By Ryan Meehan
Tom Simmons was born in New York and raised in Atlanta, Georgia. He is married to the love of his life, Serena, for more than a decade. Together, they have a son named Owen. “We figured, that’s what we would be doing for the rest of our lives.” Before Owen’s birth in 2004, Tom and Serena toured the continent in their RV, devoted to perfecting Tom’s stage act and putting their relationship to the test. We’re honored to have him as our guest today in 7 Questions.
RM: When you were younger, who were the comedic performers and actors that you really took a liking to; and can you pinpoint a specific performance that influenced you to the point where it made you want to want to take the stage yourself? When you finally did do your first open mic, how did it go and what was it about that moment that made you want to do it again?
TS: Wow. Is that question 1? The name of the article is “7 questions with…” Did you mean 7 questions per question? The first comedy I remember really enjoying as a kid was Bill Cosby’s Wonderfulness. I would listen to Chicken Heart and Go Carts over and over. “If you so much as stick a toe out, those snakes will bite you, you will swell up and be dead until morning.” I loved the punchline, ‘until morning.’ I also had a Richard Pryor album I listened to a lot. Then Eddie Murphy came out and my sister and I watched Delirious and listened to his first comedy tape, Eddie Murphy so many times we could do every joke. I liked Howie Mandel, Carlin, Seinfeld… I am also embarrassed to say I howled at Dice Clay and barely noticed Hicks in that HBO special. I cannot pinpoint a performance that made me want to take the stage. I was just funny around friends and people. I watched a bunch of stand up on television and just thought I could do it. Some friends at the pizza place I delivered for talked me into doing an open mic contest. It was my first time even in a comedy club. Then I did it a few times here and there and the feeling of getting laughs then becomes the biggest influence.
The first performance was just me extremely drunk doing a bunch of shit I saw on television to 20 people, 14 of whom were my friends. It went well. A couple months later at the finals of the contest I went on stage for my second time to a bunch more friends, some stuff I wrote, and 250 people who weren’t my friends. So everyone I knew watched me suck balls in front of a huge crowd. I honestly don’t know what made me want to do it again. But I slowly started to figure out what stand up was and that I could do it. I really fell in love with writing jokes, doing shows, and making crowds of people laugh. Growing up I never really wanted to be anything. I just didn’t want to work for someone, I was very attracted to dressing and saying whatever I wanted to. Richard Pryor’s movie JoJo Dancer Your Life is Calling froze me to the screen. I think that is what really made me want to be a comedian. The biggest influence early on was probably the bar tab I could win if I was funny. From there being around comedy just felt like my path.
RM: You’ve previously labeled yourself as a ‘likable misanthrope’…What’s the reasoning behind describing yourself as such? Do you try to project that image on stage or is it something that just kind of comes naturally for you?
TS: One of the things every comic hears a zillion times is “how would you describe your comedy?” So you have to think about that and try to write a bio that describes you. It is awful. A likeable misanthrope was something Christina Pazsitzky described me as in a compliment. Once I looked up what misanthrope meant, I put it in the bio. Not sure it describes me now. Especially the likeable part.
I don’t try and project an image. It has been one of my weakness in comedy. Managers say, “people need to define you- without having to think about it, people should know how you would think about a subject.” Ha. I don’t even know what I think about a subject, maybe they could just tell me.
I go through stages where I embrace a theme and run the jokes through that. Right now it is this feeling I have where I am worried about the future of the world. I don’t think it’s pessimistic but realistic. I’m trying to figure out how to be a hopeful realist. But no, I don’t try and project an image. I just try to write jokes and talk about things I care about. Usually it works out.
RM: What are topics that you tend to avoid discussing in your act? And are those topics avoided because you feel that they have been played out or because you’d rather not inject the audience into a discussion that distracts them from the comedy they’re watching?
TS: I am not sure what you mean by “inject the audience into a discussion that distracts them…” So yes, if that is the right answer.
There are no subjects that I avoid discussing in my act. The rule is, if it makes me laugh, I try it. I write jokes all the time that end up being the joke 88% of comedians also write. I try not to do those. When I do, they don’t stay very long in the show. I specifically try to not do jokes that have the name Kardashian in it. Until one comes out and it makes me laugh. But played out definitely plays into it. I really dislike bad comedy and hate even worse that crowds mostly like it.
RM: When you walked off the stage during the finals of the 2009 San Francisco Comedy Competition, were you pretty certain that you had just won? Could you take us through that whole experience and how nerve racking is it to compete in one of those things?
TS: San Fran is different than most. The only one like it is Seattle. Laughing Skull is a very good one, but San Fran is four weeks of driving all over Cali doing a big variety of venues. The first 2 weeks is 2 groups of like 15 comics doing 5 minutes each in 5 different venues. The top five at end of week move on from both groups. I barely scrapped out of the first round. The second round is a week of the ten advancers doing 10-12 minutes each night. Once again, top five advance. As the time increased, it got easier. Everyone is funny. It’s really about preparation, experience, and consistency.
In the final week the top five do 20 minutes each night. I just prepared my sets. I had an old Seinfeld line in my head, “confidence comes from knowing your lines”. Plus, Darryl Lenox kept reminding me that winning San Fran isn’t about the guy who tries to be the best comic, it’s about winning a contest. I took out all the comedy that really had opinions in it and just did the big hitters. The set got tighter and tighter. A couple comics had one bad night and got a low score and I just stayed in top two every night. On the last night it came down to me and one of my best friends in comedy, Danny Bevins. Whoever won the final night would win. I had to go first and Danny had the advantage of closing. I didn’t think I could win because of the spot, so I just went up and cranked up the energy and had a good set. Danny did too, so I wasn’t sure until they announced it. I love Danny. Told him that people never hear about the guy who came in second. Except this time, cuz I am telling everyone. I think it came down to my like-ability. The whole thing was very nerve racking. It is amazing how good you feel about a show and then the scores come out and it changes all enjoyment. Competing has a finality to it that doesn’t feel good in comedy. The coolest part of the whole thing was driving around, talking comedy and staying in hotels with Bevins and Jarrod Harris.
RM: Has being a father changed the way you write material and perform on stage? Do you ever look at someone younger in the crowd and think…”Oh my God, that could be Owen in a decade in a half”?
TS: I haven’t ever thought that yet about Owen. I do have the realization that there are parents in the crowd who know how I feel. I also want to have comedy CDs that my son will listen to and be proud of. I want to say things and make people laugh at subjects that will stand the test of time. Jokes that influence the way he questions people and the world. It hasn’t changed how I perform. Definitely he has changed my lens on seeing the world. He is a huge piece of my life, and that is what I write about on stage. Raising a child confronts me with all of my beliefs. Introduces new questions and ways to make fun of myself. Plus, he says some really almost funny things. I fix those, add a tag, and poof I have an avenue into a subject or a good joke.
Owen and I were talking about patriotism recently and he says, “do I have to say the pledge every single day?” I think so son, why? “Well I have been pledging my allegiance to the flag every day for 3 years, doesn’t the flag get it?” If I said that, the crowd would get tense and reluctant. My son says it, they laugh. So to answer your question, it doesn’t change my perspective. It gives me a way to change the audiences.
RM: On your website it says that your motivation is that “your best joke is yet to be written”…Have you ever had a joke that you’ve written that you really thought would fill that slot? At the time did you get some kind of strange mental picture pondering your own mortality shortly thereafter knowing that you could literally die at any moment because that joke might have just been written? Am I overanalyzing this?
TS: Yes, you are over analyzing this. I write that at the beginning of every comedy writing notebook. It is just motivation and reminder to keep working. Sometimes I feel like I will never write a funny joke again. Sometimes I think every joke I’ve ever written is terrible. Sometimes I feel like I used to be way more funny. Comedy comes in waves for me. Every joke is stale and flat and boring and nothing new is working for a stretch and then I have ten new things I can’t wait to work on. There is no rhythm or reason to it.
RM: What’s the craziest thing that you have seen in your time travelling through North America? Where is the one place that you really didn’t expect to have a great time but ended up really enjoying?
TS: Time traveling? I wasn’t aware anyone knew of my time travel machine. Who are you again? Why are you asking questions about my time machine? I don’t have a time traveling machine. Otherwise wouldn’t I know that my best joke has indeed already been written.
In my time traveling around North America the craziest time was when I went back to 1956. It was last week in rural NC, that crowd hated me. I once had a 14 yr old runaway girl knock on the comedy condo door in 20 degree weather in Youngstown, OH and tell me her mom was beating her with a baseball bat.
Then in Peoria, IL I saw a comedian perform in a head to toe blow up doll costume. You can imagine the closer using a long neck beer. I have very much enjoyed traveling all over this country. Serena and I used to live in and drive a big motorhome around the country for three years. It was our home. The windshield was a huge bay window. So many cool and beautiful people and places in this country. The biggest surprise was how much I enjoyed watching that show in Peoria.
RM: When people attend a Tom Simmons show, what’s the one thing that you want them to take away from your set? And have you noticed by this point that I can’t properly count to seven? Can you ever forgive me for that?
TS: I noticed it in the first question. Yes. I forgive you. As long as this is absolutely the last question.
I want them to take away that they laughed hard for an hour. I would like to have them as fans. To know they are repeating the jokes and laughing about them when those topics occur in their own lives.
RM: What’s up next for you in 2014? Anything big in the works that we should know about?
TS: Seriously? What about our deal that the last question was the last? My plan is to never believe you again when it comes to numbers.
Hopefully I will put out a new comedy cd. It’s all on the computer somewhere. Just takes time.
The most important thing I will be working on is how to hype myself a little more and create posters for Facebook. That seems to be the key to comedy.
Other than that just the daily grind. Writing jokes, developing ideas, pitching them to crowds and people. Doing podcasts and live shows and living my life in a small town with a cool family.
Official Website: http://www.tomsimmonscomedy.com/tom/Home.html
Tom on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/TomSimmonsComedy
Tom on Twitter: https://twitter.com/TSimmonsComedy
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