When veteran comic and actor Tom Arnold was gearing up to write and record his recently released Comedy Dynamics stand-up special, Past & Present Imperfectly, he decided that part of his set would involve some talk of his former job as a writer on ABC’s hit sitcom Roseanne.
It was, at the time, a sensible move to attract viewers. His tempestuous marriage to that show’s star helped launch Arnold into the limelight and provided years of fodder for tabloids. Folks would surely want to tune in for that. Plus, around the time he was filming the special, there was plenty of buzz around about the upcoming reboot of Roseanne.
“I said, ‘I feel like that’ll be in the news,’” Arnold told Paste, speaking from his home in Los Angeles. “They said, ‘Oh, I don’t know. I don’t think so.’ So, as luck would have it, I was right. Not in the best way possible, obviously.”
In the weeks since his ex-wife took one too many steps over the line on her Twitter account and wound up having the Roseanne redux canceled, that’s all anyone wants to talk to Arnold about right now. Perhaps understandable, but also a shame that it should divert attention away from both his stand-up special and his soon-to-debut Viceland series, The Hunt For The Trump Tapes.
Past & Present is potentially suffering most in this hailstorm of recent events. The charming, collegial hour is of a piece with Judd Apatow’s recent Netflix special The Return, in that it doesn’t try to brush aside the things that made its star a known quantity. Arnold tells stories about getting cast in True Lies and stories from the set; he also gives a backstage peek at his time on The Best Damn Sports Show Period. If you ever wanted to know about the size of John Salley’s penis, you are in luck.
Amid all that, the most memorable moments in the special are deeply personal ones. Arnold spends a good chunk discussing his long struggle to start a family. Hindsight may say that he dodged a number of legal bullets not having any children with Roseanne Barr or his other two ex-wives, but you have to feel for the guy as he recounts, with evident disappointment, the thousands of dollars he spent on fertility treatments that didn’t take. Fortunately it’s very easy to celebrate the fact that he and his wife Ashley at long last succeeded and now have two young kids at home.
“Doing this special was kind of like writing an autobiography, you know?” Arnold said. “And when the day is right, I want my kids to see this. In 20 years, the kids might go, ‘Well, who was our dad?’ And now there’s this video. ‘Oh it’s that guy.’”
This special will at least help tell his side of the story. Having been in the public eye for the better part of 30 years, there are plenty of other pieces of journalism and books in the world that have a different take on a career that has taken him from commercial and critical peaks (True Lies, Sons of Anarchy) to less successful fare (National Lampoon’s Golf Punks, My Big Redneck Wedding). You may rightfully scoff at some of the roles he’s taken on—and God knows Arnold will join you in that—but it’s hard to fault the guy for grinding it out in Hollywood year after year using the same working class mindset that was instilled in him growing up in Iowa.
“I worked on farms growing up,” he recalled. “I worked on the kill floor in a meatpacking plant for three years. I worked at McDonald’s for a year. It’s not like I can fake that mentality. When you grow up with not much and with a single father who went out the door every day to work… we didn’t have much, but I knew everything would be okay because he went out that door every day. That’s the best gift I got from him. You just get up and go. No matter what happens in this business, I just have to get up and try something.”
What Arnold is trying now is to help bring an early end to the Trump administration. His new Viceland series, The Hunt For The Trump Tapes, is exactly what you’d expect from its title. After drawing attention to himself for his online chatter about outtake reels from The Apprentice, in which our president enjoyed using racial epithets and berating his sons, Arnold is using what cultural capital he has saved up to try to get someone involved with that series to give up the goods. And, naturally, he’s also in search of the notorious “pee tape.”
“At night, after I put the kids to bed,” Arnold said, “I was building a storyboard like for a TV show, except it’s these different Trump tapes I’ve heard about. And I was wondering, ‘Am I obsessing about this?’ But then Vice reached out because I keep tweeting about it and real journalists are helping with this, so they said, ‘Let’s do a show about this.’”
Since they started filming about four weeks ago, Arnold said, the floodgates have opened, with people coming out of the woodwork to share what they know, or to help lead him to another source. So far, he’s keeping mum about whether this will yield any revelations that will set the dominos toppling on Trump’s presidency. At this point in a crazy mixed-up year that concusses us on a daily basis, though, anything is possible.
“He’s so fucking D-list, even his enemies, like me, are D-list,” Arnold said. “It’s not like he’s an evil genius. He’s a nitwit. If he can be president, then why can’t I take him down?”
Robert Ham is an arts and culture journalist based in Portland, OR. Read more of his work here and follow him on Twitter.