn’t even really change many of the lyrics. It’s just crazy because she’s been calling me that since I was a kid. It was a rude awakening to be like, “Oh shit here I am in my late twenties and I’m not even close to what she thought I’d be able to do.” It was a really dark time for awhile. Luckily, this happened.
I think that happens so much with parents. They’ll say something to you when you’re younger, and you’ll kind of think about it forever. Do you think it really informed your idea of Hollywood and coming here at a really young age? Did her huge expectation inform the way you think?
Yes, definitely. At first it gave me this strength in my really early twenties. I thought it didn’t work out for my mom, but it has to work out for me. It can’t be two people in a row! She gave me a lot of confidence as a kid, and believed in everything I did. I mean, my mom was in this synth-pop reggae country band and me and my brother were in emo, grindcore bands and she was always there in the front row. She always filled my head with a kind of naive confidence, which got me out here. But once I got older, I felt so beaten down and sick of being poor in this really cliche way. It started to fuck with me. I couldn’t separate my mom from calling me ‘the golden one.’ It was this name she gave me and it was so tied to the fabric of my being. It was attached to every step I made in my life. I just felt embarrassed to be alive or whatever. It was a weird thing. Luckily, once I started to sing about it, I would say that like, “My identity is my mother died… she called me ‘the golden one,’” and everyone would laugh.
I think about how we called our brother, the oldest one, and how we sarcastically called him the ‘the golden son.‘ Either it becomes your whole thing or you kind of brush it off and don’t think about it. Why do you think you were so hyper aware of it? Were the two of you really similar?
We were really similar. My mom really struggled with drugs and alcohol my whole life and there weren’t a lot of consistent times where she was sober because she was always in and out of rehab. Whereas my older brother got some more years in with my mom being kind of sober or just being more consistent. So when my mom would say anything to me as a kid, it would be really exciting. I think I really hung onto it. I think my mom saw that I was this kind of awkward, weird kid, especially in Alabama. Unlike the other kids in the family, I never was as social or comfortable, so I think she started saying that to me because she felt bad for me. Whenever I would write songs, my mom would sit and listen and help. She was so enthusiastic about me doing anything artistic.
Can I ask about your mother’s trajectory as a musician? Did she do the whole LA thing too like you?
Yeah! LA, Aspen, and New York. I found all of these tapes of their’s when I went down to shoot the special, that I got digitized. Hopefully I can get them properly released. They really stand the test of time. The oldest tape is from 1975. They came really close in the late seventies and early nineties. My aunt told me, at one point, they got a record deal offer from Virgin Records, but their manager told them to turn it down because it wasn’t enough money. They also lived in Jamaica and that’s where all of this kind of went down. That same AR guy went on to sign Madonna. They [my mom and aunt] were pretty wild, both into making music and partying. My mom met my brother’s dad and they got married. They had a son, which put a pause on the band. Their first son actually died in a car accident, and they split up. Then Syn Twister reformed and recorded another album, their next big shot. I think they came really close with that one too! There’s a song called “He’s Hot.” They recorded bangers. Then they started this cover band, a big ten-piece cover band. She met my dad and sort of started to settle down. She always made music though. They started playing at the Flora Bama, and in my mind I always kind of thought it was a failure because they seemed like a bar band, but when I went back home, I realized it wasn’t like that at all. It gave me a big slap in the face. I mean, my friends thought my mom was famous!
Yeah, it’s totally about perspective. When you’re not seeing her outside of being your mother… and we’re more critical of our family.
Yeah and like as a kid, it was wild. My mom was dating some guy and he broke up with her. That night I’d fall asleep to hearing her writing a song about it on piano.
I think all of this is so exciting. I really think it’ll be the start of something great for you. The Golden One is an important special especially considering you’re honoring your mom. I’m excited for you!
Thank you so much.
Of course. What do you really want people to take away from the special?
I went back home and I taped the special at the Flora Bama where I grew up watching my mom play. The show explores a lot of basic comedy things, like growing up in Alabama and my childhood. I find the parallel between mine and my mom’s career and our attempts at making it. The main thing I want people to take away is an interest in going and finding my mom and my aunt’s music. No one ever really got to hear it and I think the world really should hear it. They’re identical twin sisters that played in a band called Syn Twister.
I guess my last question would be: What’s your advice for people from the South coming to LA to pursue show business?
Just be passionate about it. See things. Watch things and really make things. Don’t come to LA to be an actor if all you really want to do is drive around in a Jeep in the hills. I think that if you really love it, you’ll figure out how to have a career doing it. It takes so much time. I’ve been here thirteen years and things have just finally started to be ok. I’m telling ya, I walked on the stage for my special with a crew of a hundred people with negative four-hundred dollars in my bank account. I had to ask my brothers to send me money on stage so that I’d stop getting overdraft fees! If you’re really passionate about it, it will work out.
For more from Whitmer Thomas, follow him on Instagram.