Photography by Eric Fischer
Comedian, actress and writer, Erica Rhodes got a very unique start in show business. By age ten she was voicing the on air conscience of Garrison Keillor for A Prairie Home Companion, staying on through the years and eventually even writing skits for the show, performing on stage with the likes of Meryl Streep and Martin Sheen. Rhodes found in Keillor a mentor, "He is an example of someone who built everything himself. It's all his. That inspired me to go out and write and make my own stuff" Erica says, of how that time in her life helped to shape and inform who she is today. "He inspired me to never give up" Rhodes continues, "when I first started doing stand up, I had one terrible show in NYC. I don't think I got a single laugh. He asked how it was and I said, "Horrible! I bombed." He said, "Well. Go to bed. Get up and do it again tomorrow." He's always believed in me. Whenever I have hit rock bottom in my life, he has said, "Come do the show." He taught me more than I can probably even comprehend myself. He also always knew I was funny, before even I did."
For many years wanting to be a "serious actress," Rhodes says she realized that she "never had a voice for drama or theater. More and more people seemed to think I was funny." Her humor is often dark but incredibly true to who she is. "I don't usually like to exercise" she jokes on stage, "but I do spend a lot of time running from my past." "I have a lot of darkness in me," Rhodes says, "but it's in direct opposition to my high voice and upbeat-seeming persona." Through comedy Erica finds a way to embrace and combine both sides of her self, the outward, the inward and everything in between.
In a recent valentines day post on her website Erica offered this advice to the lovelorn, "If you’re single just think that most likely someone loved you somewhere sometime. And even if it’s a distant memory, it happened. You loved someone. They loved you back. And isn’t that a miracle considering how many people you meet and don’t fall in love with?" Sage advice, and a case in point that Rhodes is an incredibly gifted writer who also happens to be at work on a novel. Comedy is as much about processing our experiences and our past as poetry or painting, "Humor is a real coping mechanism that is almost a matter of survival... I do believe a lot of comedy comes from a dark place at first" Rhodes reiterates.
Rhodes has made recent appearances on ABC’s Modern Family, Fox’s New Girl, IFC’s Comedy Bang Bang and Comedy Central’s @ Midnight and Why? With Hannibal Buress. She co-hosts Bil Dwyer’s Stardumb!, a game and talk show comedy hybrid that has sold out three times at San Francisco Sketchfest, and stars major guest comedy players like Zach Galifianakis, Simon Helberg, Oscar Nunez, Adam Scott, Mike White, and Maria Bamford. Erica may be fast rising in the comedy world, but "I am still trying to find my voice too " she says. "I know I have miles and miles to go. I know it takes years to find. We all need to be patient! You can't be great overnight, just like you can't be a great cellist or dancer overnight."
AHC: At age ten you were working alongside the great Garrison Keillor on A Prairie Home Companion, few people have a better story as to how they got their start. Tell us about that and how it came to be?
Erica: Well...here's the long version:
My Mom started it. She is from the same hometown as Garrison (Anoka, Minnesota) and is a violinist in Boston with the Boston Pops and also freelances. She helped found an orchestra there called the Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra and had the idea to ask GK to do a fundraiser for the orchestra. She wrote to him and he agreed to it. They got along well and then my Mom introduced him to my aunt. My Aunt and he started dating (now they are married) and one time they came and saw me dancing in the Nutcracker (as a "party girl") and we all went out to dinner that night. I said a few things and GK looked over sort of surprised at my tinny little cartoon voice. The next day, my Mom said he wanted to put me in the show. I played his conscience. We had one rehearsal. He gave me a lot of lines and I had to stand on a box to reach the mic. I shared a dressing room with Allison Janney. I had no idea what it was or what I was doing. But I don't remember feeling nervous at all. I was a very shy child but always comfortable performing. Then I appeared on the show for years after that on many occasions. I basically grew up doing it.
AHC: You've said that Keillor became a mentor to you, as you worked with him on air for many years, what kinds of things did you learn from him that have helped to shape and inform who you are today?
Erica: So much. He is an example of someone who built everything himself. It's all his. That inspired me to go out and write and make my own stuff. I produce a comedy/variety show now that is very inspired by Prairie Home. He at one point suggested I do a one woman show. I didn't. But, stand up is very close to that. He also is a big reason I moved to LA. He had me do the show out here at the Hollywood Bowl and then he took me on a tour of LA, selling it to me as a place I should probably be. He also inspired me to never give up, because when I first started doing stand up, I had one terrible show in NYC. I don't think I got a single laugh. He asked how it was and I said, "Horrible! I bombed." He said, "Well. Go to bed. Get up and do it again tomorrow." He's always believed in me. Whenever I have hit rock bottom in my life, he has said, "Come do the show." Then he had me start writing for the show too. He taught me more than I can probably even comprehend myself. He also always knew I was funny, before even I did.
AHC: While on A Prairie Home Companion you had the opportunity to work with Meryl Streep and Martin Sheen, what were those experiences like and were you star struck or nervous at all beforehand?
Erica: I sort of regret never even getting a picture with Meryl Streep. But I was so set on being "cool" and NOT starstruck that I probably overcompensated a little. But she was actually the nervous one. She wasn't used to all of the last minute edits GK did right before the show. She was very kind to me and said I did great after. I wish I had tried to talk to her more, but again, I was quite shy. I think I was about 22 when I did that. And Martin Sheen is SO sweet and easy to be around. I wasn't at all nervous with him either. He would go up to everyone and say hello and chat. I think I got to do the show twice with him, which was cool. Really genuine nice guy.
AHC: Did you develop a deeper appreciation for the world of radio that you might not have had had you not been a part of something as iconoclastic and nostalgic as A Prairie Home Companion?
Erica: Of course. But I can't say I have really explored beyond PHC. That was radio to me and always will be. I don't really know much about the other shows out there. I think live radio with an audience is what I appreciate most. But I don't know any other shows quite like it which is why I think it had such a following for over 45 years.
AHC: When did comedy first begin to feel like the thing you were meant to do?
Erica: For awhile I really thought I would be a "serious actress," but when I studied acting at David Mamet's school, he told me "If you don't fix your voice, you'll never have a career!" I never had a voice for drama or theater. More and more people seemed to think I was funny. And for the longest time it really annoyed me. I pictured myself doing really dark, tortured, intense roles. Makes me laugh to even think about now. I have a lot of darkness in me, but it's in direct opposition to my high voice and upbeat-seeming persona. I would say, when I started doing stand-up 4 years ago, is when I finally started to accept myself as a comedic personality.
AHC: Who have been some of the major comedic inspirations and influences for you, and has that list changed or evolved over the years?
Erica: Maria Bamford was my first big influence comedically. But I also love Ellen DeGeneres' early stuff as well as Woody Allen's early stuff and Mitch Hedberg who was just a brilliant joke writer. The list hasn't changed much because I haven't been doing stand up that long at all! But, I definitely appreciate the cleaner comics who are smart writers with very unique POVs.
AHC: What is your writing process like, talk us through how you create the material, do you keep notes and expand ideas from a collection of observations?
Erica: I don't really have one process. I do a lot of weird things. I do a lot of free-writing where I just try to empty out the junk in my brain that is preventing new ideas from forming. But I find my best ideas happen when I am not "trying" to think of something. I'll be driving and suddenly something will pop into my head and I have to make sure to write it down immediately or I'll forget. Now I am also trying to write more on my feet while performing. That's what the "pros" seem to do. They just talk about an idea that's important to them and keep talking until they hit on something funny. I want to do more of that! It's more fun to discover something at the same time as the audience. It's a really special moment when that happens, because they can feel that it's happening in front of them and surprising both of you.
AHC: In your stand up you talk about your Dad having MS and being in a wheelchair, and the jokes are really funny (much of your humor being dark comedy,) still it must have been a difficult situation. Often it's said that comedians work from a place of pain or vulnerability, and that the humor/comedic crafting, like writing a song or poem or choreographing a dance, painting, sculpting, become a way to work creatively with our lives and make something meaningful out of who we are and where we've been, have you found that to be the case and is that at all how you experience and process comedy personally?
Erica: Yes. I think that when you are really dealing with something difficult, humor is a real coping mechanism that is almost a matter of survival. I have watched my Dad use humor my entire life to lighten the impact of his illness on himself and our family. And that's the case with anything difficult. I really do think humor is a release that comes from a feeling of discomfort first followed by the relief that we can also laugh at it. Most challenges I have faced, I later try to see what could be funny about it. And people dealing with those situations want to be able to laugh at it. My Dad wants to laugh at himself and his illness. And so when audiences hold back on that joke for fear of it being "offensive" or not PC, I actually get angry, because it's taking away HIS power if we can't laugh at it. And that's not fair to him. But yes, I do believe a lot of comedy comes from a dark place at first. At least a lot of the comedy I enjoy.
AHC: In addition to acting and comedy you were also a dancer and a cello player at one point, and your mother also was a musician. Has dipping your toes in all of these different art forms/worlds and growing up with an appreciation for them colored how you approach what you do now?
Erica: Definitely. I am very familiar with the discipline necessary to pursue a life in the arts. When I did ballet, I was dancing for hours every day. When I did music, I practiced my cello 5-6 hours a day. I have always been really committed when I decide to do something. But I was also competitive and wanted to be better than I was at both of those pursuits. Comedy takes enormous dedication and discipline too. But I don't have to lug a big cello around or have bloody, deformed toes! All I need is a microphone and an audience. Way easier. But not! It still takes enormous focus and discipline. Also, I have year and years of performing under my belt. I actually feel more comfortable on stage now than I do in real life. For better or worse.
AHC: You've said that you don't understand why anyone would want to just act and do nothing but acting, and that it is through comedy that you've found a kind of extra freedom that isn't really there in acting when nothing else supplements it, monetarily and creatively, can you talk a bit about that?
Erica: Yes. I mean, don't get me wrong. If I was offered a big movie tomorrow, I would gladly focus on that and love every second of it. But I am a creative person at heart. And creative people don't feel fulfilled unless they are MAKING something. Actors are just pawns in someone else's vision. I think I feel best when I am creating something. And stand up allows you to constantly be creating and exploring and writing. I am also a performer tho, so I don't think I could just be a writer either. I need the two things combined which *POOF* is standup!
AHC: You have a great quote which reads: “I’m trying to be less narcissistic. I’ve been letting other people take my selfies for me.” I think probably none of us can help it in this day and age but how do you practice self awareness around how you use technology? Are there moments when you take a step back and realize you're getting too caught up or lost in something that isn't necessarily feeding you creatively?
Erica: Thanks! That's an old joke that doesn't seem to work anymore. Maybe because I don't like it anymore. Yes.The internet of course is dangerous because it gives you the illusion of productivity when you can waste hours doing nothing. But, it's also unavoidable. I think everyone just has to find a balance that works for THEM. I am grateful that I am forced to go out and be around people when I am performing. And that always feels real. Performing in front of real people in real space and time. I don't think anything will ever totally replace that feeling of real connection. At least I hope not!
AHC: Have you had any desire/inspiration to write your own scripts, either for television shows or movies? Are there stories/muses that have been floating around in your mind that you just haven't pinned down on paper yet?
Erica: EVERYONE KEEPS ASKING ME THIS!!! Yes. I have some stuff in the works sort of, just like everyone in this town with a script! I think of ideas all the time. And then forget to do them. Right now I have a weird commitment to myself to finish a novel I wrote half of that might be a total piece of trash, but I want the feeling of finishing it anyway. I also write short films all the time that I also haven't shot. I have one I just finished though that I am definitely going to shoot next week because it's super simple and just one scene. But yes, I know I should write a show or whatever. I'm sure I will eventually.
AHC: If you were to write a sitcom show for yourself, what would it be about and who would you cast in it?
Erica: Well, me of course and my life. I don't really want to get into this, because it could be in the works of actually happening one day and I don't want to give anything away! I'll tell you what it won't be. It won't be about a stand-up doing stand-up in the show like SO many other shows! I do NOT want to play a comedian in my show. But that's all I really know for sure, to be honest. So far.
AHC: The worst thing for a comedian must be when an audience just isn't on the same page or wavelength as the comic, has this happened to you and how have you handled that kind of situation? Have you ever been heckled at shows? Do you turn it back on the audience and create-improvise off their negative energy in the moment?
Erica: Of course. It happens all the time. Sometimes I'll go to crowd work when that happens, because sometimes they just want to be talked TO instead of AT. I have been heckled, but almost never mean ones, just annoying ones who think they're helping the show somehow. Yeah you just have to fight to get them. It's harder, but it's your job. I still need to get better at winning an audience back if I lose them. It's a battle sometimes! And sometimes you just never get on the same wavelength for some reason no matter how hard you try. But whatever, you move on to the next show and never have to see them again. Every show is different. Every audience is different. That's what makes it fun!
AHC: Do you have any words of advice for young comics starting out who are trying to find their groove, their voice? What would you go back and tell the younger you right now?
Erica: I would tell the younger me to START STANDUP SOONER! I wish I started when I was 18 like so many other comics, but it took me longer to find it.
I would tell other comics to not try to imitate other comics and to just be true to who YOU are. Talk about what YOU want to talk about. Let the audience come to you instead of trying to go to them. If it takes you longer to be funny, that's OK. Because at least you'll be true to yourself and have a real unique voice. Don't just go for laughs. Go for truth. Then find the funny later. And don't be afraid to fail. Comedians learn by failing in front of people. That's the only way to learn. It's painful sometimes, but just suck it up and fail as much as you can. And eventually you'll start to figure it out. There's no real way to teach comedy. You just have to dive in and get on stage and try stuff. But I am still trying to find my voice too. I know I have miles and miles to go. I know it takes years to find. So I guess we also all need to be patient! You can't be great overnight, just like you can't be a great cellist or dancer overnight either.
AHC: Do you have any projects in the works or scheduled appearances-performances you'd like tell people about?
Erica: My show, 'The Night Light Comedy Show' is the variety show I do the last Monday of every month. The next one is March 27th at Open Space with headliner Bobcat Goldthwait and special guest Allan Havey! It's going to be a great show! And I have shows all the time. I put some of them on my website: ericarhodescomedy.com and I am doing the Moontower Comedy Festival in Austin at the end of April.
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