"I don't really know, I truly don't know..." admits Whitmer Thomas when asked what to call his particular brand of comedy. He and I are talking over the phone, a refreshingly video-free conversation he takes from home in Highland Park, Los Angeles. I've just watched his HBO special, The Golden One, for the second time. The first watch was pre-quarantine when it aired in late February and now that I've also seen it post-lockdown, it strikes me how Thomas's set — a mix of jokes, music, gently filtered personal anecdotes and open, alive-and-well grief over his mom's death — is something deserving of a new category.
The special was his first time doing proper standup on a major network beyond a couple of Australian late night shows, and it doesn't read as a traditional comedian getting his big break. Instead, watching the musings of a person flexing multiple skills reflects a modern career path, something like the comedic expression of the "slash generation."
During the second screening, I'm also struck by the thought that Thomas's special, where moments of sadness intermingle with the narrative rather than forcing nonstop crack-me-ups, has the potential to particularly resonate with fragile viewers during a global crisis. "I really hope so," he says of this assessment, acknowledging messages from fans reaching out over social media to share how his standup is striking an emotional chord. "I just feel really happy that people are connecting to it that way." The depth of connection is thanks, in part, to the documentary-style clips interwoven within The Golden One's live standup and musical performances. For this, Thomas and Clay Tatum, his directing partner and childhood friend, compiled old and new footage, a mix of their preteen escapades exploding fireworks in port-o-potties and current candid family conversations shot in their native Alabama. It's the latter, like when Thomas's cousin begins to cry discussing both of their mothers' struggles with substance abuse, making remarks like "your mom went quick," that wrenches the heart.
As I continue to throw out alt-comedy descriptors like "Emo," "Darkwave" and "Skater," Thomas politely considers each, nixing only the skater reference since it can nod to Jackass-era lo-fi, bone-breaking stunts (though he does skate, mostly in abandoned school playgrounds of late). And while he proudly identifies as emo, the music that accompanies his standup jumps past the sounds of his youth.
From the age of 12, Thomas started playing seriously in a band that evolved from hardcore punk to pop-punk to emo to metalcore screamo. During high school, his band Say Your Last shared stages with groups like Life Left (his brother Johnny's band), The Manuscript Division, This Day Will Burn, and Ctrl Alt Del. "I've always embraced emo. I loved when I found out about the word 'emo' in middle school. I was like 'That's me, I'm emo,'" Thomas says with a laugh. "I've kind of applied it to all the stuff that I make. Every time I make anything I'm always totally scared that it's too much." He relates to artists willing to go out on a limb and risk failure, "teetering on 'is this embarrassing, or is this really good?' I think I belong somewhere there."
While he spent his teens touring, Thomas says, "I always felt like my personality was too annoying to be taken seriously as a musician or an actor. I definitely felt like I didn't belong. Finding standup comedy helped with that big time." He initially transitioned into comedy from music at 19, and mentions that he was passed over by execs and dropped by agents who simply didn't know what to do with him. "I just couldn't get anybody into me," he says, noting it's still an issue. "Because of my interests, which are subgenres of genres and lean more into the underground, it's harder to pin me down, I guess." For artists who aren't just playing for social media numbers, this surely rings familiar.
It wasn't until he was invited to be a part of a "great, packed show called 'Late Late Breakfast'" a couple of years ago that songwriting and storytelling clicked into sync. The show's prompt: No standup, instead, perform an advertisement. Using existing music he'd created and was embarrassed to release, "too vulnerable" lyrics were swapped with a satirical endorsement "for someone to go on a date with me." It became "Partied to Death," which captures "going out and announcing that my mom died, and because of that I have all of this stuff I'm always dealing with," Thomas explains. "I walked off stage and my buddies were like 'That was cool, man! That was like a real song!' and I was like, 'I've got a lot of those!'"
Even when the punchlines aren't sung, Thomas' jokes are honest, sometimes playing down real family history rather than amping it up for shock value. Like when he shares a tale of being carried away by a stranger at age three and retrieved just in the nick of time by his dad. "The story that I tell in the standup is actually less weird because if I tell all the details on stage, people wouldn't be able to get past it," says Thomas. On stage, the story has his dad casually requesting that the kidnapper hand over his boy. In real life, he chased down a violent criminal with an ax. Lines like "Cherish your mom because they're dropping like flies," aren't just passing quips. "By the time my mom died, I had three other friends that just had their parent die who I could talk to about it, and a lot of it was humor," he says.
And that's kind of the point with the stories he shares.
Sitting in a room with people you trust, most of us have a loss to grieve, a freaky story from our childhood, trauma from our twenties, dramas that might only be revealed to family, a few close friends and diary pages. For Thomas, these kinds of stories aren't restricted to his inner circle. Counting comedians like Zach Galifianakis (a skilled pianist who also incorporates music into his performances) and Tig Notaro as "beacons of light" and inspiration, it was next-gen regulars at Brooklyn's Union Hall like Anna Seregina, Patti Harrison, and Conner O'Malley who reminded him of the whole point of standup after struggling to be understood by Hollywood. "Having a tight five to get on Conan was not crossing their mind, they were trying to be funny for each other," he says. "That was the biggest reminder of like, 'Oh yeah, that's why I'm doing this.'"
Thomas's music — released on an album also titled The Golden One last month by Hardly Art — is good enough to play on its own, and leans more Tears for Fears than Weird Al. Lyrics hop between earnest admissions of his own social weaknesses in "Hurts to Be Alive" to wishing he was a blissfully oblivious idiot in "Dumb in Love." After creating "Laptop Pop" songs with midi keyboards and drum machines, he tapped Jona Bechtolt and Rob Kieswetter of the band YACHT to help produce his record. "I love to collaborate. My mom would always say, 'Surround yourself with musicians who you think are more talented than you,'" says Thomas, who describes Bechtolt and Kieswetter as "savants" at designing original sounds.
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"I'm honored that Whit trusted us with the task of taking these deeply personal, deeply raw, deeply funny songs from the bedroom to HBO's boardroom," says Kieswetter, who got a feel for Thomas and Tatum as a team when they shot YACHT's music video "Plastic Soul" back in 2014. It was a project set in motion by JASH, the comedy agency formed by Sarah Silverman, Tim Heidecker, Eric Wareheim, Reggie Watts, and Michael Cera, for a segment where Thomas remembers "they gave directors and artists five grand to make a video, so we took YACHT on vacation to Gulf Shores and filmed it. It was really fun."
Bechtolt similarly recalls collaborating in Santa Monica for a "lawless" standup night where YACHT would improvise music while comics riffed beneath a glowing blacklight. "He's a real punk who's always been able to make great things with very little resources," Bechtolt says of Thomas. "This album was a process of taking Whit's GarageBand sketches and fleshing out songs that were worthy of his total sincerity. We spent a lot of time on ridiculous details, like singing beautiful harmonies of the lyrics 'stupid asshole idiot bitch.'"
Absorbing the works of Blink182 (his impression of Tom DeLonge remains an on-stage mainstay) and The Cure helped shape Thomas's musical tastes and ability to position the absurd next to the sincere. "I wanted each song to sound different and almost like a different genre, but still sound like it's coming from the same person," Thomas explains. "I love it when bands genre hop. Like one of my favorite bands, Saves The Day, they reinvent emo with every album. I thought it would be fun to do that on one record — just have a really synthy song next to, like, a really Billy Idol 'Dancing with Myself' kind of song next to a surf-y New Order kind of song," he explains.
The musical references mesh into the mood of the performance as a whole. "It's a very specific thing that is for everybody I hope," he says of his style. "It is similar to New Wave kind of, maybe that's the genre — Comedy New Wave," Thomas says. "New Wave was music that was technically post-punk, but there was something about it that could be played on the radio and was more accessible," he continues. "I hope that's what this is, like a very accessible version of very personal comedy." Plus, like New Order's post-Joy Division evolution of danceable synths, it leaves room to surpass the tragic. "I don't have another emotional comedy show in me," he says. "I don't have another hour like that."
Instead, in the American Arts & Culture Review podcast he shares with Tatum and Rodney Berry, they "just goof off about movies," often reviewing films they've very obviously never seen. "The idea of the podcast is that no one who listens to it will learn anything," says Thomas, who adds that it's a nice break from the serious. Which reminds me of a bit where he talks about debating since adolescence whether or not he's fun. "The truth is, I really, really want everybody to like me. But, I am also no fun," he points out. "I could always go home. I am constantly hoping my girlfriend or somebody is going to say like, 'You ready to go?'" Now, he is home. "It's weird, I should have been on tour right now," says Thomas, who had pre-quarantine plans of developing a new hour of material that incorporated "a lot of jokes about being a kid in Alabama, but maybe less creepy, depressing ones" on the road.
And while a live audience may not be possible in the near future for Thomas's first solo album release, to his OG influences, the intermix of humor and sonic talent translates: "From the first song to the last, the words truly speak to me and the melodies and music are catchy as hell," shares Saves The Day singer Chris Conley, who recognizes that if The Golden One hadn't been introduced as comedy, it may not have occurred to him that it wasn't designed purely for the tunes. "I say that only to mean that the music is genuinely enjoyable and stands on its own aside from its ability to deliver a laugh," Conley explains. "Above all, I find comfort in the words, I feel them in a deep way," he says. "Whitmer's quick wit is the trick to remembering that if we can learn to laugh about our shared plight, we can at least be okay together in the midst of it all. Like an old friend laughing at the same sick joke crying all the while behind the smile, this record is an arm around the shoulder and a wink behind the shades."