Whitmer Thomas refers to himself as “pre cum Jim Carrey,” which is hilarious and accurate. In his new HBO special, which premieres on Saturday, Feb. 22, he wants to make sure you’re having fun as he walks you through all his traumas, and guess what: you do. The Golden One (referring to his late mother’s daunting nickname for him) is part stand-up, part documentary, part DIY show. Filmed at the historic Flora-Bama (a bar that straddles the line between Florida and Alabama), Thomas returns to the South to parse through his unique childhood, which includes one kidnapping, a family of musicians, drug and alcohol abuse, abandonment, and skateboarding. Directed by his long time best friend and creative partner Clay Tatum, the two go back to the place that shaped Thomas. Having worked together on creative projects together for a long time, the pair brings a signature sense of absurdity and balance to the special. After singing a song called “Eat You Out” (about guess what!), we immediately cut to Thomas saying, “It’s funny that my mom died.” We get a sense of their intimate relationship in the first scene when Thomas is going through old photos and naming the people in them, then hands one to the camera and says, “And that’s you. When we were like twelve.”
Despite their closeness and long friendship, Tatum and Thomas still have disagreements. “Clay and me have a very different way of looking at things and I think it’s good,” Thomas says. “Clay often has a pretty ‘who cares’ attitude—’this is what we should do because we think it’s good’—but then I’m more towards like, ‘ok’ but we’re crazy. He’s very absurd and really silly, which is why I think he’s the funniest man on the planet, and then I often get sappy and lame and mixing that together kind of creates our dynamic.” After being in Alabama and filming for a month and amassing a huge amount of footage, the two needed to parse down and decide what direction they wanted to go. Thomas explains, “We cut a ton. There’s three weeks of documentary footage that we shot. More stuff with my dad, my brother giving us a tour of the school bus where he lives, going through music with my Aunt, even more gun stuff, fishing, all that. But we were, like, we can’t just have a random shot of me and Clay fishing, even though we love it, we have to let the stand-up inform the documentary.”
Inform it does. The jokes are compact and funny but leave you with more questions than they answer, and then the songs really dive in and paint the picture. After briefly mentioning that he’s sober, in “Partied to Death” Thomas explains it’s because his mom died of addiction, then he makes the audience sing the chorus “Now I can’t party cuz my mom partied to death” back to him. This is cathartic even as an audience member, and makes you feel participatory in Thomas’s journey. “My trauma is—it’s mine but everybody has such trauma,” Thomas tells me. “That’s what’s so cool about getting to do it, is to hear from people that they connect and to hear them explain why. I love making people sing the chorus in ‘Partied to Death’ because everybody knows somebody like that and also it’s very funny to make them sing something very personal about me.”
The special also feels like a letting go in a unique way. “The main thing I’ve taken away from doing the special and going and talking to my family is that I was really bitter and had a lot of hate in my heart, and still do, about things and experiences that I’ve had with them but really they had their own trauma,” he says. “And I was a kid and I feel really bad about that but the truth is my Aunt had to watch her sister die, her twin sister, and she watched her die in the same way that I did for 10 years or so, or more. So everybody’s got this thing and I love laughing about it. And what’s really funny is when you meet somebody who’s experienced death or abandonment, they laugh about it.” It’s rare to experience someone processing grief in real time, and also to enjoy it so much.
Thomas’s stand up jumps around a lot in content but never in tone. Whether he’s talking about loving Blink-182 or the Pet Semetary vibes of his dead mom having an identical twin, his affect remains kind of playful but wounded, like a bird with a broken wing in a parking lot surrounded by bread. One of the best shots of the special was a scene with his father in a golf cart in the rain. Thomas’s father left when he was a child, and they have a conversation where he tries to explain why. It’s so heartfelt and moving, and then we see that they’re in golf cart number 69. It wasn’t intentional, but it was fortuitous. “I noticed that, it was hilarious,” Thomas replies. “We noticed that in the editing bay and were like, ‘that was great’.” I offer that it feels like a metaphor for the entire special, an irreverent joke in the middle of a meaningful exchange that recontextualizes what we think we’re seeing. Nudging us towards, ‘this is sad but it’s also really funny.’
“That’s really cool that you mention that,” Thomas agrees. “What I realized, the funniest thing is when we were editing this, my aunt tells this incredible, sad story about my mom and her ex-husband and their child who died in a car accident, Casey. She wrote this incredible song about it and in that same year, after that happened, she wrote ‘He’s Hot.’ Which is like, about some hot guy. And that if anything sums up my whole artistic aspiration. To go from ‘Casey’ to ‘He’s Hot.’ I keep talking about Japanese Breakfast, this band I love, and she does the same thing, she wrote this beautiful album inspired by the death of her mom and her next album, one of the big songs on it is called ‘Road Head.’ I’m sure there’s some other great metaphor but it’s about getting road head. I just think that’s so funny, and my mom did that, and then my dad is sitting there telling me—explaining himself in some beautiful way and we’re sitting in a golf cart that says 69. I think it’s pretty cool. And that was an accident.”
One of the most interesting things about talking to Thomas is his self-awareness about his place in the industry and how humbled he seems by the whole experience of doing this special. After I imply that this will be a huge next step career-wise for him, he sort of corrects me and reminds me how fickle and unpromised this industry is. “Stand-up specials come and go. And it would be a dream if this worked out. In a way where I was able to have like this cool career afterwards and I could look up into the sky and be like ‘it all worked out’ but there’s really no telling. I tried really hard, it is an extreme amount of pressure, I’ve been so poor my whole life just like so fucking broke, I moved [to L.A.] right when I turned 18 and I’m 31 now so until this, it’s the first time I’ve ever, ya know, gotten this kind of a shot.”
At the end of our interview I ask Thomas if there’s anything he wishes I had asked him. He immediately responds, “I want people to look up and hear my mom’s music on Spotify.” (Or watch them on YouTube.) So listen to Syn Twister, and watch The Golden One. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll refill your Lorazepam. Call your mom!
Julie Mitchell is a comedian and writer in New York. Follow her on Twitter @juliepoptart.