How Whitmer Thomas Used Comedy to Survive After His Mom ‘Partied to Death’
Comedian Whitmer Thomas opens up about the harrowing life experiences that led to his awe-inspiring new stand-up special “The Golden One.”
LOS ANGELES—Whitmer Thomas is baring his soul about the childhood trauma that led to his new HBO comedy special The Golden One when two young women approach our table on the back patio of the Go Get Em Tiger café.
“Sorry to interrupt, but I really liked your special,” one of them says.
Thomas’ face lights up in a way it hasn’t to that point in our conversation. “Oh, thank you!” he replies, a wide grin forming across his features. “Thanks so much!”
“That’s cool,” Thomas says after they walk away, his slight Southern drawl emerging. When I ask if that kind of thing happens to him often, he says, “No! That’s the first time that’s happened.” He then repeats, “That’s cool. Wow.” And again, “Wow.”
It’s a few days after the special’s premiere on HBO and besides this moment and some kind words from friends and fans online, his life hasn’t changed much. “The only difference now is that I’ve made something that people can hopefully connect with,” the 30-year-old comedian says. “And I can pay my rent for a little bit.” But the more people who see The Golden One—a groundbreaking amalgam of stand-up comedy, emo music and documentary—the more you could be hearing the name Whitmer Thomas in the near future.
Comedians like to talk about how there are so many stand-up specials these days that they no longer feel “special.” But this new special feels incredibly special.
The Golden One finds Thomas, who grew up on the Florida-Alabama border, returning home to grapple with the tragic death of his mother, who died just after he moved out to L.A. to make it as a comedic actor just over a decade ago.
The comedian performs his extremely personal and revealing jokes and songs in the same small town bar—the Flora-Bama—where his mother and her twin sister used to serve as the house band. He also has frank, on-camera conversations with his brother, cousin, aunt and father, who walked out on the family when he was young. The Golden One is among the darkest comedy specials to be released in recent years, but it also manages to be one of the funniest and most awe-inspiring.
It’s the big break that Thomas has spent the past decade hustling to get. Now he’s just hoping that people notice.
“I’ve been so desperate for years,” he tells me over coffee and a blueberry muffin on this sunny Wednesday morning in his east side neighborhood of Highland Park. He’s been doing some version of The Golden One live for the past four years, mostly in L.A. and New York. A while back, someone from A24, the company that ended up producing the special for HBO, saw the show and planted the seed of turning it into a special. At that point, it was all comedy and no music.
“I was too afraid to do music,” he says, recalling a show at Union Hall in Brooklyn when he brought his keyboard up on stage but never ended up touching it.
At a certain point, he says he hit a wall. He describes himself as being “clinically depressed” and remembers asking himself, “What the fuck have I done with my life?” He had moved to L.A. just after his 18th birthday. “My mom had so much faith in me,” he says. “Then her dying…” he adds, letting out a heavy sigh, “just knowing, just being so sure that everything’s going to be cool. And now I’ve been consistently so poor. And as a comedian, you see all these people that you start with just move past you.”
This is when he decided to return to the music of his youth, writing and recording an album of emo songs, several of which are featured throughout The Golden One. “I didn’t realize that they were comedic,” he says now. “I listened to them and was completely embarrassed.”
Ultimately, Thomas decided to rewrite the lyrics and add a synthesizer backing track to one of those songs and perform it on stage at a live comedy show. He called it “Partied to Death.”
Both hilarious and deeply upsetting, the song perfectly encapsulates what makes The Golden One so unique. “You see my mommy drank herself to death,” he sings in the chorus. “And I know she tried her very best / But now I can’t party, because my mommy partied to death.” By the end of the song during the special, he has the entire crowd singing that last line with him at the top of their lungs.
Thomas chokes up a bit as he says there is “a lot” of truth in those lyrics.
“The hate in my heart for drugs and alcohol has died a lot as I’ve gotten older and developed healthier relationships,” he says. “But that was a hundred percent who I was until recently.” He explains that when he was a kid, all he knew about alcohol was that if he saw any in his house, his grandfather told him to take the bottles out into the street, smash them and hide the glass. “Knowing about sobriety and ‘steps’ was always a part of my life since I was maybe six or seven,” he says.
The situation came to a head in high school when his mother got arrested after dropping him off at a school dance drunk. “It was very public,” he says. “So everybody saw my mom walking the line on the side of the street. The next day at school, people were looking at me.” The other kids were aware he didn’t drink at parties. “But from then on, it was like, ‘We know why,’” he says. “And I hated it.”
It even affected his romantic relationships. He explains that he had one girlfriend in his early twenties who liked to drink casually. “It made me feel really gross,” he says. “I was aware of how upset it was making me, just looking at her holding a beer.”
He didn’t have a sip of alcohol until he was about 26, but now Thomas says his New Year’s resolution is to start trying to drink socially. He’s not afraid of becoming an alcoholic like his mom. “I’m addicted to other things,” he says, a bit mysteriously. “My dad says he knew something was wrong with me because if we bought a pack of gum I would put all of it in my mouth at once. So it’s definitely in me.”
When Thomas was 3 years old, he almost got taken.
As he tells the story in his special, he was “hanging out in the kitchen” by himself when a strange man broke into his house and grabbed him and started running up the road. “Luckily, thank God, my dad happened to be driving up that road and he saw that man running with me in his arms,” he says on stage. He goes on to explain how his dad got the man to give him up and called the cops, who revealed that the man had a “True Detective-style back house” that contained a bathtub full of photos he’d been taking of Thomas since the day he was brought home from the hospital.
“He was like my first big fan,” Thomas jokes in his act. “He died in jail. And that’s my fault. I did that to him. I was a pretty fuckable little kid.”
It turns out the real story is even more disturbing than that. When I ask if the details may have evolved or been exaggerated by his family over time, he says, “No, it’s devolved. I removed details.”
“The truth is that my dad wasn’t driving up the road, he was in the back shed of our house and he chased the man with an axe,” Thomas reveals. “Also, my mom was in the kitchen with me and the dude sort of roughed her up a little bit.” He decided that would be too dark for a comedy show, telling himself, “I can’t say that on stage.” It is true, however, that the man died in jail.
Even in their somewhat sanitized versions, Thomas has been terrified to share these deeply personal stories with the world.
“I haven’t been able to sleep since, I don’t know, August,” Thomas says. That’s when he and his co-director Clay Tatum finished putting the special together. All he’s been able to think about is how his family members would react.
When they finally got a chance to see the special at the premiere event at Zebulon in Los Angeles this past week, he says it was like a “giant weight” had been lifted off his shoulders.
“When my mom died, it caused this giant divide,” he says of his family. “My mom was very much the glue, because she was such a sweet, creative person. We would go to her place for the holidays. When she died, it was really big-time chaos, because of how different people handle grief.”
The emotional climax of the movie comes when Thomas reconnects with his mother’s twin sister—and co-headliner of their band Syn Twister (get it?). He mentions in the special that she had tried to sue him and his older brother after their mother’s death, but isn’t willing to go into much more detail than that. He explains that “a lot of that stuff was cut out” of the special because it was just too convoluted.
“And also, it is personal,” he adds. “My aunt was really going through a tough, tough time. I mean, she watched her replica die. She watched herself die. And she did a lot of stuff that she really regrets in those moments.”
“My feeling about it is that it’s probably better to have a little bit of mystery and not give everything away,” Thomas says. “But as private and mysterious as I’d like to be, that’s just not the case with my comedy special.”
Growing up in the South, Thomas was a huge fan of bands like Blink-182 and Taking Back Sunday. He fronted an emo group in high school that he describes as long on attitude and short on talent.
Among Thomas’ earliest stand-up jokes is his imitation of what all emo singers sound like. He returns to it in his new special as a way of setting up the types of songs he’ll be performing. “The chorus is always something really thought-provoking and poetic,” he says on stage. “Something like, ‘And you could slit my throat / And I’d say thank you for touching me.’”
“It’s a really funny genre,” he tells me. When I suggest that he could be considered an “emo” comedian, he says, “I hadn’t really thought about that. I’m definitely emo.”
Aside from emo music, Thomas says his biggest influences were comedians like Mitch Hedberg, Zach Galifianakis and Maria Bamford. When he was a kid, nothing made him laugh harder than Eddie Murphy’s ice cream truck bit from his Delirious special. “Even if it is problematic now,” he adds. And then there was Jim Carrey.
“I saw Ace Ventura and it affected me in this psycho way,” he says. “We went out to dinner afterwards, me and my family, and I went into the bathroom at the restaurant and destroyed it. I just had something inside of me.”
Thomas actually worked with Carrey on an anti-gun video for Funny or Die called “Cold Dead Hand” a few years ago. He was only an extra in the sketch but when Carrey found out he was a stand-up comic, he invited him to have lunch during the shoot. They talked mostly about “bombing” on stage and Carrey told Thomas that when he was his age he was broke living in Echo Park, just trying to get by. “It was just so nice to hear, the movie star of the century saying this stuff,” Thomas recalls. “It was so inspiring.”
In the song that closes The Golden One, Whitmer sings, unapologetically, “I want to be a big movie star.”
When I bring it up, he blushes a bit as he says, “Yeah, I fantasize about being a big movie star. I know that big movie stars don’t really exist anymore. But it is true that I want to be a movie star, which is embarrassing.”
He also wants to stop making everything about his mother’s death. He wants to be “irreverent and silly.” He wants, as he sings in another song, to be “dumb and in love.” He asks himself, “I’m a comedian, why am I being so emo?”
“The truth is, I’m in a really nice spot and I’m really lucky,” he adds. “A year and a half ago I was not in a good spot. And I feel pretty good now.” Thomas may not know what he’s doing next, but he finally feels like he has gotten his life together. He can pay rent. He has a girlfriend in fellow comic and writer Mitra Jouhari.
“I just have to stop comparing myself to my mom,” he says. “And now, maybe I can finally do that.”
In the special, Thomas says, “It’s just impossible for me not to compare myself to her,” explaining that he has “an example of what it looks like to fail.” Despite years of trying, Syn Twister never made it beyond the Flora-Bama bar. Recently, Thomas has started the process of remastering the band’s original tapes with the hopes that they can find an audience decades later.
“I think if my mom was alive and she saw this, she would be happy,” he says of where he’s gotten in his career. “You know, like, ‘You did it, you can relax and I’m proud of you.’ But in reality, it’s a stand-up special and these things come and go. In my heart of hearts I’m not sure I’ll ever feel like I’m going to make it in the way that my mom wanted me to when she was dying. My mom saw me in a way that might be impossible to reach.”
The special’s title comes from the final words his mother said to him before she passed. “Baby, you’re the golden one,” she told him. The joke comes when Thomas adds on stage, “which was awkward, because my brother was standing right next to me.”
“I wish she could have been like, ‘You’re the golden one… but it’s OK if it doesn’t work out,’” he adds with a laugh.
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